DAO research: A roadmap for experimenting with governance

Andrew HallEliza Oak

As we’ve argued, web3 governance can serve as a lab for democracy, in much the same way that online markets have enabled economists to experiment, or how social networks have provided a wealth of data for the study of networks. Our Optimism study is one specific analysis on one specific topic in the study of constitutional design. But many foundational questions exist, and we can study them by leveraging similar opportunities in web3. Here are a few ideas. For each topic, we summarize the issue and provide concrete questions that some projects are already starting to explore. 

1. Understanding voter turnout

A common problem in DAOs is low turnout, which happens for various reasons, and there are multiple reasons why projects care about it (summarized here). A major obstacle to mobilizing voters in decentralized governance is the inability to directly contact voters, but there’s a wide design space for building ways to directly reach voters into user interfaces or applications. Drawing on the large literature on get-out-the-vote techniques in political science, potential experiments in web3 could study whether different mechanisms that have been documented to increase turnout in the offline world (e.g., appeals to civic duty, social pressure, decreased cognitive efforts, self-interest, etc.) also explain political behavior in online settings. 

  • What motivates voters to participate in elections? 
    • XMTP and Snapshot are partnering with Coinbase Wallet, Converse, other apps to message addresses about upcoming proposals. 
    • Uniswap, Optimism, and others have developed UIs to make voting and delegating more convenient

2. Empowering good actors in governance

Most current web3 projects use a “one-token, one-vote” model — meaning voting power is a direct function of token wealth — to vote on decisions about the project. These tokens are all transferable, meaning they can be bought and sold on the open market. Empirical evidence has shown that this can lead to plutocratic systems where a small number of wealthy actors exert a disproportionate influence. For projects with a civic rather than purely economic motive, this has sparked an interest in moving beyond coin voting, for example, through non-transferable reputation which aims to incorporate merit and contributions into the accumulation of governance influence. Efforts to collect signals on who is trustworthy or competent are as old as time, but only recently with advances in technology is it plausible to try to create credible and universally available reputation systems at scale. 

  • How do we reward merit and contributions, rather than wealth and connections, among political representatives? 
    • Multiple projects are experimenting with Ethereum Attestation Service (EAS) to base governance power on an earned reputation rather than on token wealth.  

3. Designing strong institutions

As web3 projects design political institutions, they are trying both traditional and novel approaches and face many classic questions political scientists have studied for centuries. The rapid iterating of designs combined with the large amounts of public, fine-grained data on collective outcomes offers interesting opportunities for study. Some projects, for instance, are exploring ways to grant popular power the ability to check the power of oligarchy via veto processes. Vetoes have a long history as a governance tool — from the plebeian tribunals of Ancient Rome to constitutional monarchies requiring royal assent — though opportunities to study the effects of such institutions are rather limited. In addition to institutionalizing veto power, web3 projects are also experimenting with judicial systems, legislative structures, federalism, or various moderating bodies. 

  • When are vetoes useful for governance, and why? 
    • Lido is currently experimenting with the design of a veto system for its governance.
  • Is bicameralism a more effective way to design a legislature? 
    • Optimism is currently experimenting with a bicameral governance structure.
  • Are there other stakeholders that should have power in governance?
    • DriftDAO is experimenting with a three-component governance system.

4. Improving political representation

Currently, most web3 delegates are selected based on token wealth or status in the ecosystem. This has led to a push for experimenting with alternative and more democratic ways to select representatives, for instance improving how information about delegate candidates is communicated to voters and ways to hold delegates accountable. There are also efforts to explore “lottocratic” approaches, such as randomly selecting users to deliberate specific topics in citizens’ assemblies. 

  • Is representative democracy more effective than direct democracy — when and why? 
    • Many projects have switched from direct to representative democracy over time.
  • When, and how, should deliberative democracy be used? 
    • The Cosmos Hub recently piloted a citizen’s assembly for controversial community decisions.

5. Tracing strategic behavior among political actors

With public time-stamped voting data in web3, there are opportunities to study how strategic agents anticipate the actions of others in order to maximize their own payoffs, which can lead to vote herding or other forms of free-riding based on backwards induction. One particular kind of strategic voting has been documented in the U.S. Senate, and it would be interesting to study whether this mechanism holds in online voting settings. Moreover, with the availability of information on people’s financial holdings, it is possible to assess whether different economic motives and conflicts of interest lead to different kinds of political behavior. 


DAOs and web3 governance provide a laboratory that allows social scientists to understand the role that a wide variety of constitutional features play in shaping human behavior in democratic governance. We are excited about this largely untapped, data-rich space and hope that researchers and builders will be in touch about potential collaborations to study governance and democracy at scale. 


Andy Hall is the Davies Family Professor of Political Economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, as well as a Professor of Political Science. Hall is a consultant to the a16z crypto research team and to the AR Family team at Meta Platforms, Inc. 

Eliza Oak is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University. She studies the politics of emerging tech and society with a focus on democratic online governance. She was a research intern at a16z crypto during the summer of 2023 and continues to work on governance research and experiments with Optimism, an a16z portfolio company.


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