What Is the State of Debate on Digital Democracy?

Technology Policy Digital Government

What Is the State of Debate on Digital Democracy?

Paper
Posted on: 10th June 2021
Rosie Beacon
Policy Analyst

    Executive Summary

    Executive Summary

    This review examines the different schools of thought on digital democracy. First, we will highlight the need for democratic innovation and summarise its evolution using technology over the past 30 years. Next, we will examine the four different ways of thinking about digital democracy. These groups can be identified as follows:

    • Traditionalists, who tend to oppose either citizen engagement in public policy or technology’s role in democracy.
    • Democratic Innovators, who believe in improving democracy through more citizen discussion on public policies and active participation in decision-making processes, but place less of an emphasis on technology.
    • Tech Optimists, who believe there is something substantively different about using technology in democratic engagement as it can boost both participation and transparency.
    • Tech Radicalists, who believe technology could radically transform democracy either through the use of advanced technological tools or via an entirely new operating system.

    We conclude with some references to instructive evidence and tools for policymakers interested in implementing some of these innovations.

    Introduction

    Introduction

    “Epitaphs for democracy are the fashion of the day,” wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter in the United States in 1930.1 Jill Lepore, “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died”, The New Yorker, 27 January 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/03/the-last-time-democracy-almost-died It is fair to say that declarations of a “crisis of democracy” are not new. But given the rapid technological changes that have taken place in the last 30 years, many are again questioning with renewed concern the effectiveness or even legitimacy of our democratic systems.2 David Runciman, How Democracy Ends (London: Profile Books, 2018); Yascha Mounk, People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (United Kingdom: Harvard University Press, 2018); Daniel Ziblatt, Steven Levitsky, How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future (United Kingdom: Penguin Books Limited, 2018)

    It’s commonly understood that the Industrial Revolution fostered modern democracy.3 “The Industrial Revolution, Politics and Public Policy”, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 2019, https://institute.global/policy/industrial-revolution-politics-and-public-policy Today, following an intense period of technological innovation – from which democracy has not been immune – we could find ourselves at another crucial juncture. Despite the advances in society and the economy in recent years, there remains an increasingly large disconnect between the predominantly digital lives we lead and the analogue institutions that govern us.

    Democracy exists to provide a fair and representative government. In the modern world, the role of government is extensive – it facilitates safety, the protection of human rights, management of the economy, and the distribution of resources and public services, like education and health care. If there is a crisis of confidence in the system of government itself, this is deeply problematic. And so, just like any other social system, democratic governments require innovation to deliver effectively for their citizens.

    The various methods for innovating democracy have been subject to much attention from scholars and public-policy professionals worldwide since the 1990s. Scholars have also identified a further opportunity for promoting democratic engagement: the internet. The academics in this growing field came to agree that democracy could be more than just a process for the aggregation of preferences. As they see it, democratic engagement should go beyond the current transactional process – where individuals “purchase” votes every four or five years from candidates who “sell” them a given set of policies or values4 Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1942) – and move instead towards an approach that actively involves citizens in the decision-making process.

    If the “purchase” model of voting mirrors the 20th-century operating environment, what is the equivalent for the digital age? The first step in embedding these innovating methods into the policymaking process is to understand the thinking that has developed over the past 30 years in tandem with the evolution of the internet. Here we will evaluate how various academics and public-policy professionals within the democratic-innovation ecosystem perceive technology and its role in democracy.

    This literature review does not aim to persuade policymakers to incite a revolution and completely reimagine representative democracy as we know it. Nor is it intended to persuade policymakers that digital democracy is a silver bullet for overcoming the tribulations of populism and political polarisation. But if tools and methods exist to strengthen democracy, and therefore the operation of government, then democrats should be using them.

    Why Is Democratic Innovation Necessary?

    Why Is Democratic Innovation Necessary?

    The need for democratic innovation is justified in many ways by a variety of thinkers, but the overarching argument can be distilled into three key themes.

    Democratic Backsliding

    The leading statistical analyses on the health of global democracy paint a grim picture. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s most recent report found that out of 167 countries surveyed, 116 – almost 70 per cent – recorded a decline in their total Democracy Index score compared with 2019.5 “Democracy Index 2020: In Sickness and In Health?”, Economist Intelligence Unit, 2020, https://pages.eiu.com/rs/753-RIQ-438/images/democracy-index-2020.pdf?mkt_tok=NzUzLVJJUS00MzgAAAF7saDY61zQG_xSrkVhtmAfiIuc_LeMXfDHO8O8o6oBuXXM4mSoIv0pZ7MBZL9v7JSP5otA3O60zRfDWLO3OP8eMB7UMv8iNNLAGaLIWABl6d0o9A  In 2020, as governments worldwide were consumed by Covid-19 pandemic response, the index saw the lowest average global score since it was first produced in 2006. Similarly, the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy found in their 2020 report that democracy is in a state of malaise across the globe.6 “The Global Satisfaction with Democracy Report 2020”, Bennett Institute for Public Policy, 2020, https://www.bennettinstitute.cam.ac.uk/media/uploads/files/DemocracyReport2020_nYqqWi0.pdf The centre’s data show the highest level of global dissatisfaction with democracy since the start of the series in 1995. While in the 1990s around two-thirds of the citizens of Europe, North America, Northeast Asia and Australasia felt satisfied with democracy in their countries, today a majority feels dissatisfied.

    In the UK specifically, public-opinion data has revealed growing doubt about the effectiveness of democracy and government. According to the Hansard Society’s annual Audit of Political Engagement, 72 per cent say the system of governing needs “quite a lot” or a “great deal” of improvement, 66 per cent think most of the big issues facing the country today don’t have clear solutions and 47 per cent feel like they have no influence at all over national decision-making.7 “Audit of Political Engagement 16, The 2019 Report”, Hansard Society, 2019, https://assets.ctfassets.net/rdwvqctnt75b/7iQEHtrkIbLcrUkduGmo9b/cb429a657e97cad61e61853c05c8c4d1/Hansard-Society__Audit-of-Political-Engagement-16__2019-report.pdf At the time of the audit, opinions of the system of governance were at their lowest point in the 15-year audit series: worse than in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009.

    Figure 1 – Which of the following best describes your opinion of the system of government and the people in decision-making positions in Britain?

    Democracy Pie Chart

    Source: Hansard Society8“Audit of Political Engagement 16, The 2019 Report”, Hansard Society, 2019, https://assets.ctfassets.net/rdwvqctnt75b/7iQEHtrkIbLcrUkduGmo9b/cb429a657e97cad61e61853c05c8c4d1/Hansard-Society__Audit-of-Political-Engagement-16__2019-report.pdf

    Social Media

    The information age has transformed political participation by democratising access to information. Social media’s impact on political debate is enormous and has been the subject of extensive research,9Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (San Francisco: Stripe Press, 2018); Matthew Browne and Jennifer Roberton, “Social Media and the Disruption of Democracy,” Esomar, 8 September 2019, https://ana.https://ana.esomar.org/documents/social-media-and-the-disruption-of-democracy.org/documents/social-media-and-the-disruption-of-democracy but there are a few key points to highlight.

    One of the most notable core functionalities of social media is that communication is not obstructed by geography or borders. Users are also able to express their opinions to a wide public audience with limited censorship or institutional gatekeeping, barring those living in nations that have more limited internet freedoms.10 “Freedom on the Net”, Freedom House, 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2020/pandemics-digital-shadow Social media users worldwide are able to produce and share information that is not subject to official review, which can be seen as both a benefit and disadvantage. Social media also offers a new mode of direct political communication among citizens, communities and policymakers, and allows users to stay up-to-date in real-time with political developments.11 Barry Hague, Brian Loader, Digital Democracy: Discourse and Decision Making in the Information Age (London: Routledge, 2005), p.6

    It is disputable whether social media has been a net positive or net negative for democratic debate. On the one hand, some argue the culture of social media as it is currently designed – a 60/60/24/7 news cycle – combined with shorter attention spans than in the pre-information age undermines constructive democratic debate. Additionally, fewer people are accountable for the distribution of information due to a lack of traceability and a surfeit of broadcasting ability. This has meant that the quality of information has decreased, while the quantity of information consistently increases. The way the platforms are designed also means that the powerful algorithms distributing information do so in a way that can produce different senses of reality among people in the same community.12 “Renewing Democracy in the Digital Age”, The Berggruen Institute, 2019, https://www.berggruen.org/docs/BER_2020_RenewingDemocracy.pdf

    On the other hand, it has liberated political communication from the hands of a select editorial elite and empowered transformational social movements such as Black Lives Matter.13 Nathan Gardels, “Mending the Rupture Between Institutions of Self-Government and the Public”, The Berggruen Institute, 2020, https://www.berggruen.org/docs/BER_2020_RenewingDemocracy.pdf Indeed, some believe it is the participatory impulse seen in social movements like the Global Climate Strike and Women’s March that most demonstrates the need for better democratic engagement and innovation. Technology has enabled a new intensity of activism and there should be tools available to channel this intensity more directly into public policy.14 “Renewing Democracy in the Digital Age”, The Berggruen Institute, 2019, https://www.berggruen.org/docs/BER_2020_RenewingDemocracy.pdf Others say this increasing engagement presents a paradox for governance in the digital age: the more participation there is, the greater the need for the counterbalance provided by impartial practices and institutions that can process the cacophony of voices.15 Nathan Gardels, “Mending the Rupture Between Institutions of Self-Government and the Public”, in “Renewing Democracy in the Digital Age”, The Berggruen Institute, 2019, https://www.berggruen.org/docs/BER_2020_RenewingDemocracy.pdf

    Whatever opinion one subscribes to on the impact of social media, there is little dispute that it has fostered a paradigm shift in political debate and engagement. Governments should both adapt to this new operating environment and see it as an opportunity to build on growing engagement and participation.

    Public-Policy Complexity

    Existing institutions are ill-equipped for the public-policy complexities of the digital age. In an increasingly networked, decentralised world, many public-policy challenges feel intractable. Climate change, the technological revolution, ageing populations and global pandemics will demand a radically different approach to public policy. Centralised, linear “command and control” methods are no longer suitable in this context. We wrote more about transforming governments for the 21st-century operating environment in our 2019 report.16 “Transforming Government for the 21st Century”, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 2019, https://institute.global/policy/transforming-government-21st-century

    More specific to public engagement, the closed nature of policymaking processes has been shown to preclude the effective sourcing of expertise. Evidence suggests that a common issue in public decision-making is the lack of clear, cost-effective and reliable ways of finding those with the right skills, insights and innovative solutions. One study in the UK found that even with software tools at their disposal, only 27 per cent of public-sector employees said they were able to locate people with the required expertise.17 Marissa Peacock, “The Search for Expert Knowledge Continues”, 12 May 2009, CMS Wire, https://www.cmswire.com/cms/enterprise-cms/the-search-for-expert-knowledge-continues-004594.php Another study, by the Institute for Government in the UK, highlighted that the problem is not just an inability to source relevant expertise, but also a lack of policy testing, consultation and quality control.18 “Policymaking in the Real World”, Institute for Government, 2011, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Policy%20making%20in%20the%20real%20world.pdf Others cite the credentialism of government: that bringing the best and brightest into government is important, but also part of a progressive illusion that technocrats can fix any problem.19 Beth Simone Noveck, Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing (United Kingdom: Harvard University Press, 2015), p.34

    In summary, innovation in both democratic processes and the operation of government is necessary to reverse concerning trends, adapt to a new media and information environment, and confront modern policy issues in the most effective way possible.

    What Are Democratic Innovation and Digital Democracy?

    What Are Democratic Innovation and Digital Democracy?

    Two definitions are integral to our review:

    Democratic Innovation

    The successful implementation of a new idea that is intended to improve the structures or processes of democratic government and politics, such as deliberative or participatory democracy. (This is based on a definition by Kenneth Newton).20 Magnuss Adenskog, “Democratic Innovations in Deliberative Systems – The Case of the Estonian Citizens’ Assembly Process”, Journal of Public Deliberation, 11, no.1 (2015)

    Digital Democracy

    The use of digital tools to implement in practice various forms of democracy. This ranges from access to government information via the internet to the use of technology to enable a more participatory role in decision-making for citizens.

    The nomenclature of digital democracy can vary – it can be known as “civic tech”, “open government” or “e-democracy”. But, ultimately, what all of the initiatives have in common is that they open up a new channel of communication between citizens and government using technology.

    The Spectrum of Democratic Innovation

    Democratic innovation has a number of different manifestations. The below spectrum – with the most direct form of democracy on the left and the least direct on the right – highlights the most commonly cited forms of democratic innovation. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts. They can frequently coexist within one tool or initiative run by a government.

    Some scholars question whether there is something qualitatively different about digital democracy that gives it a new conceptual status, and whether it refers to a range of applications and experiments or a new democratic system. Some scholars would read it as the latter and have proposed, as thought experiments, an entirely new system of digital democracy. However, in practice, digital democracy generally refers more to the former and underpins all of these different types of democracy. It is a particularly effective way of enabling and practicing democratic innovation.

    However, there is a relevant distinction to draw between “minimalist” and “maximalist” definitions of digital democracy.21 “Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Enagagement”, Nesta, 2017. https://media.nesta.org.uk/documents/digital_democracy.pdf Minimalist definitions focus on giving citizens better access to governmental information and enabling them to interact with government through online public services or consultations. Maximalism, on the other hand, goes to greater lengths to imagine a more participatory role for citizens, which allows them to collaborate with government and have a say in what decisions are made and how. This literature review will investigate both of these areas.

    Figure 2 – Forms of democratic innovation

    Diagram showing forms of democratic innovation

    The Evolution of Democratic Innovation and Digital Democracy

    The Evolution of Democratic Innovation and Digital Democracy

    The current scholarly debate on democratic innovation in general can be traced back to the 1990s and the “deliberative turn” in political and democratic thought.22 James Fishkin, Democracy and Deliberation: New Directions for Democratic Reform (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991) The basic premise behind deliberative democracy is that political decisions should be the product of fair and reasonable discussion and debate among citizens. Although definitions differ, deliberation is generally seen as a public discussion of sociopolitical topics that should include (or represent) everyone affected by an issue.23 Young Min Baek, Michael Delli Carpini, Magdalena Wojcieszak, “Online versus face-to-face deliberation: Who? Why? With what effects?” New Media & Society 14, no.2 (2012)

    The internet’s ability to impact democracy is often viewed through a lens cultivated by these “deliberative democrats”, and the principles of deliberative democracy are somewhat foundational to digital democracy too. However, the most appropriate venue for citizen participation and deliberation, whether online or offline, remains under debate.24 Magnuss Adenskog, “Democratic Innovations in Deliberative Systems – The Case of the Estonian Citizens’ Assembly Process”, Journal of Public Deliberation 11, no.1 (2015) Irrespective, parallel to the dawn of the “deliberative turn”, technologists and political scientists alike began to highlight the novel capabilities of technology in democracy.

    Examples of deliberative democracy include citizens’ juries, deliberative polls and citizens’ assemblies. Importantly, deliberative democracy is not intended to be counterposed against other democratic practices, but instead considered as part of the ecosystem of a healthy democracy. As these democratic innovations have become more normalised, participatory democracy has also grown in popularity.25 “Case study: Porto Alegre, Brazil”, Local Government Association, 2016. https://www.local.gov.uk/case-studies/case-study-porto-alegre-brazil Participatory democracy differs from deliberative democracy in that the former involves making direct decisions in a budgeting process, for example, without the level of public discussion of the potential trade-offs that might be expected in a deliberative environment.

    For many thinkers in the 1990s, the expectations for renewing democracy using the internet were far-reaching and ambitious. Much of this optimism from academics was shared by public-policy professionals too. The signs of more open digital democracies can be seen as early as 1993 under the Clinton administration in the United States. Jonathan Gill, the director of the White House Computer-Mediated Communication (WHCMC) System, highlighted that the administration wanted to work with a new communication model that would foster greater two-way and lateral communication. Like many digital-democracy thinkers at the time, he argued against the previous top-down, one-way models of communication, stating that they worked against community and interactivity.26 Kenneth Hacker, “The White House Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) System and Political Interactivity”, in Jan Van Dijk, Kenneth Hacker, Digital Democracy: Issues of Theory and Practice (London: Sage, 2000)

    This led to one of the first ventures into digital democracy. With the assistance of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, the White House Office of Communications constructed software that routed incoming emails sent by the public to the most appropriate federal agencies. The White House had received over 60,000 messages by September 1993, and 2.8 million by 1998 – opening up an entirely new form of citizen-government communication on a scale not seen before technology. Notably, prior to this, emails were printed out on paper and distributed by postal personnel.27 Kenneth Hacker, “The White House Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) System and Political Interactivity”, in Jan Van Dijk, Kenneth Hacker, Digital Democracy: Issues of Theory and Practice (London: Sage, 2000)

    Some made grandiose assertions about ushering in a new age of citizen participation (admittedly, sentiment not necessarily exclusive to the 1990s) that would be more akin to a digital direct democracy.28 Jan Van Dijk, Kenneth Hacker, Digital Democracy: Issues of Theory and Practice (London: Sage, 2000), p.4 Some were more sceptical. Nevertheless, most scholars did agree that political interaction was changing in relation to these newly emerging forms of communication; whether they thought this would revitalise or endanger democracy was subjective.

    What Is the Current State of Debate?

    What Is the Current State of Debate?

    After 25 years of digital democracy being exercised at all levels of policymaking, from municipalities to transnational bodies, the reality has been sobering for many notable digital-democracy academics. They suggest that the primary achievement of the internet in altering democracy has been a significant improvement in access to – and the exchange of – politically relevant information, rather than a revolution in democratic engagement and participation.29 “Prospects for e-Democracy in Europe”, European Parliamentary Research Service, 2018 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/603213/EPRS_STU(2018)603213(ANN2)_EN.pdf With this said, many academics concede that the internet has changed communication between citizen and governments in many beneficial ways; it just may not have met the initial high expectations.

    Nevertheless, digital democracy has developed extensively in both theory and practice since the 1990s, with the advancement of technology and social media. The current state of debate is therefore based on a diverse mix of empirical research, normative theory, public-policy experiments and speculation as to the opportunities of the internet. Contributors to this field are a combination of academics, public-policy professionals, think-tanks and individuals who previously held public office. All have important knowledge to share.

    The below matrix is a simplified illustration of the different schools of thought that currently exist in the field of digital democracy and democratic innovation. These groups are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as certain proposals could be in different quadrants, but ultimately literature on the subject tends to fall into at least one of these four groups.

    Figure 3 – Different schools of thought in democratic innovation

    Fig3

    The Fundamentals of Digital Democracy

    The Fundamentals of Digital Democracy

    The four groups identified above are distinguished by their views of the trade-offs of using technology in democracy, not the fundamental advantages and disadvantages of digital democracy. These are practical considerations that generally remain the same whichever camp one subscribes to. They are outlined below.

    Gains

    Challenges

    ·       Participation at scale

    ·       Significant financial investment

    ·       Innovative forms of participation

    ·       Significant institutional investment

    ·       Sophisticated analysis of public opinion

    ·       “Light-touch” involvement not always appropriate for the complexity of public policy

    ·       Radical transparency

    ·       Requires internet access and being digitally literate; potentially exclusionary

    ·       Feedback loops between citizens and government

    ·       Without structured participation, could be an unrepresentative sample of public opinion

    The Traditionalists

    This group is more pessimistic about using technology in democratic innovation; many traditionalists think these innovations fail to consider the practical and institutional limitations of policymaking. Others are generally more pessimistic about citizen engagement in public policy.

    Opposition to Citizen Engagement

    Opposition to digital democracy often derives from some of the criticisms that are levelled at democratic innovation in general. These range from claims of citizen incompetence and disinterest to assertions that most attempts at innovation are ultimately ineffective. Many traditionalists believe that people lack the time, education and motivation to participate in ways that are helpful, and direct participation could just end up adding noise to the signal. Others say citizen participation is meaningless or tokenistic because, ultimately, those in power will always decide, often motivated by the drivers of politics – interests and institutions.

    Related to this, others say that reform efforts are misplaced. If democracy is to be improved, this should first be attempted by tackling problems of corruption, partisan politics and excess power rather than merely promoting citizen engagement. Others dismiss the idea of increasing citizen engagement on the basis of pure naivety. They believe there are no models for engaging people in making policy in large numbers – the public will only ever be able to ratify decisions after the fact.30Beth Simone Noveck, Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing (United Kingdom: Harvard University Press, 2015)

    Resistance to Using Technology in Democratic Innovation

    Some of the scepticism, however, is more specific to the internet. The digital divide was cited as a concern when digital-democracy theory and research were still relatively nascent in the early 2000s, and it remains one today. Even in relatively developed regions such as the Americas and Europe, 14 per cent and 9 per cent of these populations respectively are still not covered by 4G access. In sub-Saharan Africa, 50 per cent of the population are not covered.31 “The Progressive Case for Universal Internet Access: How to Close the Digital Divide by 2030”, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 2021, https://institute.global/policy/progressive-case-universal-internet-access-how-close-digital-divide-2030 This issue is exacerbated by demographic disparities in internet access, which could undermine the representativeness of digital-democracy initiatives. Some traditionalists already think that digital democracy could disproportionately represent male, young, white, affluent and educated citizens, who are more likely to be politically interested and also to have the skills required to fully take advantage of the possibilities offered by the internet.32 Young Min Baek, Michael Delli Carpini, Magdalena Wojcieszak, “Online versus face-to-face deliberation: Who? Why? With what effects?” New Media & Society 14, no.2 (2012) A similar group thinks that digital democracy would just mirror traditional patterns of offline democracy, engaging those who would have participated anyway.33 Michael Margolis, David Resnick, Politics as Usual: The Cyberspace ‘Revolution’ – Contemporary American Politics (London: Sage, 2000)

    Many traditionalist criticisms are based on the outcomes of certain experiments in digital democracy and their design deficiencies. Some argue that projects of this nature attract limited public interest due to weak incentives for participation.34 Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything: Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: Public Affairs, 2013) Others say that they have had little measurable impact on policy, or at least impact that is observable to their users. John Gastil’s “Democracy Machine” idea was actually based on the premise that few online participation systems have featured long-term feedback loops – where some portion of the system’s output is then used as input for future operations, creating a two-way interaction – and that many civic spaces have remained disconnected from each other.35 John Gastil, Robert Richards, “Embracing digital democracy: A call for building an online civic commons”, Political Science and Politics 50, no.2 (2017)

    Democratic Innovators

    This area of literature is relatively neutral on technology – it largely consists of the thinkers mentioned previously who contributed to the “deliberative turn”. Technology could help, but it also might not. The priority is not to capitalise on the novel capabilities of technology in democracy, but to encourage more healthy discussion in democracy.

    Scaling Is Necessary, but Technology May Not Be the Answer

    A number of deliberative democracy innovations, such as the Citizens’ Assembly in the UK, have moved online, largely as a result of the pandemic. However, the most suitable setting for citizen participation has been a matter of ongoing debate. Deliberative-democracy guru James Fishkin has argued that we need safe havens for deliberation among smaller groups of citizens where they can meet and discuss political issues face to face. Further to this, some think that face-to-face settings might generate empathy and increase the ability to read and take perspectives compared to online settings because mediators are physically present to guide the discussion.36 David Sally, “Conversation and cooperation in social dilemma: A meta-analysis of experiments from 1958 to 1992”, Rationality and Society 7, no.1 (1995)

    Others contend that deliberative processes should scale up to involve more citizens, and connect deliberative participation to decision-making and policymaking processes.37 Magnuss Adenskog, “Democratic Innovations in Deliberative Systems – The Case of the Estonian Citizens’ Assembly Process”, Journal of Public Deliberation, 11, no.1 (2015) However, many prolific deliberative-democracy scholars do not highlight technology as integral to their plans to scale these initiatives. Instead, they focus on the idea of a “deliberative system”.38 John Dryzek, André Bächtiger, Simone Chambers, Joshua Cohen, James N. Druckman, Andrea Felicetti, James Fishkin, David M. Farrell, Archon Fung, Amy Gutmann, Hélène Landemore, Jane Mansbridge, Sofie Marien, Michael A. Neblo, Simon Niemeyer, Maija Setälä, Rune Slothuus, Jane Suiter, Dennis Thompson, Mark Warren, “The crisis of democracy and the science of deliberation”, Science Magazine 363, no.6432 (2019) https://polisci.osu.edu/sites/polisci.osu.edu/files/Science2019.pdf A deliberative system involves multiple settings for deliberation – political executives, legislatures, citizen forums, old and new media, and informal citizen gatherings – that are already found in many political systems. Indeed, in a recently published paper, some of the biggest thinkers in deliberative democracy appear to be relatively pessimistic about the impacts of technology on democracy, predominantly as a result of the rise of social media.39 John Dryzek, André Bächtiger, Simone Chambers, Joshua Cohen, James N. Druckman, Andrea Felicetti, James Fishkin, David M. Farrell, Archon Fung, Amy Gutmann, Hélène Landemore, Jane Mansbridge, Sofie Marien, Michael A. Neblo, Simon Niemeyer, Maija Setälä, Rune Slothuus, Jane Suiter, Dennis Thompson, Mark Warren, “The crisis of democracy and the science of deliberation”, Science Magazine 363, no.6432 (2019) https://polisci.osu.edu/sites/polisci.osu.edu/files/Science2019.pdf

    Technology for Broadcasting, Not Participation

    With this said, technology has been a successful way of delivering deliberative innovations, particularly during the pandemic.40 Sarah Allan, “How we moved climate assembly UK online”, Involve, 5 May 2020,  https://www.involve.org.uk/resources/blog/project-update/how-we-moved-climate-assembly-uk-online ; “On Second Thought, How a Deliberative Public Talks about America’s Role in the World”, The Kettering Foundation, 2021 https://www.kettering.org/sites/default/files/product-downloads/on_second_thought.pdf Many concede that even if certain forms of deliberative democracy are undertaken in person, social media can be a useful way of broadcasting the resulting content to millions of people. A deliberative experiment in September 2019 called “America in One Room”, which brought together a scientific sample of 523 registered voters from around the US to discuss polarising political issues over one weekend, was covered extensively by The New York Times, and was broadcast by Snapchat and YouTube, allowing many more than just those present to engage with the event.41 Larry Diamond, James Fishkin, “This experiment has some great news for our democracy”, New York Times, 2 October 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/02/opinion/america-one-room-experiment.html

    Tech Optimists

    Tech optimists believe the core benefits of democratic innovation – increased participation and transparency – can be substantively different when technology is involved. Many tech optimists have engaged in and developed civic-engagement practices with governments themselves and view digital democracy as a suite of tools that are conducive to more open, citizen-oriented government, as opposed to an entirely new system.

    Greater and More Effective Participation

    Tech optimists believe technology can encourage both an increase in democratic participation and an uptick in the effectiveness of said participation. There is consensus among digital-democracy advocates that technology breaks down the barriers of space and geography. Others cite how technology also enables new types of participation in democracy. Beth Simone Noveck points out that with the widespread accessibility of technology, expertise is no longer exclusively the domain of elites already in government – technology makes it possible to more precisely pinpoint those with relevant skills or expertise for different projects, thereby increasing overall productivity.42 Beth Simone Noveck, Smart Citizens, Smarter State: The Technologies of Expertise and the Future of Governing (United Kingdom: Harvard University Press, 2015)

    A significant advantage of online-participation practices is that they allow a combination of tools and methods to coexist.43 “Prospects for e-Democracy in Europe”, European Parliamentary Research Service, 2018 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/603213/EPRS_STU(2018)603213(ANN2)_EN.pdf This can be seen at both the “macro” level – the broader systemic views of democracy – or at the “micro” level – that is, the design of individual tools. Experience also suggests that forms of participation online vary considerably in comparison to offline forms of participation, which often revolve around some form of discussion in a controlled environment.44 “Prospects for e-Democracy in Europe”, European Parliamentary Research Service, 2018 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/603213/EPRS_STU(2018)603213(ANN2)_EN.pdf

    Online participation can range from collaborative legislation to signing an e-petition, and the time and depth of engagement required can be tailored to the situation. Many companies provide bespoke tools and services that can be used to further participation. Community engagement platform EngagementHQ, for example, includes capabilities for consultation, surveys, eMapping, discussion forums and reporting,45 https://www.bangthetable.com/engagementhq-community-software/ whereas Civocracy, a self-described civic-tech platform, has the functionality for participatory budgeting, consultation, ideas generation, collaborative legislation, voting and surveys.46 https://www.civocracy.com/

    Transparency

    Another frequently quoted potential benefit of technology in democracy – already partially realised through social media – is transparency. Transparency is thought to be merely the process of making more information publicly available, but technology enables transparency to be functionally different. It allows immediate transparency at scale – whoever wants to read something, wherever they are, can do so. This was seen in the Icelandic constitution experiment, where the council appointed to redraft the country’s constitution regularly posted online for the world to see, and anyone interested in the process could respond with comments and send feedback. This was in sharp contrast to traditional constitution-writing processes, which have historically been closed off almost to the point of secrecy.47 Helene Landemore, “Inclusive Constitution-Making: The Icelandic Experiment”, Journal of Political Philosophy 23, no.2 (2015)

    Improved transparency also creates more natural feedback loops that are much more difficult to create in offline environments. Some experiments in Europe, such as Your Voice in Europe (a public consultation portal on EU policy), have demonstrated how the transparency and clarity of the end-to-end process in digital democracy can create a feedback loop.48 “Prospects for e-Democracy in Europe”, European Parliamentary Research Service, 2018 https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/603213/EPRS_STU(2018)603213(ANN2)_EN.pdf Some initiatives have actively sought to go further, for example by publishing an audit trail for every document or material relating to a decision, as is the case with Taiwan’s digital-democracy platform vTaiwan.49 “Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Enagagement”, Nesta, 2017. https://media.nesta.org.uk/documents/digital_democracy.pdf Others have highlighted how online transparency can also make information provided online seem more credible than offline equivalents in many instances. All information can be transparently stored on an online platform and scrutinised at any time. There have been case studies in Kenya and Slovakia where publicly credible and politically neutral civil-society organisations have used ICT tools to aggregate large amounts of information on publicly salient issues, and present it in an accessible way online, making it easier to disseminate to other civil-society actors.50 Archon Fung, Hollie Russon Gilman, “Six Models for the Internet and Politics”, International Studies Review 15 (2013)

    Inhuman Capabilities

    Tech optimists and radicalists alike both point to the inhuman capability of technology to store, process and analyse information. A commonly cited difficulty in consultation processes (whether they were conducted online or offline) is ascertaining whether there is sufficient institutional capacity to analyse and filter responses in order to extract meaningful contributions.51 Neil Williams, “A Vision for Online Consultation and Policy Engagement”, UK Government Digital Service, 2011 https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2011/05/24/a-vision-for-online-consultation-and-policy-engagement/ There are some tools – like Polis – that use sophisticated computational technology such as artificial intelligence to interpret contributions and provide consensus statements.52 “Building Consensus and Compromise on Uber in Taiwan”, Centre for Public Impact, 18 September 2019 https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/case-study/building-consensus-compromise-uber-taiwan/#evidence 

    Polis was used in Taiwan to crowdsource ideas and gather public opinion regarding the difficult issue of Uber regulation. vTaiwan advertised through Facebook adverts and social networks to target participants. One of the most prominent features of the Polis platform is its visual and structural expression of the patterns evident in user-generated opinions. Participants vote on other users’ suggestions and contribute their own ideas, providing visual feedback in the form of a map that highlights areas of consensus.53 “Building Consensus and Compromise on Uber in Taiwan”, Centre for Public Impact, 18 September 2019 https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/case-study/building-consensus-compromise-uber-taiwan/#evidence  Not only did technology help to produce a more useful, less time-consuming analysis of what affected citizens actually thought, it also provided a way of targeting those citizens.

    The Tech Radicalists

    Many of the thinkers in this group are inspired by the “open-source” culture of the internet – the concept that anyone is free to modify, exchange and share information online, which is named after a publicly accessible form of coding software. They propose innovating democracy using advanced technological tools like artificial intelligence and sophisticated data analysis, or they suggest the creation of an entirely new operating system, akin to a direct democracy, using these tools.

    New Democratic Systems

    A growing body of thought in the field of democratic innovation is the idea of “democracy as a system”. Instead of focusing on single aspects of democratic life, like elections or parliaments, politics is seen as taking place across a comprehensive system, incorporating a range of differentiated but interrelated spaces and actors, including deliberation, protests, negotiation and voting. This in itself is not controversial; indeed, many democracy scholars subscribe to this view.54 Magnuss Adenskog, “Democratic Innovations in Deliberative Systems – The Case of the Estonian Citizens’ Assembly Process”, Journal of Public Deliberation 11, no.1 (2015) But Nathan Gardels applies this way of thinking to a new hybrid democracy. He promotes an entire ecosystem of online and offline democratic innovations, including innovative practices such as online participation in lawmaking, interactive civic software, citizens’ assemblies, policy juries and deliberative polling.55 Nathan Gardels, “Mending the Rupture Between Institutions of Self-Government and the Public”, The Berggruen Institute, 2020, https://www.berggruen.org/docs/BER_2020_RenewingDemocracy.pdf

    Another – slightly more radical – thinker is Paul Evans.56Paul Evans, Save Democracy Abolish Voting, (Belgium: Democratic Society Editions, 2017) He entertains the possibility of a democracy that uses behavioural insights to involve people more effectively in their own governance, powered by highly participative data-gathering systems. He thinks technology could lend this digital democracy the ability to leverage large amounts of data about what the public think and know, through a sophisticated knowledge- and sentiment-capture process. This would be published as anonymised data, for citizens and by citizens. Theoretically, everyone would know what the public wanted, thus overcoming informational barriers. The result would be a non-hierarchical, Wikipedia-type project – an agreed public space in which everyone can see the provenance of information and relate directly to it. This would be complemented by a highly participative decision-structuring process, enabling the development of consensus.

    New Tools

    Jamie Susskind highlights the concurrence of three important developments: increasingly capable systems, increasingly integrated technology and increasingly quantified societies. 57 “Renewing Democracy in the Digital Age”, The Berggruen Institute, 2019, https://www.berggruen.org/docs/BER_2020_RenewingDemocracy.pdf  He posits that the two critical functions of the democratic process – deliberating and deciding – could be transformed by technology. With regards to deliberation, Susskind suggests that it is entirely foreseeable that humans may cease to be the only participants in deliberative processes – inviting the idea that AI systems and chatbots would be increasingly able to converse with human beings on the topics and policies being considered. This wouldn’t be without its risks, but these tools could be well-informed and balanced, nudging citizens towards more constructive dialogue. In terms of deciding, he thinks that with the right use of smartphones, citizens could vote on several policies each day, in an “unending process of plebiscitary engagement”.

    A concept that seems to capture the attention of some radical digital-democracy theorists is gamification. John Gastil and Robert Richards outlined their idea for a “Democracy Machine” as a form of “civic commons”.58 John Gastil, Robert Richards, “Embracing digital democracy: A call for building an online civic commons”, Political Science and Politics 50, no.2 (2017) Gastil and Richards suggest that citizens could accumulate “credit” for participating in deliberation, or for successfully finding common ground with other participants. The current Governor of California Gavin Newsom also toyed with this idea in his 2014 book with Lisa Dickey, Citizenville.59 Lisa Dickey, Gavin Newsom, called Citizenville (New York: Penguin Group, 2013) However, Newsom instead chose to emphasise how technology and gamification could create bottom-up social engagement and put the solutions in the hands of citizens.

    Interestingly, while gamification might seem a curious or unlikely innovation in democracy, some civic initiatives have already introduced elements of gamification. The Peer-to-Patent system in the US enabled participatory vetting of patent applications, and allows participants to rate one another’s contributions, giving them “reputation points” and awards.60 https://www.peertopatent.org/

    Closing Remarks

    Closing Remarks

    It would be misleading to say no progress has been made in terms of democratic innovation since the “deliberative turn” in democratic theory in the 20th century. But it is also fair to say there remains limited movement within the field. Many academics, journalists and politicians seem to lament the current state of democracy and the limited positive impact of technology on democratic debate.61 “The Future of Democracy, A special series from The New Yorker”, The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-future-of-democracy?verso=true Yet, democratic institutions remain resistant to reform. There seems to be an implicit view among policymakers that democratic institutions are sacred, and that adjusting them is not justifiable given the potential risks of harming a process so essential to many liberal freedoms. But much of the change has already taken place, and it is now more a matter of governments adapting to a different environment, as opposed to a revolution in democracy. While acknowledging the fact that technology is part of the challenge, policymakers should start to see it as part of the solution.

    Using technology in democracy is not without risks or potential drawbacks. The success of a digital-democracy tool rests on a number of contingencies: method, purpose, type of participation, scope, number of participants, recruitment methods, facilitation, types of interaction and decision-making methods. To guide policymakers, there is an increasing evidence base for governments to learn from. Additionally, the tools and methods already exist, and in the true spirit of the internet, many of them are free and open-source for governments to experiment with when (and if) they want to.

    Please find additional resources below that can aid policymakers and civil servants looking to investigate some of these tools:

    Instructive Evidence

    Potential Tools and Methods

     

    Lead Image: Getty Images

    Charts created with Highcharts unless otherwise credited.

    Find out more
    institute.global