There is a pervasive assumption within the field of digital democracy that citizen engagement is a good thing per se. Certainly a healthy democracy requires participation from its citizens. However, there is strong evidence about the harms that can result from poor participation exercises – such as greater levels of apathy and disillusionment, and further erosions of trust. Some have gone as far as to say that political participation creates “civic enemies who have grounds to hate one another”.
To avoid the major pitfalls of poor participation exercises, it’s important to design the process effectively. A successful digital democracy initiative is not about simply taking an off-the-shelf tool and deploying tried and trusted communication methods. Too many innovations in this area exist simply as an app, or web page, driven by what the technology can do, rather than by what the need is. In contrast, many of the best examples we have come across have been designed carefully over multiple stages, incorporating a number of methods, tools and resources (see Figure 21).
Figure: An illustration of the multi-stage vTaiwan process, deploying multiple digital tools.
Even though many of the initiatives studied in this report are far from perfect, relatively new and still in development, we have been able to identify six common factors for success. A first group of factors relates to the question of how we should design the process and communicate with both citizens and representatives so as to maximise their interest and engagement. This means having clarity over the purpose and methods of engagement; engaging people early enough so that their contributions aren’t simply tokenistic; communicating clearly about the aims, objectives, rules and expectations of participation exercises; and underpinning activity with online and offline outreach. The other factors relate to practical issues around the support that is required. It means ensuring that the necessary ecosystem of support is in place, from backing by decision-makers, to financial and human resources. The final point is technical: making sure that the interface is appropriately designed for the type of user and type of activity, with a view to maximising the quality of contributions.