Loomio Cooperative Decision Making Software

The Enspiral group (“more people working on stuff that matters”) is an interesting collection of cooperatives in NZ.  I would say they are “walking the walk” in a serious way.  their strategy is to boot up groups to tackle specific problems in an open, democratic and sustainable way. To do this, they have spun up an array of enterprises, addressing specific problems and needs.

One of the components of this constellation is the Loomio Cooperative dedicated to creating software to support decision making. As reported in their history, Loomio emerged from the Occupy movement, with the goal of making it easy to implement bottom up, democratic decision making, a la Occupy. There is quite a bit of information about how they are walking the walk, to be found online and in their handbook.

Specifically, the software is intended to solve the problem of “fast, inclusive, effective decision-making without meetings”.  “Without meetings” means asynchronous discussions, using digital technology. This has been done before, many times, so I was curious what might be new here, and why people are excited about it.

The project is open source (naturally), though the software is complex enough to make inspection a bit of a job. Not having time or resources to explore the source code, I looked at the documentation, which is pretty extensive.

The first thing to say is that the software is pretty simple, admirably so. It does only one thing, and it does that with a minimum of fuss. It is also a pretty portable and accessible tool, which I appreciate.  And kudos for multilingual support!

The basic point of interest is that Loomio implements a model of discussions and decision making that is clearly modeled on the Occupy movement. The voting mechanism even includes the “block” vote, so characteristic of Occupy meetings.

Of course, there is a lot of hard stuff that the software can’t solve. They describe a four step process:

  1. Gather (Invite the right people)
  2. Discuss (Have clear, on-topic conversations)
  3. Propose
  4. Decide together and Act

Well, sure. If we could do that, we wouldn’t need Loomio!

But seriously, there are important things that must happen outside the software. Finding the “right” people, is quite a loaded concept. (Who are the “wrong” people?) Having clear discussions is an art, and, as far as I know, using digital tools often is a formula for bad discussions. Software is not going to save you, only good people and good will can do this.

The proposal process is always hard work. A good discussion beforehand will surely help, but it is still necessary to get concrete, and to imagine practical and relevant actions. The software can’t give you good ideas, but it probably helps track the evolution of ideas.

Finally, there is the “decide and act” step. Obviously, software cannot create agreement where it does not exist. Loomio appears to work by making things clear about who agrees and disagrees, about what, and why. With good will, this may lead to consensus, or at least a well understood disagreement.

As far as moving to action, obviously software isn’t really going to make that happen. But it does provide open documentation for the proposed action, which should be helpful.

My point isn’t to pick at Loomio. I’m just making clear that this is decision support software. Loomio does not make things happen, only people can do that.

What then is “special” about Loomio? What makes its fans happy?

To a first approximation, it does the same thing as lots of other software. In fact, you could do everything with email, if you were willing to do some work to archive things carefully.  Some of the work Loomio does definitely helps: for example, Loomio enforces deadlines, and automatically archives everything, so there is a transparent record.

From what I have seen, though, the best thing about Loomio is the instructions. The software is pretty standard, but their instructions, case studies, and “how tos”, model the kind of democratic decision making they believe in. I think you could probably do pretty well following Loomio’s instructions without the software.

I suspect that Loomio also does the most quintessential “magical” thing a software tool can do: it makes it easy and fast to do things “the right way”. Loomio has strong ideas about what is the “right way” to collaborate, and they make this as easy as possible. (I bet you can “misuse” Loomio to have bad discussions, non-democratic decisions, and generally disenfranchise people—but you would be working against the grain. Why bother?)

Is Loomio the be all and end all solution? Of course not. But if you are doing distributed collaboration, especially about something in the digital realm, then you need this kind of software. And Loomio might be good for you.


  1. Cat Johnson (2016) The Loomio Handbook: A Roadmap for Worker-Owned Cooperatives. Sharable, http://www.shareable.net/blog/the-loomio-handbook-a-roadmap-for-worker-owned-cooperatives
  2. The Loomio Cooperative, The Loomio Cooperative Handbook. The Loomio Cooperative, Aotearoa New Zealand, 2016. https://www.gitbook.com/book/loomio/loomio-cooperative-handbook/details

 

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