A semi-direct model for a more participative democracy

Armando Vieira offers a reform program with some of the high-tech participative characteristics offered by Matteo Martini:


Here I propose a new political system that will become possible in a society where all its citizens will be connected to the Internet. Its main philosophy is inspired in the free market mechanism, and I will call it semi-direct democracy. The main points of this model are: i) the substitution of political parties by a set of non-profit political organisations specialized to deal with most aspects of the executive and the legislative power; and ii) the introduction of a constant electronic scrutiny by the citizens of the activities of these organisations. The emergence of this system will be enhanced by the increasing need for more representativity and transparency in public affairs, on one hand, and the increasing incapacity of the actual political system to deal with an increasingly complex society, on the other.


Semi-direct democracy, e-government, e-democracy.

1. Introduction

A new political system is badly needed. People are looking with increasing distrust and alienation to politics. Political parties have failed to adapt to an educated society and a global economy, and have lost much of their power, influence, and even their reason of being. Scandals, corruption, and lobby influences, only contribute to further widen this gap between citizens and politicians. The hopeless attempts of governments to follow public-opinion polling, only demonstrate the agony of this decrepit political system. But what should be the alternative?

As the public impatience with governments rises, the inexorable progress of democratisation, together with the widespread availability of the information technologies, are turning the people themselves (not the media!) into the new fourth branch of political power, alongside with the executive, legislative and judiciary. The recent technologies, in special the Internet, have the potential to greatly increase the democratic participation of citizens in the framework of new political systems. I present in this letter the baselines of such a possible system.

The advent of the digital era is about to change radically every aspect of our society. In particular, the Internet, with its flexibility, speed, ubiquity, ease of use and feedback capabilities, is rapidly connecting people and computers around the world. Information is being set free from the bound of paper, and begins to flow quickly, cleanly, cheaply, and without any respect for hierarchies or bureaucracies. A few seconds are enough to share a message between thousands of computers scattered around the world. It is not surprising to say that the Internet is bringing the world to the eve of one of the greatest revolutions in history: the information revolution. Politics will not escape from it.

This revolution is paving the way towards a long desired, and also feared, political system: the direct democracy. Although its principle is appealing, “decisions that concern all are decided by all”, I have serious doubts about its applicability. The system proposed in this letter, that I call Semi-Direct Democracy (SDD), was inspired on the possibilities of a connected society and was designed to avoid the disadvantages of direct democracy.

2. What’s wrong with the actual political system?

The actual political system is in deep crisis. The increasing number of absentees in the election polls (superior to 50% in some cases), is a clear sign of the apathy of the electors for their representatives. That does not mean that politicians are now more corrupt or irresponsible than they were in the past, or that people are less interested in politics. The problem lies in the essence of the actual framework of representative democracy.

Mainly inherited from the French Revolution, our political system is tailored to a relatively unsophisticated and poorly educated society. To a great extent it failed to accompany the technological evolutions, and its consequent social changes, that occurred mainly in the second half of this century. While citizens become richer, better educated, and more demanding, a closed group of politicians continue to do their business in an old fashioned way.

At the same time, the economy globalises and becomes more complex while social problems become more acute. This leads us to the heart problem of the present political system: its incapability to reach knowledgeable decisions upon complex problems involving a tantalising amount of information. In a desperate attempt to solve these problems, politicians were forced to create heavy and expensive bureaucracies full of kafkian labyrinths. The consequences are well known: inefficiency, rigidity and lack of control.
On the other hand, we have a more educated and informed population willing to have a voice in important political decisions. But practically the only voice they can have is to choose, about every four years, between a handful of political parties, often very similar in political content and form.

3. Let them choose!

The system, here proposed, is inspired in the free market philosophy. A market is basically a “place” where a set of agents exchange information in order to reach agreement and take decisions on subjects involving conflicting interests. Provided the agents are fully rational and completely informed, t he free market is the best mechanism to decide on complex issues involving either common or conflicting interests. Unfortunately, the use of the free market paradigm in politics has been very restricted.

A political centralised system may be adequate for small and simple societies. A small tribe may be ruled by a single individual capable to choose what is best for all members of the community. But, no matter how clever a man can be, it will be ineffective to manage, in the same way, a modern city. The solution is to let people decide upon their lives, whereas the leader take hold only of the legislation and co-ordination activities.

In the same way, if political issues becomes too complex for a government, the solution is to distribute, directly or indirectly, some political responsibilities to the citizens. By transferring the decisions to the population, we are using a market philosophy in politics to accomplish two goals: i) decisions are more democratic, and ii) citizens will have more freedom to choose, and higher responsibility and control on politics.

Nevertheless, the free market paradigm has well known deficiencies. Due to lack of rationality or information of the agents (or incorrect use of it), the market can easily be settled far from optimal decisions, and without any external control it can easily become chaotic, e.g., the Great Depression or the crashes in stock markets. Moreover, a inherent tendency for the majority of people to choose simplistic and short-term solutions may well produce highly undesirable results.
So, this brings back the old dilemma: how to give power to the people without falling in the irrationality and vanity of the masses? The solution here presented involves the creation of a set of intermediary institutions between the citizens and the political decision centres, while preserving the State and some of its institutions, even if with some modifications.

4. The Semi-Direct Democracy

The Internet is the culmination of a series of technological innovations that is giving new exciting possibilities to innovate politics. Take the example of some small cities, like San Antonio, in California, where a set of comprehensive and interactive WebPages were built to inform the residents of major activities in the municipality. Moreover, electronic fora allow citizens to discuss revelant issues, and, is some cases, they can “vote” directly on important projects.

If this new concept is helping local communities to better solve their problems, why not apply it to a whole country? I believe that an electronic democracy can be implement in some countries. Up to know, the best known proposal for an electronic democracy is the direct democracy. The supporters of this model claim that all decisions should be subjected to a direct referendum on the Internet. I do not foresee any viability for this system: the issues are too complex, and people have no time, or knowledge, to decide upon them.

If the free market is the best decision mechanism but direct democracy is not viable, what is the alternative? I believe that the model here presented, the Semi-Direct Democracy (SDD), is the answer to transform the actual representative democracy into an interactive representative system.

There are two central points in the SDD (see Fig 1): i) the substitution of the political parties, and most public departments, by specialised Non-profit Political Organisations (NPO); and ii) the possibility of citizens to have a wider political participation and to exert a tight control on the activities of these organisations.

Figure 1: The SSD model

Let me clarify some points concerning the SDD. First, the meaning of “non-profit political organisations”. These organisations are paid by public money (proportionally to the number of votes they received), but at the same time they have great autonomy to choose its members and to spend or rise money. These organisations are separately elected to take charge of specific public departments for a fixed period of time.

Second, the electronic control by the citizens on these organisations is expressed in two ways. In one hand the political strength of a NPO is proportional to the number of supporters – this being continuously revised. On the other hand, by allowing a direct participation of voters, giving them more referendum options, the right of veto, the right to submit bills to the parliament, the right to replace a NPO. In this way, the SDD is in constant consonance with the citizens.

Third, although it is necessary to introduce a deep modification in the constitution, the role of parliaments as a discussion forum for laws will continue almost unchanged. The number of representatives is proportional to the strength of each NPO. The main difference from the actual system, is the obligation to submit to public decision on important laws or political decisions.

Fourth, the Prime Minister, and some ministers like defence and foreign affairs, will continue to be chosen by direct elections for a fixed mandate. However the remaining government will be composed by the set of the most voted organisations in each field. Some control mechanisms may be implemented, for instance the possibility to dismiss a NPO if the number of supports falls below a certain number.

In my opinion the SDD is a viable system able to restore the interest and confidence of people on politics. These are the main advantages:

  • Ministries and public institutions will be run by specialised and democratically elected institutions with accumulated know-how, not by ephemeral political figures.
  • Citizens will be closer to their representatives (more feedback implies more responsibility).
  • The actual political culture of demagogy will be replaced by a pragmatic culture of efficiency.
  • The influence of lobbies and pressure groups is largely decreased.
  • While it is still a representative democracy, it refrains, and relieves, the citizens from voting directly on every subject.

5. The dark side of SDD

No political system is perfect. First of all, it should be mentioned that the SDD could not be implemented in any country. A small and homogeneous country, with a well educated population and strong democratic traditions will be the best candidate for the implementation of this system.

Scandinavian countries fit these criteria, but Portugal is definitely not prepared for it. Furthermore, the introduction of a SDD should not be abrupt, but smooth and gradual. This gives time for the adaptation of organisations and citizens.
There are several objections that can be raised to the SDD system, namely:

  • Citizens are not capable to wisely decide on many complex issues
  • Lack of a common ideology leads to perpetuating disputes
  • Increase the strength of lobbies
  • Populism

A natural objection to this system is that, without a common political ideology, disputes and cleavage between organisation will turn the country into chaos. This is unlikely to happen since organisations occupy different niches in the public sector, and in cases of overlapping, the constant scrutiny of the population will force cooperation whenever it is necessary. Moreover diverse ideas help the search for alternative solutions, thus creating a more creative political environment.

There is also a possibility that strong lobbies, helped by the media, may soon form an oligopoly capable to control most of these governmental organisations. Clearly this risk exists, since lobbies have always been present within all kinds of government. The most efficient way to control the action of these groups is to extend the powers to a wider public, which is exactly the nature of the SDD. Therefore, I think that the SDD will strike a devastating blow at the special interest groups and lobbies who prevail in most parliaments.

Another objection is that, influenced by the media, demagogy and populism, with all their irrationality, will prevail. For example, proposals for drastic tax reduction may well appear, to which a collapse in social security, for instance, may follow, or a cutting in funding on vital, but apparently useless services, like science. This risk exists, but I believe that a smooth and slow transition period for people to adapt to this system will suffice for them to learn how to avoid these extremes.

6. Conclusions

In conclusion, let me comment on one of the strongest objections to a more participative democracy. It is the old argument that people are not aware of the complexity of the problems, so that they are not prepared to take wise decisions. This same argument was used against the early stages of democracy in America, to each I recall the answer of Thomas Jefferson “If people are not prepared to decide, we have to educate them in order to be prepared”.

Responsibility is the result of freedom to make decisions and accept the consequences. A society is only responsible when its citizens participate in public decisions. For the first time in history we have the conditions and the technological means to bring to reality a long waited dream: to give everybody a voice in public affairs. Due to the nature of the free market in which it is inspired, the SDD has the means to become an effective information oriented system.

The SDD is neither a direct democracy or the elimination of the State, but a considerable innovation of representative democracy. I am aware that the scope and applicability of this system may give rise to strong criticism and discussion. However, I thing that the ideas here presented deserve reflection, and it is my hope that it may initiate a much-needed discussion on new alternatives to public participation in the actual democracy.


  1. Pedro Arroja, Abcissas, Areal (1993).
  2. J. M. Epstein and V. Axtell, Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science from Bottom Up, Brookings Institution Press (1998).
  3. L. K.Grossman, The Electronic Republic, Penguim (1995).
  4. Fredrich Hayek, the Constitution of Liberty, Chicago University Press (1960).
  5. Kevin Kelly, Out of Control, Addison Wesley (1994).
  6. B. Arthur, S. Durlauf, and D. Lane, Economy as an Evolving Complex System, Perseus Books (1987).

14 Responses

  1. Thank you for your post.
    MARP is also working on democratic reform.
    I’ve tweeted reference to this article at @_marp.


  2. Hi Yoram,
    thanks for adding the post by Mr. Vieira.
    I think there are many people around with some interest in direct democracy, even with different opinions and different flavours.
    Here are other three prople who are working hard on creating a code:
    Also, there is the E-Democracy initiative in Brazil.
    I think the challenge could be of creating a community of people which could include all people with interest in direct democracy to discuss their opinions, while not necessarily having to agree.

    I think this should be a priority now, as it looks like there is a lot of fragmentation around (two people here, five people there).



  3. For much the same reasons I mentioned in my comments to Matteo’s proposal, I don’t think this proposal will produce a democratic government.

    The illusion of influence generated by mass voting is apparently very hard to shake off. Yet, until this is done no real progress toward democracy can be made.


  4. I find the following passage very confusing:

    “Nevertheless, the free market paradigm has well known deficiencies. Due to lack of rationality or information of the agents (or incorrect use of it), the market can easily be settled far from optimal decisions, and without any external control it can easily become chaotic, e.g., the Great Depression or the crashes in stock markets. Moreover, a inherent tendency for the majority of people to choose simplistic and short-term solutions may well produce highly undesirable results.”

    This seems to conflate the problems of markets with the problems of elections. They’re just not the same. The traditional argument against elections is that they generate “rational ignorance.” No single voter can influence the outcome very much, and so no voter has any incentive to become well-informed. Markets are supposed to be immune from this problem. A consumer who buys things gains most of the benefits from making the right decision, and so has the incentive to know what s/he is doing. The stuff about chaotic systems, while true (at least if you’re a Keynesian, which you should be), requires injecting additional considerations to this story.


  5. > This seems to conflate the problems of markets with the problems of elections. They’re just not the same.

    The difference you describe certainly exists, but there are also important ways in which the problems are similar.

    For example:

    1. In business as in elections, the cost of advertising gives an advantage to size and therefore drives consolidation and “branding”, reducing choice.

    2. Both the buyer and the voter has to commit to a decision based on partial information – before using the product, before knowing what decisions are going to be made, etc.

    3. The vendors and the candidates, although in competition, usually have significant common interests, limiting the effects of competition.

    These similarities stem, I think, from the fundamental similarity: both are mass competitive activities. There is a good reason why public political discourse is called “the marketplace of ideas”, although it is not, I think, the reason we are supposed to assume it is.


  6. Matteo, thanks for publish my reflections on this board.

    Yoram and Peterstone,
    I think you are confusing the objective of this model. Its NOT direct democracy. Neither having to ask a crowd to make efficient decisions. Its well known that they are unable do it since each one is motivated by selfish interests.

    However, crowdsourcing has been incredible successful: look at the wikipedia project.
    The question is, we have to develop the right set of tools and the right framework. It can’t be done in a single shot. Remember our democratic systems took centuries to build.

    My proposal is essentially:

    A) a self-regulatory system to allows citizens to CONTINUOUSLY MONITOR political decisions

    B) a framework to allow government to be executed by a more pluralistic and efficient structure

    I myself have several objections concerning on both aspects. But I think we will have to move over this lines. The actual model is awful dead. We should experiment, test and correct.

    In early stages of Wikipedia they have also to face several problems. But the message is, we can’t just seat and keep arguing which model is best simple and this is impossible bla bla bla.

    We have to start testing and push politicians demanding more participation.

    Remember that when universal voting was introduced in the USA, in Europe nobody believe it will work.


  7. Armando [?],

    Elect and then constantly monitor makes no sense to me. If you have a mechanism for effective monitoring, why not just use it for decision making and skip the elections altogether. This is Burnheim’s point in the passage quoted on the Wikipedia entry for sortition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sortition#Advantages.

    As for “experiment and test”: the West has been experimenting with tweaks to the electoral system for decades if not centuries. It is time to move out of this mental trap. But, yes – I am all for “experiment and test”. By all means, let’s experiment with sortition-based systems.

    BTW, a point of history: Universal suffrage was not formally achieved in the US until 1920 (and de-facto much later). By that time there were several European countries which had achieved that: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_suffrage


  8. I don’t mind the distinction between monitoring and doing. That makes sense to me. It surely takes me much less effort to make sure you’re doing X than for me to do X myself, at least if X is reasonably big and complicated. Of course, the problem of “rational ignorance” suggests that people might be reluctant either to do X or to monitor the doing of X.

    I think it’s way too quick to say that mass democracy can’t work (which is not the same as being inefficient, BTW) because people are self-interested. Are the people who create and sustain Wikipedia less self-interested? At the very least, one would need here a theory as to when people can be expected to behave selfishly and when they can be expected to advance the common good, or perhaps when the two can be expected to coincide.


  9. > It surely takes me much less effort to make sure you’re doing X than for me to do X myself, at least if X is reasonably big and complicated.

    We’ve been over this before, I think. This is the “sports” model of public policy making in which the politicians are the star athletes and the voters are the spectators who are easily able to tell who wins (supposedly by showing superior skills), but would be completely useless on the track or on the field. In fact, such situations in which verification is much simpler than execution are very artificial and only hold in idealized setups.

    I think the typical public policy situation is much more like, say, engineering a bridge. A non-engineer could easily see (after the fact) if the bridge collapsed under its own weight, but anyone who is able to inspect the bridge to tell that it is well built would also be able to design it.


  10. Peterstone,

    People will always act in self-interess. The way you put them in cooperation is by a learning process of repeated interaction: have you heard about iterated prisioner dilemma? See R. Axelrod work. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Evolution_of_Cooperation

    Cooperation is something self-driven individuals learn by interaction with other selfish individuals. They cooperate not because they are altruistic but because they learn that in the long term is beneficial for they own to cooperate – at least in certain levels.

    Something I try to understand since long ago is why some societies are more cooperative than other. How to promote cooperation? For instance, in Portugal people cooperate a lot in their inner circle (family), but very little at local or national level. I wonder why. Is there any compensation mechanism between family/community?

    I think to promote cooperation you need to enhance transparency and autonomy in order to improve the learning process. But I’ll be glad to discuss this point. Do you have any ideas?



  11. Yoram, If politics is akin to civil engineering then we need an epistocracy, not a democracy. I think you have chosen a singularly unfortunate analogy.


  12. Yes, Keith, amazingly enough, like civil engineering, policy making is best done when the decision makers understand what they are doing. I think you have chosen a singularly weak argument.


  13. “Politics” is deciding on policy preferences — ie the general arrangements of how a community chooses to organise its affairs — and doesn’t involve any technical knowledge. But civil engineering, like piloting and flute-playing, requires skills and training, hence my puzzlement with your decision to compare a “typical public policy situation” with “engineering a bridge”. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you — were you seeking a disanalogy rather than an analogy? My son is an engineeering student and he asked me recently to proof-read his fourth-year dissertation and I couldn’t understand a word of it. I would consider myself perfectly capable of adjuding a “typical public policy situation” but I wouldn’t have a clue as to why a bridge collapsed.


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