Loomio is a little unusual within this collection: it is currently in beta, it’s open source (like Crowdgauge, Shareabouts, EngagingPlans and BrightPages), and…it’s free. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right choice for every situation, but there it is.
Loomio is very much a participant-driven platform, similar in that respect to e-Deliberation. It combines relatively simple discussion, wiki, voting and commenting functions through a three step process:
- An idea-generating stage, where someone states an issue to be addressed, attaches supporting information through either attachments or links, and asks the other participants what to do. An interesting additional element here is that any supporting documents can be edited, wiki – style, when additional information comes to the surface as a result of the discussion. That means that anyone who comes into the discussion later can catch up to what the rest of the participants actually know, instead of reading an out-of-date version of the context and wasting the group’s time trying to catch them up to speed. The idea-generating element here works much as it does in many other platforms — people post proposed solutions and others can comment on them, so that an online discussion of alternatives emerges
- A proposal-evaluating stage, where anyone participating can propose a solution and others can give it a thumbs-up, thumbs-down or thumb sideways (indicating ambivalence). Participants can also give a brief explanation of their vote, and an additional icon allows someone to “red flag” a proposal if they are aware of a serious problem with it. Additionally, participants can change their vote if the reasons given for other people’s votes persuade them to do so. A person who proposed a solution can close it if there’s no support, or it appears that they can be set to close automatically if sufficient support is not gained within the set time frame. When that happens, someone else can create a proposal and the process starts again.
- An outcome stage, where the proposer of a successful idea outlines next steps.
Loomio has a number of appealing features, including the wiki function, the ability to provide a position statement in connection with a vote, the ability to respond to a proposal with a neither-yes-or-no answer, and a very nicely done user interface.
However, this is a non-moderated, entirely user-driven model — there is no ability to channel the discussion, there is no moderation (either peer-flagging or administrator) and the outcome stage is at this point limited to only a couple of lines – it does not include the ability to set priorities, assign tasks, etc. I can envision Loomio functioning very well with a small relatively cohesive team, such as a small business’s staff or a relatively cohesive volunteer committee. But trying to use it for public engagement would probably lead to a lot of frustration due to lack of focus and lack of ability to manage any non-productive behavior.
Also, the use of the thumbs icon is western culture-specific — in some cultures, these symbols do not have these meanings, and can even be offensive. Something to keep in mind if you are working with a diverse group of participants.
Loomio is being built by a team of developers and social justice advocates in New Zealand, and is currently raising money to come out of beta and build the 1.0 platform. As a result, Loomio will probably be changing and adding features in the future. A “sneak peek” of the new full version was unveiled in December 2014.