Citizens’ Petitions

This is an extract from Tony Czarnecki’s book: ‘Democracy for a Human Federation’

How could we accelerate the reform of democracy and especially achieve a wider political consensus using AI? The answer might be in the approach developed by an American company Polis (pol.is) and applied in several countries such as Canada, New Zealand or Taiwan (there are similar applications supporting Citizens’ Petitions).

Broadly it works as follows. Imagine that you have signed an on-line petition. Many countries now apply this form of political engagement. For example, in Britain, there must be 100,000 signatories for a parliamentary petition to be discussed in the Parliament. Polis has a similar starting point. But here the similarities end. In the UK, when you sign a Parliamentary petition it is understood you fully agree with it. Since you cannot modify the petition’s wording in any way, the only other option is to abstain.

But it does not have to be like that. This is where the innovative approach proposed by Polis can help. It starts with an assumption that people need time to understand the implications of the proposed legislation. To enable that understanding, Polis uses a customised version of Facebook. It enables potential signatories to see the initial wording of the petition (max. 280 characters), its all modified versions, comments left by users, and how many people have signed up for each of these versions. A potential signatory can sign one of the existing versions of the proposed legislation or propose his own. He can also leave comments or suggestions for all others to read.

Leaving comments is a crucial part of the Polis system, which is an AI-powered conversation platform. Comments left by signatories on a petition create an indirect “conversation”. The AI machine learning methods uncover patterns in real-time, mapping out the entire conversation by visualizing correlations between opinions and participants, sorting participants into opinion groups, and surfacing areas of consensus and divisiveness. Therefore, a signatory, can after some time, assess the changes in an on-line visual representation of various groups’ support for each of the variants of the legislation. He can then switch his support for another version of the petition. In this way, the most preferred version of the petition will be chosen through a consensus and compromise. One of the countries that has experimented with the Polis system for over 4 years is Taiwan, which has built a dedicated on-line https://vtaiwan.tw/ platform.

Citizens’ Petitions would be made to the Parliament (the Citizens’ Chamber, or Citizens’’ Assembly, if they exist) or any other legislative body, following the rules set out below (if an application such as Polis is used, the period for getting the final wording of the petition may be longer):

  1. Every citizen has a right to launch a petition through a special on-line system that is overseen by the Electoral Commission
  2. The petition system allows for several versions (with a different wording) of a petition to be discussed
  3. A signatory can propose his own version of the petition and leave comments
  4. The comments are then aggregated by the petition system, which uncovers patterns in the opinions of the participants, sorting them into opinion groups, and identifying the areas of consensus
  5. A signatory, can assess the changes in an on-line visual representation of various groups’ support for each of the variants of the legislation, and based on that, switch his support for another version of the petition. In this way, the most preferred version of the petition will be chosen through a consensus and compromise
  6. To become a mandatory request for the Parliament, or for a Citizens’ Assembly to debate a petition, it must get the support of a minimum of 5% of the registered voters on the electoral roll
  7. The Parliament, or any legislative body dealing with it, may reject a petition but only after scrutinizing it, following the agreed procedures.