What is the impact of digital democracy on the quality and legitimacy of decision-making?

At the outset of this research we set out to understand the extent to which new tools and technologies might improve our democratic institutions and processes. More particularly, however, we were interested in the ways in which digital tools could improve the quality of decision-making, make democracy more representative by providing new avenues for participation, and potentially reduce the costs of public participation in democratic
deliberations and decision-making. We also wanted to ascertain the ways in which new tools and technologies could improve the legitimacy of our democratic structures and institutions – through a combination of greater transparency, representation and better decision-making. So what do our case studies tell us on these points?

Can digital tools make democracy more representative by providing new opportunities for people to participate?

The evidence from our case studies on this is pretty mixed. Most tend to show that participation is skewed to those who are already politically active and towards well educated, young men in urban areas. For example, a survey of those who took part in the Digital Republic crowd sourcing exercise showed that most participants were male
(77 per cent), most were between the ages of 25-34 and were well educated (82 per cent of participants had received some form of higher education). A survey of those taking part in the Estonian People’s Assembly process found that participants were much more likely to be educated, professional, right-wing males, who already engage in politics both formally (i.e. contacting politicians and working in political organisations) and informally (i.e. signing petitions and boycotting certain goods). Indeed, we found few examples of online participation which mirrored the demographic structure of society. The case studies we examined do not suggest that digital tools are currently making democracy more representative. However, in some cases, these projects did reach younger audiences who traditionally tend to participate less. For example, while Open Ministry participants were typically male, 21-40, well-educated and from urban areas – this is a younger demographic than many traditional engagement techniques reach.
However, it does seem that when done in conjunction with offline and outreach activities, digital democracy initiatives can broaden participation. This is the case in Madrid and Paris where participation has taken place across all age groups. However, it is difficult to know for sure what the effects of digital technologies on participation are since most of the case studies collect so little data on who is participating. Similarly, it is difficult to know how and to what extent digital technologies have broadened participation in grassroots political parties because of a lack of data.

Can digital tools improve the quality of decision-making by parliaments, political parties and governments?

The quality of decision-making can of course be highly subjective. What one group views as a positive outcome for society may not be the same as another – an issue integral to all forms of democracy, we leave that aside here. Instead, we consider the quality of decision making from two perspectives: a) the extent to which the evidence on which decisions are based is sound (i.e. robust technical evidence where appropriate, and that the plurality of evidence is available to decision-makers, including that of ‘experts by experience’); and b) that the decisions made are technically fit-for-purpose, so subsequent legislation, regulation or policy is free from loopholes, for example. Viewed from these two perspectives, the feedback from our case studies is clear. All the examples we studied can provide at least anecdotal evidence of how these tools and processes improve the quality of decision-making by having more eyes on a document or process, or by bringing in people with a greater diversity of experiences and expertise to provide input or scrutiny.

The most common way in which decisions are improved is simply by increasing the pool of ideas accessed or suggestions made, which decision-makers acknowledge would not have otherwise been considered in the process.

In this respect, Grímsson and Bjarnason talk animatedly about how Better Reykjavik and Better Neighbourhoods have improved the quality of local decisions: “in every neighbourhood there is now all kinds of stuff – playgrounds and toys and benches – and all kinds of ideas that would not have occurred to either the politicians or the bureaucrats”. At the more technical end of the spectrum, several pieces of legislation and regulation across the globe have been improved by people spotting loopholes or brokering consensus to ensure that they are approved and are fit for purpose. In some instances, particularly in relation to political parties, the evidence is thinner as to the overall impact on the quality of decisions. A gap between the aims and aspirations of parties such as Podemos and M5S mean that decision-making often appears to be still quite disconnected from the input provided by members and citizens. 

Can digital tools improve the legitimacy of our democratic institutions and processes?

The evidence at the moment is tentatively positive with regards to legitimacy. However, there are various definitions and theories of legitimacy.182 In general, legitimacy rests on the idea that governing structures and processes should reflect and be responsive to the will of the people (‘input legitimacy’),183 that actions taken should seek to provide solutions to problems faced by people to support and promote their welfare (‘output legitimacy’) and that the process itself should be fair, transparent, inclusive, cost-effective and so on (‘process legitimacy’). So, for example, processes which are broad, inclusive and representative will have high levels of input legitimacy while processes which lead to positive outcomes will have high levels of output legitimacy. This potentially sets up a tension between participation and the quality of decision-making. There may be some instances where a small group of people make a better decision than the public at large, or where the crowd isn’t as wise as a small group of experts – for example where questions are highly technical or scientific. In these cases, processes may be perceived as less legitimate but lead to better quality decision-making or the inverse, where some processes are seen as legitimate, but lead to poorer quality decision-making. In these cases, policymakers need to decide the appropriate balance according to the task in hand. Participatory budgeting is the kind of exercise which depends on building a high degree of legitimacy among citizens, whereas simply using crowdsourcing for the purpose of tapping into distributed expertise may benefit from more targeted crowdsourcing. In terms of ‘process legitimacy’, the evidence is rather clearer. All of the case studies have, to various degrees, improved the transparency of how decisions, legislation and policies are made. Simply by opening up the process to citizen involvement is, by default, an improvement. Some initiatives have sought actively to go further, for example by publicly archiving an audit trail of every document or material relating to a decision, as in vTaiwan. The Brazilian eDemocracia portal is also a good exemplar, informing people of upcoming debates and legislation, live-streaming public hearings, and providing feedback about how representatives made use of contributions. As Faria explains, 

“What we can guarantee is that the process is very transparent… it is very different from, say, a contribution given to a representative in his office behind closed doors”.

Involving people in this type of two-way communication requires authorities to be more explicit about the aims and outcomes of policy making, in turn helping to open up the ‘black box’ of legislative processes. 
Measures of participants’ satisfaction are another way of gauging levels of process legitimacy. Although there is relatively little evaluation of this where it has been done, most participants report being relatively happy with the end results, even if they did not achieve the decision they were originally seeking. However, the benefits for trust in democracy more widely remain to be explored. Overall, however, there is insufficient evidence to equivocally say much on this. Although all our examples are increasing the transparency of some democratic processes, and the majority can demonstrate at least some benefits for the quality of decisions, we simply do not know enough about who is taking part, or why, to be confident of the extent to which they are increasing representation. The evidence clearly suggests that the current effectiveness of these tools alone is probably insufficient to improve the legitimacy of whole processes per se. We must therefore treat with caution claims that such tools can increase the legitimacy of and restore trust in our democratic institutions and processes.

Can digital tools and technologies make public participation cheaper?

Finally, digital solutions are often held up as a route to cutting costs and driving through savings in the name of efficiency. To consider digital democracy tools in this way would, however, be a mistake. In every instance, the costs for the organising institution have in fact increased as a result of launching these initiatives. Costs are incurred in the form of: investment in new platforms; human resources to work on projects/sifting proposals; communications and marketing to make citizens aware of new opportunities for participation and to engage decision-makers and support them to make use of these tools. Smaller scale, one-off types of engagement are naturally less resource-intensive but as activities increase in scale and scope, and where the targeted audience is much wider, there is typically a commensurate requirement for greater investment. This is particularly important in the short-medium term as new processes and ways of working are established, tools integrated, and skills developed. So initiatives such as LabHacker in Brazil have resulted in a sustained investment in salaried staff and the necessary support for the team. Other types of engagement, such as participatory budgeting, not only require significant amounts of time from civil servants, but also substantial additional budget for outreach and communications, as can be seen in Paris, Madrid and Reykjavik.