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Digital democracy: more eyes can make a difference



Local digital decision making seems to be working in Madrid, Paris and Reykjavik - but the evidence overall is mixed, according to a landmark study

Hundreds of digital tools and platforms have been developed across the world to fight back against voters’ apathy and outright hostility to democratic institutions. But examples of them making a tangible difference are still rare, according to a landmark study by the UK “big ideas” innovation foundation Nesta.

It says that overall the tools have “tended to involve fairly small and unrepresentative numbers of citizens and have been used for relatively marginal issues”.

A survey of case studies from three continents points to common factors for success and failure. Alas, none of the successes is from the UK.

One reason for lack of impact is unwillingness on the part of traditional actors. “But the reformers have also made mistakes,” Nesta says. “Often they have been too linear and mechanistic in assuming that technology was the solution, rather than focusing on the combination of technology and new organisational models.”

Meanwhile, there is little evidence of digital democracy reaching out to new groups. “Most tend to show that participation is skewed to those who are already politically active and towards well educated, young men in urban areas," it says.

Success stories

Local case study successes include:

Better Reykjavik/Better Neighbourhoods: Better Reykjavik is an idea generation platform for the capital of Iceland and Better Neighbourhoods is the platform for annual participatory budgeting. These platforms enable citizens to suggest, debate, and rank ideas for improving their city.

More than 70,000 people, out of a population of 120,000 in Reykjavik, have taken part. Better Neighbourhoods enables citizens to suggest projects and vote on them with in a secure and binding authentication process which means that each citizen has only one vote. As residents vote for projects, they can see how the overall budget is reduced.

Decide Madrid: Any resident can create a proposal for a new local law which is shared on the platform for 12 months for votes of support. If proposals gather approval from 1% of the census population over 16 years of age - the equivalent of around 27,000 supporters - they are advertised at the top of the web portal and citizens are given 45 days to further consider and discuss the idea before a final public vote. The current government has agreed that any proposal that reaches this stage will be implemented.

Madame Mayor, I have an idea: A platform to respond demand for greater citizen participation in decision-making in Paris.

The process has five phases: during January and February project proposals can be made online. From March to May there is a co-creation process to bring together, online and in person, representatives of similar proposals to develop and refine proposals. Over the summer selected projects are then shared online for review. They are selected by an elected committee, made up of representatives of political parties, the city administration, civil society, and citizens. Successful proposals are then included in the December budget and work begins the following year.

The two case studies from the UK are both national and neither has been a great success: Parliament’s Evidence Checks and Public Reading Stage Pilot, which have not been rolled out for all bills.

Upbeat on potential

Despite this, Nesta is upbeat about the potential for digital participation in democratic decision-making. “The feedback from our case studies is clear," it says. "All the examples we studied can provide at least anecdotal evidence of how these tools and processes improve the quality of decision-making by having more eyes on a document or process, or by bringing in people with a greater diversity of experiences and expertise to provide input or scrutiny.

"The most common way in which decisions are improved is simply by increasing the pool of ideas accessed or suggestions made, which decision-makers acknowledge would not have otherwise been considered in the process.”

Interestingly, it notes that many of these experiments in digital democracy were triggered by a crisis. The financial crisis of 2008 in Iceland and the anti-austerity 15M movement in Spain provide examples.

Other learning points include:

  • “It’s essential to articulate the aims of engagement at the outset. This means providing clear information about what the project aims to do, how the process works, how people’s contributions will be used and the rules of engagement.”
  • “Digital isn’t the only answer: traditional outreach and engagement still matter.”
  • "Don’t cut corners: digital democracy is not a quick or cheap fix.”
  • “Digital technologies alone won’t solve the challenges of apathy, disillusionment, low levels of trust and the widening chasm between the people and the political class – but they could play an important role nonetheless.”

Digital Democracy: the tools transforming political engagement.

 Image from Elmira College (modified), CC BY 2.0 through flickr


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