Innovating Democracy 2018: How technology can empower democracy

In the run-up to this week’s Innovating Democracy event, we ask two NIMD experts to share their views on how technology really affects democracy.

In this blog, NIMD Knowledge Advisor Dalila Brosto highlights some of the opportunities technology provides for a more inclusive democracy.

More and more, we hear discussions about the effects of technology on democracy. We hear, on the one hand, about the dangers of technology, about dumbing down discourse, boiling down arguments to 280 characters.

And of course, these dangers are very real. But, the way I see it, it’s not technology itself that is at fault. Instead, it’s all about how we use the technology that is at our fingertips. The tools are there – ready to give us better access to politicians, and to engage more easily in the topics that affect our lives. It’s up to us to make the most of them.

That’s why, for me, technology has the potential to empower democracy. It holds the key to better engagement and more citizen involvement.

What are these tools and where do they come from?

In recent years, the bond between citizens and political institutions has weakened in both long-established and newer democracies.

Partly in response to citizens’ growing disaffection, we have seen an influx of participatory tools.

These tools that capitalize on new technology and democratic experiments to improve democracy. We are increasingly hearing terms like “open government,” “inclusive governance,” or “civic innovation,” and in most cases, these approaches are tied up with the new digital tools and data. So how can technology help to enhance the relationship between citizens and the government?

I prefer to answer this question using real examples from around the world. The developments below show just how much potential new technologies have to make governance more inclusive:

  • In Iceland, the crisis generated by the bankruptcy of the country’s three largest private banks created an opening for digital democracy. Your Priorities, a website where citizens shared proposed legislation and budget measures, grew to become the Better Reykjavík platform, which had real impact on policymaking: 800 citizen initiatives were approved by the city council within seven years.
  • In Madrid, the citizen participation platform, Decide Madrid, received the 2018 UN Public Service Award for “establishing more open, transparent, participatory and inclusive governance models”. Decide enables citizens to propose, deliberate and vote on policies for the city and ensure transparency of all government proceedings within the municipality
  • Quito, Valletta and Turin are some of the cities that use CONSUL, a free software tool which allows citizens to put forward and engage in debates, ideas, votes, budgets and participatory legislation. CONSUL provides citizens with the opportunity to get their priorities onto the political agenda, rather than simply react to what the institutions propose.

These tools reflect how citizens can utilize the full power of direct democracy to shape government actions.

However, amidst all the excitement over the transformative power of new participatory technologies, it is important to keep in mind that large numbers of citizens outside of established democracies still do not have access to such resources. In addition, the challenge of strengthening the relationship between citizens and governments goes far beyond increasing space for citizen participation. It is about making sure that institutions can respond to citizen demands and needs.

Technology cannot change the reality of democracy alone. But, in the hands of dedicated people who want to make a difference, it can certainly help. That means it’s up to us to be active and engaged as citizens, making the most of the tools that are out there.