Governance tokens are tokens that developers create to allow token holders to help shape the future of a protocol. Governance token holders can influence decisions concerning the project such as proposing or deciding on new feature proposals and even changing the governance system itself.
In many cases, the changes proposed, vetted and then voted on through on-chain governance accessed by using governance tokens are applied automatically due to smart contracts. In other cases, the team maintaining the project is tasked with applying the changes or hiring someone who will.
Proponents of systems that use governance tokens believe that they allow for user control, which holds true to the original cryptocurrency ideals of decentralization and democratization. In most cases, organizations who let users control the development of their systems are called decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs).
One well-known example of a governance token is Maker (MKR). This token allows its holders to vote on decisions pertaining to the decentralized finance (DeFi) protocol that the decentralized stablecoin DAI runs on.
For example, MKR holders can vote to change the complex economic rules that govern the decentralized lending that allows DAI to keep its price stable. At the time that the text you are reading was being written, MKR holders were voting on whether the protocol’s debt ceiling should be raised.