Think Like a Programmer: How Governance Could Look Like GitHub

The complications of running a constituent-driven organization has a lot in common with programming, according to some smart minds. Could the future of organizational decision-making take inspiration from coding platforms like GitHub? The possibilities are significant.

When the Brookings Institution refers to a software tool as something so significant that it could change the long-term nature of government, you better believe smart people are listening.

Over the years, the popularity of the programmer-collaboration tool GitHub has been impressive to watch. Most major software developers use the software to track changes in their programs, sharing that information publicly and allowing the public to futz with the code themselves—and offer their own additions, if desired. It’s a great way to allow a project to evolve, as well as to discuss the shape and direction that the software is taking.

GitHub is based on the software package Git, which is a standardized revision-control system. It was created by Linux founder Linus Torvalds as a solution to a common problem faced by open-source programmers—how can we ensure that this complicated piece of software we’re working on is being managed in the most effective way possible? It’s such a popular way to solve said problem that GitHub is used by nearly every major startup and tech corporation of note.

(To give you an idea of how successful GitHub is at its job: Recently, a team at Microsoft decided to move a next-generation program compiler away from the company’s own internal tool in favor of GitHub—a move that just a few years ago would have probably led to gasps of horror in Redmond.)

But over time, GitHub’s potential has shown itself in numerous ways—and in ways that show that its use cases don’t have to be limited to programming. For example, people have written books using GitHub, allowing others to take the roots of the documents and edit them at the same time, building collaboratively without losing changes along the way.

The final results may change, but you can at least see how the authors got there. Now apply that thought process to legislation.

Disrupting Decision-Making

That’s where Brookings comes into play. In a series of recent articles published over the last month and a half, the think tank made a powerful argument that GitHub—or tools like it—could change the dynamic of governance online, due to its overwhelmingly social nature and ability to capture and report changes to documents throughout the entire process. The fact that it’s also built around the underlying Git version-tracking platform also puts it on an easy-to-follow standard that anyone can build from.

“It is these features that provide the foundation for investigating what we think is an emerging new approach to collaboration in our governing institutions and governance settings,” authors Justin Longo and Tanya Kelley wrote, before adding this disclaimer: “Attempts to integrate these new approaches will face barriers from prevailing cultural norms within institutions while at the same time disrupting those cultures.”

Policy statements and bylaws are akin to the source code of what makes an organization work.

In other words, the folks at Brookings think that allowing for collaborative editing of documents like bylaws and policy statements—the things that define how an organization works—could provide for more long-term efficiency.

Which, if you think about it, kind of makes sense. Policy statements and bylaws are akin to the source code of what makes an organization work. Too often these kinds of documents are hidden in obscure pages on websites, under columns of morass, set in stone until all the right people can show up in a room, having fully debated an issue and decided “this is the way to go” or “this is a mistake.”

When governance works too quickly, the ground can look unstable. If it works too slowly, it can make an organization look like it’s ignoring an obvious issue—something that the Motion Picture Association of America ran into late last year. Software platforms like GitHub provide a nice middle ground.

The public beta of DemocracyOS, which is expected to launch wide next month. (DemocracyOS screenshot)

Direct Democracy 2.0

If this sounds a little too esoteric or complicated for your organization, it’s worth noting that there’s a tool in the works that offers the same kind of collaborative approach, without the fairly significant learning curve that non-programmers face when using GitHub.

DemocracyOS, an open source platform backed by the startup incubator Y Combinator, plans to open its doors to the public starting next month, allowing for decision-making in a totally democratic way. While outwardly focused on governments, the approach could work for organizations of all sizes, allowing for discussion on an issue both in the open and internally. TechPresident compared DemocracyOS’ strategy to the way that WordPress is designed to be extremely simple for nonprogrammers to install.

“Although the big picture goal is to make democracy more participatory, more representative of the people, in short, more democratic, on a practical level DemocracyOS can be used by any group that needs to make collaborative decisions,” the website’s Jessica McKenzie wrote.

The platform looks like a combination of the blogging app Svbtle, the commenting tool Disqus, and the news site Quartz. All three of those platforms are way easier to use than GitHub, so it’s an upgrade already.

You might guess that something like this has some tie to politics, and it does: Argentinian politics. The group behind the software and its leader, Pia Mancini, launched their own Argentinian political party called The Net Party, and—despite the odds against them—did fairly well in their first election, back in 2013. Mancini, who also works as DemocracyOS’ executive director, emphasizes that its goals involve simplifying the process to allow the average person to have their say in the process.

“We explain the rules, we try to strip out the legal jargon,” Mancini told The Atlantic last year. “We say, ‘This project aims to do this. Those who are against, argue this. Those who are in favor, argue this. Feel free to argue yourself and post your comments.’”

DemocracyOS is something of an evolution of the GitHub model—whether it’s strictly trying to be or not—and that’s as it should be. The Brookings Institution suggests that the value of the overall concept of GitHub’s document collaboration is important, but perhaps, like the web itself was back in the day, is a little too early along for mainstream use.

“Remember how ugly our early 1990s websites were? These also existed at least five years before Google helped us find content, and when we had to dial a phone number to connect to the Internet,” Longo and Kelley wrote. “If we gave up then because the Web was ungainly, hard to use, and slow, we wouldn’t be blogging about it today.”

Someday, the mechanics will become less ungainly. Once it does, it’ll “just work.”

And maybe—just maybe—it’ll make the policy disagreements a little less painful.

(Daniel X. O'Neil/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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