Discourse as the ideal format for an open governance / government 2.0 forum?

Discourse as the ideal format for an open governance / government 2.0 forum?


I feel that Discourse is poised to become great: It’s a well-made, collaborative, discussion friendly venue that could work as a platform to get people involved with their communities.


Discourse can easily become a means to have people discuss and critique on what needs to be done in their local community.


In December 2012 me and a few friends began the process of starting a hackerspace. This is an offshoot of a bunch of pet projects we’ve been working on together since 2010. Our ‘company’ has been developing under an open governance system where what we work on is dependent entirely on what everyone decides is good to do. We are effectively a collaboratively governed system.

One of our core ideas is to help develop a culture platform that encourages collaboration. We want to develop and gather systems that help cement the community driven mentality and allow for better usage of the network of people that get involved. Just like in open source projects, if you don’t have a way to get great minds interested in your project, you have very little chance of leveraging the power of collaboration.

Hackerspaces as a governance model testbed:

The hackerspace idea was a no-brainer because as far as models for a collaborative governments go we couldn’t have asked for a better example than the makerspace movement. They already have the openness that allows people to focus on what interests them.

The funny thing is that past a certain point, efforts to empower a hackerspace blur between local hackerspaces and local communities in general.

With all this kicking around in my head, what really got my gears spinning was what @ChrisHanel wrote on how Discourse could act as a middle ground between a privately run blog, and a publicly ran forum (from the discussion from Using discourse as blog software):

[quote=“ChrisHanel, post:8, topic:2510”]
I think we’re seeing more and more [of] that as web design has evolved, there is a valid point to looking at more hybrid systems that exist somewhere in-between the standard pillars of purpose. Some of that evolution comes about by using systems built for a different goal in mind, or seeing them grow into something outside of its original parameters.

I think there’s something to be said for understanding the difference between a ‘blog’ and a ‘forum’, purely from a design aesthetic. In a sense, a blog with comments is just a forum where only a very exclusive group of users can start new topics and everyone else is limited to short replies. Or, to put it another way, a blog is a forum where the moderator is who we are there to talk about, and the guest of honor has the microphone. :slight_smile:

If you’re a content creator, and your goal is to engage on a level higher than simply having your content be seen, then it’s definitely worth a thought to step out of the post + comments format, and really brainstorm on what kind of conversation you want to have with your visitors, and if that conversation can and should continue on without your direct input. I don’t think that the standard answer of having a blog and a forum both listed in your site header really cuts it any longer, especially when the blog is the front and center of the site, and the forum is generally hidden away in its own login system and hierarchy.[/quote]

I believe that he has hit the nail on the head. An open discussion forum needs this out-of-box thinking.

The Emergence of Government 2.0:

I see great things on the horizon surrounding the area of open government systems. Tim O’Reilly (yes, of O’Reilly media) has been pushing for Open Government / Gov 2.0 for a while and there are wonderful meta-discussions on these issues on his google+ posts. He’s even released the book Open Government for free, as a tribute to Aaron Swartz.

Enter Discourse:

For collaborative organizations to work well, there needs to be productive discussions on issues and projects, and not just workflow management that similar software services like Trello and BetterMeans offers. Of all the things we’ve looked at for discussion forums, even in it’s infant stages Discourse already seems to be the best way to let people freely discuss what is on their mind. We see it as the linchpin in a grand vision of a more involved community. Discourse can become a means for all the little communities to have voice.

The biggest thing that discourse provides is a means to keep discussions on topic in the same way that a meeting facilitator works. The ability to split topics of discussion off effectively remind participants on which topic is currently on the floor. I also can see admins acting as interlocutors to help connect various interest groups (independent Discourse forums) and other local communities in real life.

The nature of it being online and persistent is exactly what you’d need in order for almost everyone to get involved - just think of how many people are willing to use facebook, but can’t be arsed to go to even a simple school board meeting. I believe Discourse can change that.

The beauty of a Discourse like system is that, unlike normal meetings, off-topic discussions can still continue in side chains without polluting the main threads of discussion. Bureaucratic restrictions could be further lessened if Discourse implements a moderator system similar to how stackoverflow allows for long-term (invested) contributors to act as pseudo-admins. After all, the pseudo-admin setup is indirectly implementing the Open Enterprise Governance Model anyway.

The Future:

Right now, the only thing that stands in the way of Discourse taking on this roll is the need for is a way to express interest beyond just liking a post. We would need a way to show not just who ‘likes’ an idea, but who is willing to support it outright - a sort of kickstarter where you pledge not just financial support, but volunteering and other more actionable items.

We would also need an adaptive way to show how interest is spread among the various groups to better allow people to pool resources. That is to say, a way to help individuals and entire hackerspaces / communities find others that they can collaborate and cross-pollinate with. And finally, a distributed hub connecting all these Discourse communities together in a much larger system.

Dreams of Discourse:

Discourse can easily become a means to have people discuss and critique on what needs to be done in their local community. You could have topics ranging from things as small as a photo of a crack in the sidewalk (who’s going to fix this?) to more far reaching discussions like the legalization of marijuana, or the establishment of a new zoning district. The beauty of having an open source government is that there is nothing stopping me from doing this.

Let’s code the future. Discuss:



I’m building a team to try and do the same thing. I’m going to be setting up two instances of discourse to see how it could work (the actual governance area + meta) . I’ve already done some basic wireframes for the interface. I think we’re essentially talking along the same lines. Current working title is “The Open Party”. I believe the system has to function as a normal party first to allow to compete against existing parties.

A question is, how should the incubation period run? I’m building a team of policy makers and domain experts, so I don’t believe it should be thrown out too early. I assume a lot of other people will be thinking about doing this as well, so how should we go about pooling our resources?

Essentially even with an open system, some level of seeding and election should happen from an early stage? Perhaps after a small core team is established, you can allow people to apply to join early. Then the existing people in the system can vote on who comes in, early. However this does present a problem of that process not being truely open. I guess the point is, as long as anything can be changed later, then that isn’t a problem. It’s certainly going to be an interesting thing to see happen.

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The Open Enterprise Governance Model is an excellent description how this works well for a group of people to invite openness. The idea would be that the administrators and ‘interlocutors’ would need to be as partial as possible. Part of the draw of discourse is that there are features that make it so the more involved people naturally have more administrative access- since they are the ones who would be the most aware of how things work.

The big idea for me is that we are all peers in a community, the point is to encourage everyone to work for the community - people in charge aren’t leaders in the normal sense, but act more like enablers. I think that the more this position is shared among members, the less authoritative and more ‘open’. Many inefficiencies of government can be removed by reducing as many bureaucratic issues as possible - you don’t want the command and control structures getting in the way of letting people lend a hand if they are interested in a project, and it allows for people to gravitate to where their skillset is best used.

As for the incubation period, we are trying to go a grass roots method by getting in on the maker scene and with our business ideas. I love the idea of having a self-contained and distributed system that can be installed at a hackerspace on the cheap that facilitates all of this. Discourse would just be one small part of a bigger package that could be used.

There is already a strong drive and demand for these features as evident in the Gov 2.0 movement. What they are doing in Rio is quite inspirational. I figure that if it works well we can just share what we are doing with the world and it will be adopted by people automatically.

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I’ve setup a production Discourse here http://meta.theopenparty.org/ (DB not auto backed up yet)

Meta .org for the global meta around the platform to work in any country. www will hold information about the platform. Country specific versions will have meta + naked (platform discussion + political issues)

Let the forum commence?

Also, I’m wary of this point - Part of the draw of discourse is that there are features that make it so the more involved people naturally have more administrative access- since they are the ones who would be the most aware of how things work.

We need to ensure new people are engaged, and don’t feel like there is some kind of geeky order running things. Everything has to be balanced, at least at some levels. However I do believe you should be able to have read only to public users, expert discussion. Also I believe that video is essential.

Imagine the US presential debate, happening live on this system. Then imagine that happening with 200-300 people connected, all at the same time. Is that the future?

Sorry, I haven’t had time to go through all your points yet, but I will do when I get a chance. Considering I’ve never used Ruby before, this week has been a small slog to get this thing running. Not too bad by any means, just typical I haven’t done this before stuff.


I am definitely in agreement with you. My feeling on this though is that its not something that can necessarily be developed top-down. Part of starting in the maker community is that we can tweak the system on the small scale in the context of creating maker-projects before trying to enter the political realm and working on general community projects.

I also don’t necessarily think that we need to have an entire party dedicated to the movement - part of what makes the open governance model great is that it can supplant the system simply due to the fact that it allows people to organize and collaborate around being good/involved citizens better than some bureaucratic mess. Striving to make it distributed (one of our big focuses at Praetor Labs) also means we can leverage the internet to create more resilient and hyper-local communities that adapt to the needs of the populace.

That being said, getting real laws through the current system may require putting up some figureheads to act as a voice in the current system.

Thanks for sharing, i’ll check out your discourse later.

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This already feels like a good discussion! And the point it is open, so yes, we can tweak as we go. The reason for forming it around a political party is that I believe to gain real traction, you have to beat the existing system at their own game. It’s all well and good to form splinter movements and form distributed communities, but I believe in terms of creating a story for ourselves to work towards, real actionable targets should be aimed for.

Something I find interesting is building in the idea that this may spring up all over the place, and building in the concept of merging open groups. As long as the discourse continues to work at scale this should not be a problem.

I totally agree there are very separate goals in terms of that platform itself and the implementation of it to build a political party. The name of the framework that I was going to work on had a working title of iPropose. So the open party would be built on top of that. theopenparty.org would be a worldwide hub for movements in specific countries that wanted to adopt similar systems, which would then be able to split off into theopenparty.co.uk or theopenparty.org.uk (can’t believe I just referenced an org.uk !)

So the overall point is, that in order to gain traction to the idea, we need to have an end game plan. And talking around the idea, as if it were a real political party I believe is the best way to put ourselves into the domain of actually making it happen.

What do you think about the open enterprise model vs integrating with existing political parties? I think they will have some interesting overlap? Maybe we can aim for both at the same time?

Here are some wire frames that are extremely crude at the moment, full of spelling and grammar errors. Please excuse this, they were done very late and I just wanted something to start conversation with.

A debate plugin would be one of the first things I would start creating. There are so many interesting variables you can introduce. Time limits (overall and per response) Behind the scenes team chat while people prepare their responses. Allowing multiple streams of a debate to happen at the same time?


The more extreme version of open governance is like they are doing at Valve… People don’t ‘vote’ on what they want to work on in the normal sense, they simply unplug their desks and wheel them down to the other team. The communication engine and leaders are really only there to help keep teams alive and functional - and even that is somewhat flexible and changes hands regularly.

Not to be disagreeable, but I feel that the whole idea of voting on a topic is the direct opposite of where things should be headed. The system should encourage action and focus on “what you can do to help”. People can discuss and vote on issues until the they are blue in the face but in the end that may be only be masturbatory. The goal is to turn things on it’s head and remove as much politics out of politics as possible. The last link on my original post goes into the topic more thoroughly: http://www.ted.com/talks/dave_meslin_the_antidote_to_apathy.html

I believe the core idea behind gov 2.0 (government or governance, either way) is explained well in this article: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/hinchcliffe/government-2-0-a-tale-of-risk-control-and-trust/811

Its not just about updating the current system to the digital age, but about leveraging the collaboration and self-directing features to make everything better.

I see your system as a stop-gap and stepping stone to a much more robust and simpler way to deciding on what gets done.

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I might have mentioned this before, and I apologize if so, but do check out what the Economist does with debates. It’s the best treatment I have seen.



(discourse saved my half written comment!) Don’t worry about being disagreeable, that’s why we are here! Your point at Valve is a bit of a special case perhaps? That they basically have enough money to “ship when we’re ready” and a lot of things in life just can’t run on that kind of schedule, certainly at scale.

What about accountability to some degree? Again only a transitional element needed, but important in integrating into existing systems.

Also the people at Value are perhaps some of the best people in the world at self managing and getting things done perhaps? Also I assume it’s pretty hard to get a job there, so in that way it’s a pretty elitist group?

A core idea of my(!) system is to engage everyone at every level of education and involvement. It’s about putting better reasons in front of people to base their decisions on, which are backed up through clear debate/discouse.

I think it definitely is a stop gap, but given todays world, I feel it’s more productive to optimise towards a wider range of people, than to focus on experts and high achievers. I think in the future, when the poverty gap has been reduced, it would be possible to have people engaging more productively as independent teams, almost devolving back to highly organised tribal groups on local issues, joined by distributed systems for global points.

So I think there are definitely a few strands to this. My idea was always split into two stages, one for contesting existing power, and one for when you are in power. I feel the harder issue will be the contesting stage, and therefore I think it has the most value to look into (at least for me?)

What do you think? I think our goals our aligned yet looking at different ranges of people involved? Hopefully we can find useful overlap in our approaches and ideas.

If we say that our end goal is the same, what would be your “launch strategy” as it were? We can build whatever tech we need, it’s getting the engagement to happen as always that is the tricky part.


I feel that people are more than willing to take part and engage with civic duties if given the chance. The issue is that those who don’t feel like their voice is heard have a very low chance to even bothering to get to the polls much less engage with their local community. This was expressed quite clearly in this document citizenship: a challenge for all generations from 2003: People don’t feel engaged and simply don’t understand what it means to be a citizen anymore. We are missing that personal connection that makes us care about each other.

What we need are things that make us care more about each other on a personal, local, and larger level. I think that the answer is to develop and curate systems (like discourse) that let Valve-like participation within much more diverse communities of every size.

The hope is that by starting local and expanding outward, you can get people to engage at a much smaller level where they are more effective. You many not be able to change the entire nation, but that doesn’t’ mean you can’t have an impact and make the lives better of those around you.

My favorite way to impart the idea is to use this quote:
“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

The idea is to develop systems to help (and more importantly, encourage) people do so.

Valve is definitely on the forefront of skills and they definitely have an edge up on that. I was using them as the epitome of what can be achieved. But I don’t think that it is restricted to only the top teir of professionals.

I think it more has to do with the fact that the mindest of top-down control is a strong tradition in american (and many other) cultures.

They address that eloquently in their blog post Why Valve? Or, what do we need corporations for and how does Valve’s management structure fit into today’s corporate world?, and I definatley suggest reading the entire thing to get the whole feel for the argument.

Here’s an interesting snip from the article that covers why this thing ‘works’ and not just for Valve:

The idea of spontaneous order comes from the Scottish Enlightenment, and in particular David Hume who, famously, argued against Thomas Hobbes’ assumption that, without some Leviathan ruling over us (keeping us “all in awe”), we would end up in a hideous State of Nature in which life would be “nasty, brutish and short”. Hume’s counter-argument was that, in the absence of a system of centralised command, conventions emerge that minimise conflict and organise social activities (including production) in a manner that is most conducive to the Good Life. Steadily, these conventions acquire a moral dimension (i.e. there is a transition from the belief that others will follow the established conventions to the belief that others ought to follow them), they become more evolutionarily stable and, in the end, function as the glue that allows society to be ordered and efficient albeit without any centralised, formal, hierarchy. In short, spontaneous order emerges in the absence of authoritarian hierarchies.

The Ted talk ( The Antidote to Apathy ) I linked to discusses the concern in terms of apathy:

How often do we hear that people just don’t care? How many times have you been told that real, substantial change isn’t possible because most people are too selfish, too stupid or too lazy to try to make a difference in their community? I propose to you today that apathy as we think we know it doesn’t actually exist, but rather, that people do care, but that we live in a world that actively discourages engagement by constantly putting obstacles and barriers in our way.

and goes well with the ted talk Coding a Better Government that describes engagement within a community that doesn’t have the same level of diligence that Valve may have.

It’s a cute little app where you can adopt a fire hydrant. So you agree to dig it out when it snows. If you do, you get to name it, and he called the first one Al. And if you don’t, someone can steal it from you. So it’s got cute little game dynamics on it. This is a modest little app. It’s probably the smallest of the 21 apps that the fellows wrote last year. But it’s doing something that no other government technology does. It’s spreading virally.

There’s a guy in the I.T. department of the City of Honolulu who saw this app and realized that he could use it, not for snow, but to get citizens to adopt tsunami sirens. It’s very important that these tsunami sirens work, but people steal the batteries out of them. So he’s getting citizens to check on them. And then Seattle decided to use it to get citizens to clear out clogged storm drains. And Chicago just rolled it out to get people to sign up to shovel sidewalks when it snows. So we now know of nine cities that are planning to use this. And this has spread just frictionlessly, organically, naturally.

Thankfully, the ideals behind all of this are taking root. The whitehouse has been putting up all sorts of open government initiatives especially since the release of the President’s Action Plan from 2011 and his memorandum in 2009 ( Great introduction ted talk: Demand a more open-source government ). I’m particularly impressed with http://www.opengovtplatform.org/ and everything discussed within the whitehouse blog entry Celebrating the release of open government plans 2.0

Yes, I agree, I do think our goals are aligned. I am very much interested in seeing where the aproches overlap and where they disagree. I think there is merit in them both.

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“Become the change you want to see in this world.”
.-Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

“Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness and Neither Does Poverty”

  • Book Title

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

  • Dalai Lama

“Be unreasonable. Be maladjusted. Make the future [what] you want it to be. Build something new.”

  • John Robb

Our strategy is rather long term. We want to bootstrap everything.

Our first plan to adopt systems internally. We are hoping to produce a couple of side projects out of the lab and get them out into the world to start some initial funding and then focus on internal systems to help us perform better as an organization.

The hope is that we will be building out the systems so that we can get participation with local hackerspaces like burlington’s laboratory b. We’ve already got people interested in setting up publicly accessible cloud server racks and Lab B has a big security awareness slant that I see a lot of great cross pollination with. The hole idea is to align our business goals with the improvement of the local maker community - the better we do, the better they do, etc.

What we’ve done so far is basically move in together at a great house-share in the middle of an industrial district. I’ve been focusing on getting a source of income (actually just got my first real programming job!), and my buisness partner has been slowly moving in his stuff downstairs. Once the weather gets warmer, we have access to a garage that we’ll be outfitting with some tools to make what we have in mind with a very low overhead and hopefully get some products being sold on a per-order basis. Once we have more concrete plans on that aspect, we’ll be posting things about it to our social media pages.

Our end goal is to produce a sort of open platform that works for small project oriented communities (and companies), open sourcing the plans and designs to help others set up what we use and hopefully funding the startup of other like minded companies under the Praetor Labs Banner… Once we have a larger network of people working together we can then start to focus on community improvement with it - transforming it into a field tested and proven government/governance as a platform. I figure the first few things we will work at that scale is to run some code-jam sessions and computer gaming nights through the system to see how well it works to organize things like that.

I have been personally inspired by what Zapos is doing for Las Vegas (some great articles: Nytimes,entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes) after reading about it , and I’d like to eventually get big enough to do something similar in the Burlington region. It’s already the tech-center of Vermont and there are a great number of companies that have been doing smaller initiatives to improve the area and it already has thriving community of interesting people.

The most inspiring point is the concept of ‘return on community’ from the initial article I read on what Tony Heich is doing (video). I can really appreciate the idea of businesses as a force for social change.

We are planning on getting set up as a Verrmont low-profit LLC so that we can focus on our ambitious goals while not needing to have the managerial overhead of a typical non-profit or corporation’s board of directors. I figure that most of the profits from what we do will go back into '[The Lab]’ and related projects, so it makes sense for us.

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Thanks Jeff, like a step in the direction and great to keep building up this thread with useful topics.

Should my reply come sequentially after yours, as I did specifically reply to you?

No, I think that the idea is to break it off into a new topic if it is pertinent. Otherwise people reading through will be able to see the replies inline if they click on the “x replies” on his post.

Sorry to dig this up but I know one opengov related project that actually uses Discourse, it is www.citizensoapbox.org and there is another Bay area company that is working on ways to bring facilitated dialog spaces to the web: www.zilino.com

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Hi, so this topic is really old sorry…

But this is very interesting. There’s a lot of literature about deliberative democracy, e-democracy and e-participation. I think there’s great potential in discourse as an open source tool for deliberation in civic environments but haven’t seen any examples of it being used in that way. Has anyone?

This link is not working anymore:

I’d be interested in the answer to this question, too! I’m the founder of Youth Power Coalition and we’re actually a startup working to build our Discourse platform to be a place where e-governance happens so what you wrote is the dream! We’re a startup, so we’re 20 team members at the moment, but we always ask, how are we building for when we’re 10,000 members? 100,000 members? 1,000,000 members?

Check out our forum at hub.youthpowercoalition.org. Read up on the collaboration features I’m experimenting with here.

We’re probably also going to rely heavily on how we scope out our projects via the Kanban method.


amazing! will take a look :smiley: