The rise of Digital Democracy

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 are 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.

At the same time 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.

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 is one of many factors that 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. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index in 2014 and 2015, not only are participation rates low, but the highest levels of disengagement have occurred in 16 out of the 20 countries classified as ‘full democracies’.

In response many have argued that digital technologies are the answer, and that they alone can encourage greater participation, better decisions, and more trust. The advocates claim that digital democracy can achieve deeper and broader participation, that it can contribute to a richer public sphere for argument and debate than was ever possible with traditional mass media; and that tapping into more individual sources of expertise can achieve better decisions than relying only on professional politicians and civil servants.

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.

So far however, the reality has not lived up to early hopes and expectations. Although campaigning tools have mobilized hundreds of millions of people to try 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 unwillingness on the part of traditional parties and parliaments to adopt new methods at scale, and for important issues. But 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. Some of the experiments have also run into the same problem as social media – a tendency to polarize opinions rather than bridge divides as people gravitate towards others who share their political affiliations,2 as false information circulates,3 and dialogue hardens opposing positions rather than helping people to understand different views. The current debate on filter bubbles has brought these issues to much greater prominence.