Digital Democracy’s Coming of Age

NIMD’s Innovation Advisor, Will Derks, reviews “Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Engagement”, a paper by Julie Simon, Theo Bass, Victoria Boelman and Geoff Mulgan on pioneering innovations in digital democracy which are taking place on a global scale.

 

‘How can we begin to determine (…) what constitutes a “successful” digital tool?’, the authors of Digital Democracy ask themselves in the concluding remarks of their timely report about the latest developments in the use of digital means to democratic ends.

The question is typical of this excellent study, which is as revealing and practice-oriented as it is critical. Even though the authors – who are active for the UK-based ‘innovation foundation’ Nesta – believe, of course, in the democratic potential of digital technology, they are far from naïve. On the contrary, throughout their report, they do not shy away from uncomfortable questions and critical remarks. This approach is based on their wish to strengthen the underpinnings of future ventures into the use of digital tools for democracy.

Plethora

As the report shows, during the last decade or so, the experimental use of digital technology to enhance democratic processes has really taken off, resulting in a plethora of initiatives that intend to further the participation of citizens in democratic decision-making using a fast-growing variety of digital tools. It also shows that the time has now come for a sound intermediate survey and evaluation of the results so far, a kind of reculer pour mieux sauter meant to improve the quality of the next steps in the ongoing experimentation.

Which is precisely what this study does. It is descriptive and prescriptive at the same time. First and foremost, it maps what has been going on globally on the digital democracy front and summarizes this conveniently in a typology consisting of ten forms of digital democracy, ranging from the relatively simple ‘Informing Citizens’ through the more intense ‘Citizens Developing Proposals’ to the fully participative ‘Citizens Making Decisions’. These ten categories are given distinguishing logos and colours that make it easier for the reader to keep an overview of the subsequent case studies that make up the lion’s share of the report. Some of these case studies of digital tools – used by parliaments, municipal councils and political parties in countries such as France, Spain, Brazil, Taiwan, Estonia, Finland, the UK and Iceland – are labeled ‘Deep Dive’ and therefore provide much more detailed information than those entitled ‘Overview’.

Source: Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Engagement, p.13.

A clear pattern

This alternation between comprehensive analysis and sketchier discussions of various forms of digital democracy is very effective. It enhances the readability and quickly and thoroughly provides the reader with a good idea of the overall situation. Moreover, as the ‘Deep Dive’ sections always include discussions of success factors and ongoing challenges, a clear pattern emerges of what works and what doesn’t, and why.

Consequently, it is almost a practitioner’s dream come true when, in the chapter following the case studies, the authors present a detailed discussion of ‘six common factors for success’. Beginning, in a typical fashion, with a warning about the detrimental effects of poor participation exercises – a lot has gone wrong in the past – they proceed to show what a good and successful digital democracy process should look like. We are admonished to think twice, to be honest, not to expect digital to be the only answer, not to waste time, not to cut corners and to choose the right tools. This perhaps sounds somewhat stern, but what results, in fact, is a chapter full of very practical hints, considerations and advice to be kept close at hand when planning and implementing any form of digital democracy.

Source: Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Engagement, p.64.

Collective importance

In its penultimate chapter, the Nesta report continues to reflect on the extent to which new tools and technologies can improve the quality and legitimacy of decision-making in our democratic institutions. The evidence appears to be ‘pretty mixed’, ambiguous or simply lacking where there are no data. Yes, transparency increases and, yes, we may take better decisions with ‘more eyes on a document or process’. Yet, overall, the report honestly and perhaps somewhat painfully, concludes that digital democracy does not necessarily improve ‘the legitimacy of whole democratic processes per se’. Even the costs of these processes are not reduced because of the digital technology, as is often thought, but always increase considerably.

One could conclude, therefore, that we would be better to abandon digital democracy altogether. However, that would totally underestimate the collective importance of all the experiments that are presently taking place. The Nesta report convincingly demonstrates that the hundreds of digital tools and platforms presently in use across the globe do indeed have enormous potential to strengthen our democracy, which today in many ways is under siege. But to realize this potential, the phenomenon needs to come of age. With their in-depth knowledge of the matter, but especially with their critical attitude, the authors of Digital Democracy have brought this next phase a lot closer. They are critical because they strongly believe in it. For this reason, they conclude the report with the chapter ‘What Next for Digital Democracy?’ which not only contains much food for thought about possible future developments, but also suggests that digital democracy is here to stay and we had better start taking it seriously.

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