Time to grow digital democracy

This week, innovation foundation Nesta releases new research on the digital tools transforming political engagement around the world – that offer possible ways forward here. Theo Bass, researcher in government innovation, offers a preview.

digital-democracyToday we bank, read the news, study for a degree and chat with friends across the world all from the comfort of our own homes, thanks to technology. But one area that seems impervious to digital change is our model of democratic governance. Debates still require speakers to be physically present. MPs still vote by walking through corridors.

However, a number of experimental projects in Europe and beyond are showing us how digital technologies can play an exciting role in engaging new groups of people in politics. These are empowering citizens not only to share their views on legislation and policies but also decide how money is spent or services are designed.

At the parliamentary level, political parties such as Podemos in Spain and the Icelandic Pirate Party are using tools like Loomio, Reddit and Discourse to debate policy proposals and feed into legislation. Other local governments have set up similar, purpose-built platforms so that citizens can submit ideas and information, rank priorities and allocate public resources.

Asking more people to have their say online isn’t about driving more people to use Twitter or Facebook to broadcast their concerns. The limitations of these platforms are becoming more and more apparent in this regard.

The best innovations are often explicitly alert to the issues of potential bias and are instead actively marketing their online platforms to attract a diverse group of stakeholders. Such steps can eliminate the filter bubble and bring together people with opposing views, or previously unheard views, to discuss and share, and, where appropriate, reach a consensus.

Take for instance the Taiwanese digital minister, who in 2015 began a partnership with civic hackers to crowdsource regulation on contentious issues. Regulation around ride-sharing (like Uber) was one such area. Taxi drivers, passengers, trade union officials and business leaders were among around a thousand people brought together online using a tool for constructive online debate known as A live-streamed face-to-face meeting between public officials and a smaller group of key stakeholders followed.

Many of the early experiments in Taiwan were also almost entirely run by volunteers from “g0v”, a group closely affiliated with the student protest group known as the Sunflower Movement. This example, and many others like it internationally, demonstrate the importance of civil society in collaborating with public officials.

For the UK, organisations like DotEveryone and Notinwestminster offer similar opportunities.

Elsewhere, digital tools are complementing more traditional forms of engagement to help reduce concerns about the digital divide. Barcelona’s Decidim.Barcelona platform takes both offline and online voices into account. The website gathers proposals submitted by the public online, alongside ideas gathered from face-to-face meetings organised by the council across the city.

Paris has been scaling up a similar model with ‘Madame Mayor, I have an idea’. The city government has allocated €500m over five years for this annual participatory budgeting exercise, which allows citizens to propose ideas about where and how city money should be spent. People’s ideas are collected on a website and the proponents of similar ideas are encouraged to meet, collaborate and pool their resources. Civil servants also run offline advertising campaigns and educational workshops to teach people about how to campaign and refine their ideas.

Ultimately, digital democracy cannot just be a website. Technology is only one part of the solution to the disconnect felt between citizens and the people in power.

Cyber security and data protection risk factors cannot be overlooked either. For any initiative in this space to succeed, it must be accompanied by new ways of working – internal operations and communications need to be more transparent, agile and responsive to the needs of ordinary people.

As a first step, we need to raise awareness of the tools and initiatives already under way, and encourage more experimentation here in the UK.

Nesta’s digital democracy research brings together the best in global case studies where technology is helping to boost democratic engagement and empower people in new ways. The guide builds on the organisation’s D-CENT project, which developed a set of open-source, privacy-aware tools for digital participation that are now being used by city governments across Europe.

Nesta’s research paper ‘Digital democracy: the tools transforming political engagement’ is published on February 23.