What can digital technology offer democracy? Just trouble, you might think, at least if your reference point is social media. Concerns are growing that platforms like Facebook and Twitter help create partisan echo chambers, spread fake news and render intelligent argument impossible when clicks are valued more than facts.
Yet there is a more positive story. Around the world, countries have been experimenting with a whole new set of digital tools specifically designed to involve citizens in more meaningful ways. Tools that notify them when the issues they care about are discussed in parliament. Tools that let them propose their own ideas; debate the ideas of others; give them a say on how local budgets are spent and how laws are drafted.
While it’s early days, several are producing results worth noting.
In Iceland, ‘Better Reykjavik’ was launched in 2010 as a collaboration between the local government and a civic tech charity so that citizens could suggest, debate, and rank ideas for improving their city. With the opportunity to vote on specific proposals, they have the power to make real decisions about how local resources are spent and allocated. Far from being of narrow interest to the digitally savvy, more than 70,000 people have visited the website out of a population of 120,000.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian parliament has created ‘e-Democracia’, an online portal that lets people contribute to parliamentary debates. Dedicated parliamentary officials are assigned to answer questions, break down difficult topics, and create a bridge between users’ contributions and the parliament’s processes. Another innovative step has been the creation of a “HackerLab”, where volunteer coders can apply their skills to visualise legislative data in ways that are appealing for the public.
Digital tools can also complement more traditional forms of engagement. Barcelona Council’s Decidim.Barcelona platform summarises consultations made during face-to-face meetings organised across the city, as well as those submitted online, making the whole process more accessible, coherent and transparent for everyone.
Here in the UK, we may be a country of online shoppers and world leading digital businesses, but our democratic institutions have remained strangely impervious to technological change. Parliamentary debates still require speakers to be physically present. MPs vote by walking through corridors. Yes, there are some petition websites, but most stand entirely separate from the business of Parliament itself.
Digital democracy cannot just be a website. The international examples demonstrate that new tools can positively change the ways citizens engage in the political process. But only if our democratic institutions are willing to adapt their ways of working so that ideas suggested online can meaningfully and transparently shape conversations on the inside.
So it’s not about driving more people to express their views on social media. We need different tools for this particular job. Used well, those tools might just help restore some sense of trust and legitimacy in our political institutions and make politics feel closer and more relevant to the people.
Digital technology might just have something to offer democracy after all.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 23 February 2017.
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