Cross-posted from Nesta blog

Today we're publishing an overview of digital innovations in democracy – to make sense of what’s possible, what’s working and what can guide governments, parliaments, parties and local governments.    

This is a topic I’ve been fascinated by for years – over 20 years ago I wrote and edited a collection on how ‘lean democracy’ could use digital tools; I’ve been involved in many experiments; I was first chair of the organisation Involve; and most recently through Nesta’s DCENT project have been involved in building a range of practical tools for democracy that have been widely used.  

I’d like to be able to claim that all of the important questions are now answered. But the truth is that we are still in an early experimental stage of what’s likely to be quite a slow transition.

Indeed, seen in the long view it’s amazing how little has changed.

Democratic institutions today look much as they have done for decades, if not centuries

The Houses of Parliament, the US Congress, and some of the West’s oldest parliaments have been largely untouched by successive waves of new technology. We still live in a world where debates require speakers to be physically present, there is little use of digital information and data sharing during parliamentary sessions, and where UK MPs vote by walking through corridors.

The UK Parliament building in particular is conspicuous for the absence of screens, good internet connectivity and the other IT infrastructure which would enable a 21st century working environment comparable to the offices of almost any modern business.

Almost every other sphere of life - finance, tourism, shopping, work and our social relationships - has been dramatically transformed by the rise of new information and communication tools, particularly social media, or by the opportunities opened through increased access to and use of data, or novel approaches to solving problems, such as via crowdsourcing or the rise of the sharing economy.  

Digital plays a big role in campaigning; but much less in the everyday business of democracy

The lack of change wouldn’t matter if democracy was clearly working well. But many argue that this gap between the way in which citizens go about their daily lives and the way in which politics and democracy are carried out has contributed to declining trust and confidence in democratic institutions. Large minorities in the US and Europe no longer see democracy as a good system of government, particularly young people.

So are digital technologies the answer, the way to get greater participation, better decisions, and more trust? Yes, and no.  

Over the last two decades, there have been thousands of experiments. In some areas, such as campaigning or monitoring the actions of MPs, there is a rich field of innovation, with myriad apps, platforms and websites gaining significant numbers of users. Petitions sites, for example, can be found across much of the world in one form or another.

Other experiments have focused on areas such as participatory budgeting, opening up the problem-solving process for a range of social issues, to a focus on how digital can enhance the more traditional activities of parliamentary and democratic work, such as voting or case management.

The reality has not lived up to early hopes and expectations. Although campaigning tools have mobilised hundreds of millions of people to influence parties and parliaments, the tools closer to everyday democracy have tended to involve fairly small and unrepresentative numbers of citizens and have been used for relatively marginal issues. Part of the reason is that the controllers of democracy effectively have a monopoly – it’s up to them whether new methods can come in; a pattern very different to consumer markets.

The reformers have also made mistakes. 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. They have failed to learn the lesson of the 1990s that democracy is a cluster of things, including media, civil society, and habits of compromise, as well as formal mechanisms of voting.

And many were insufficiently attuned to the very different ways in which different types of argument and debate take place, some framed by interests, others by very technical knowledge, others still very much framed by moral positions, (see my earlier blog on this).

Some of the experiments have also run into the same problem as social media - a tendency to polarise opinions rather than bridge divides, as people gravitate towards others who share their political affiliations, as false information circulates, and dialogue hardens against opposing positions rather than helping people to understand different views.

The current debate on filter bubbles has brought these issues to much greater prominence.

'Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Engagement' shares lessons from Nesta’s research into some of the pioneering innovations in digital democracy which are taking place across Europe and beyond.

Our aim was to address two main questions: How and to what extent are digital tools being used by parliaments, municipal governments and political parties to engage citizens to improve the quality and legitimacy of their decision-making? And, what can be learned from recent digital democracy initiatives about how to get the most from digital tools and create an effective platform for participation?

Our case studies look at initiatives that aim to engage citizens in deliberations, proposals and decision-making. We’ve learned that most of the best examples combine online and offline; that they break democracy down into stages, so that understanding and diagnosis precede prescription; that they encourage people to engage with others who disagree with them rather than just expressing views; and that they tap into expertise as well as opinion.

These don’t yet add up to a comprehensive blueprint for the future. But they do point very clearly to what should be part of the strategy of every democratic institution, from parliaments and councils to parties – conscious experiment and evolution of a digital strand in everything they do.

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