what is next for Digital Democracy

In order to grow and enter the mainstream of processes which support parliaments, governments and political parties in their work, digital democracy must address a number of challenges which it still faces. We conclude our report with reflections on these – from developing a more nuanced understanding of what we mean by ‘participation’ and tackling the digital divide, to improving our understanding of what motivates people to participate and how we can balance aspirations with the reality of what is possible, to minimise the risks of further disillusionment, and make digital democracy a ‘new normal’. We also consider the opportunities that new technologies may offer and the areas of our democratic processes where digital democracy initiatives are still far fewer. And finally we call out to the digital democracy community to consider how it can better measure and evaluate the impact of its worth, to build the evidence base for what works. 

Figure 1: Seven leading examples of digital democracy.

Developing a more nuanced understanding of participation

Clearly some engagement activities – such as participatory budgeting (PB) – require mass, broad-scale participation to ensure the quality and legitimacy of the process. With PB, it is essential that those participating are broadly representative of the local area, that minority groups and interests are represented, and that different geographic areas are also represented. This is to ensure that public expenditure isn’t skewed in favour of a particular group or geographic community. And also, since PB is about generating and selecting good ideas, there’s value in generating as many ideas as possible; after all, “the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas and throw the bad ones away.”185 However, in many other cases, it is more important to engage a smaller number of people rather than the public at large. This might be because those participating need a high level of scientific or technical knowledge to take part – for example with Evidence Checks or when contributing to draft legislation which is highly technical. This might also be because the activity at hand is of most relevance to a specific community of interest (e.g. fishermen or former servicemen). Or because the activity itself requires a considerable time commitment from those taking part and consequently only a small number of people will be able to take part. In these cases, what is required is targeted outreach to specific groups of people and communities of interest, or even individuals, rather than ‘the public’ in general. This more focused outreach is often intended to represent a balance in terms of ensuring that engagement goes well beyond ‘the usual suspects’ and brings the plurality of views on a topic into the discussion, while avoiding the pitfalls of promoting tokenistic mass participation on a topic on which few are well-placed to comment. From a pragmatic perspective, the decision to involve fewer citizens can also reflect the resource available to manage citizen contributions – it is better to seek fewer high quality contributions on more niche and technical subjects that can be effectively reviewed and used than to generate thousands of contributions that cannot be processed, risking the disillusionment of those who participate to no effect.

This requires a more nuanced understanding of democracy and what we mean by participation; it means being clear about the aims, objectives and methods of engagement. It also means being comfortable about explicitly aiming to engage a smaller range or group of citizens, rather than being concerned with achieving participation which is representative of the broader population. This is also a far more pragmatic approach; the literature on democracy and public participation overstates people’s desire to take part. Indeed, many people do not want to be engaged, and where they must take part, they want the experience to be as quick and easy as possible. It’s also pragmatic since resources for public participation and democracy are finite and such exercises tend to be costly. Simply building a participation tool or platform is no guarantee that it will be used. Engagement requires significant resources in order to raise awareness of the project and reach out to participants through dedicated marketing and communications campaigns. 

Bridging the digital divide

One of the greatest challenges for those organising participation exercises can be attracting participants. In some cases, a lack of access to the internet or a lack of digital skills can be a barrier. As internet penetration improves, concerns about the ‘digital divide’ and ‘digital inequality’ will become less pressing but it’s important to note that, in 2016, over five million adults in the UK (10.2 per cent of adults) had never used the internet. Moreover, there is still a huge correlation between age and internet use – the older you are, the less likely you are to use the internet. For example, of those taking part in the Decide Madrid platform, participation was skewed towards those in the 30-49 age bracket (60 per cent) and away from the older voters (10 per cent aged 60 or over), even though there was participation across all age groups. One solution is to limit online activities to those topics where the digital divide is less or not at all relevant. For example, vTaiwan has so far only chosen topics for debate that are related to digital affairs. As Chia-liang Kao, co-founder of the g0v community and vTaiwan pioneer, describes: “that’s a really important starting point, because we are limiting the issues that we can talk about on this platform, ensuring that we don’t have to deal with the digital divide yet, assuming that most of the stakeholders are online, but that’s an assumption at first”. However, such an approach significantly curtails the kinds of issues that can be discussed and addressed through digital democracy initiatives. In the majority of instances, offline approaches clearly need to be used to reach out to those who lack digital skills or access. There are already numerous examples of online participatory budgeting exercises such as Madame Mayor, I have an idea, which have a strong offline component, with municipal governments doing outreach to target specific groups – often the elderly and ethnic minority groups – to make sure that participation is broadly representative of the local area. In the first round of Madame Mayor, I have an Idea, only 60 per cent of people chose to vote online. This was largely due to the huge number of offline workshops, groups and civil society-led activity which galvanises people at a local level to take part. 

Understanding motivations for participation

There is surprisingly little evidence on what motivates people to take part in digital democracy initiatives – whether it’s online deliberation exercises, or crowd sourcing information or online participatory budgeting. There is a significant body of research which examines why people volunteer and take part in other forms of participation – such as politics, social movements and ethical consumerism. Important factors include: personal interest, a desire to make a change, life experiences, family background and exposure to civil society, and a desire to make connections and new friends. There is also some research which tries to understand the motivations of those taking part in crowd sourcing projects like developing open-source software and innovation challenge prizes. The research shows that people contribute for a variety of reasons – such as enhancing their reputations, developing skills, expectations of reciprocity and receiving tangible returns. In the literature on open-source software one of the key drivers is participants’ needs for the software they’re developing. 

Ultimately, people rarely participate for altruistic reasons – they need to see benefits of their participation. And, ideally, these benefits should be tangible, immediate and visible to the broader community of participants. Evidence from our case studies suggests that these are important factors for success in digital democracy initiatives.

Where participation exercises can’t fulfil these requirements, policymakers need to think about incentives for participation. Should policymakers consider financial rewards or prizes for small groups of participants? For larger participation exercises, could we envisage a system akin to air miles where participants receive credits for participation which can be redeemed against local services or tax rebates once they’ve reached a certain amount? Research on whether prizes and rewards incentivises participation is relatively mixed – for example, the size of a prize doesn’t seem to have a significant impact on levels of participation, but some structures, such as winner-takes-all award structures seem more effective than multiple prize structures for ideation and trial and error projects.191 So where does this leave advocates of digital democracy? Should they assume that most people won’t engage deeply and design systems which rely on shallower forms of engagement when they’re looking for mass participation? For deeper forms of engagement should they focus on far smaller groups of people and appeal to their needs and desires for opportunities to develop their reputations, learn skills and so on? What are the dangers and opportunities of using mechanisms to tap into people’s extrinsic motivations? What is certainly needed is a better understanding of the kinds of feedback mechanisms and incentive structures that work best for particular forms of online participation. 

Balancing aspiration and reality

Another challenge for digital democracy pioneers, closely linked to understanding of individual motivations for participation, is how to ensure that what people ultimately experience, and the outcomes of participation, are at least broadly in line with the expectations set at the outset. This appears to be particularly, although not exclusively, an issue for the new political parties such as Podemos, the Pirate Party, and M5S. On the one hand, these parties have grand stated ambitions for direct democracy and to dramatically shift the balance of power, giving members and citizens a far greater, or even binding, say over policies, candidates and a host of other areas related to democratic and party political processes. In reality, however, these parties have experienced rapid growth, with new members elected at the municipal, national or European levels. Inevitably, this has placed a strain on the capacity of these parties to deliver on their ambitions. New technology platforms are being developed and tested, there is a rapid increase in the number of users, and the methods themselves of online engagement are also an area of rich experimentation. And of course these forms of direct digital democracy are also new to the majority of citizens, leaving it uncertain how different groups will respond and engage, and requiring constant innovation and iteration to adapt to their needs. It would be remarkable if any organisation could hit the ground running without teething problems or a steep learning curve. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a gap between these parties’ stated aims in terms of participatory democracy and what is currently taking place on the ground. For example, while M5S espouses direct democracy, there are criticisms that the leadership has overly controlled debate and decided what was open for discussion or voting on online platforms, and that there is a lack of transparency over final decision-making. There have also been complaints that dissenting voices and criticisms on the original blog forum were removed by moderators and classed as trolls. Interestingly, however, the rhetoric of many parties and digital democracy activists does not actively manage the expectations of citizens in this respect. As can be seen on the message boards of Podemos or criticisms of M5S, if this happens it can lead to some disillusionment and disengagement by citizens. As the ambitions for digital democracy grow, those leading new initiatives may wish to consider how citizens can be ‘brought on the journey’ and whether a greater degree of transparency about the experimental nature of some activities and to gradually scale-up what can be achieved, would be more beneficial for all involved.  

Making digital democracy the ‘new normal’

It is extremely clear that buy-in from decision-makers is hugely influential in terms of the take-up and development of digital democracy initiatives.

For digital democracy to have true impact on legislative processes and the outcome of democratic decision-making, it must be embraced by those in positions of power, including those in opposition.

Citizen engagement initiatives at the national and local level should be free from party politics. Mayoral backing for the participatory budgeting process in Paris, the creation of Lab Hacker in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, and Prime Ministerial support for the Estonian People’s Assembly all exemplify this. Yet strong leadership alone is generally insufficient to change what may be centuries of tradition around the roles of elected officials and their interactions with citizens. In almost every case we find examples of pockets of resistance to increasing citizen engagement and/or the use of digital tools to do so. To tackle this there is a need for significant reform of the way in which our public administrations and democratic institutions operate. 

Traditional siloed forms of working need to be replaced with more cross-sectoral, multi-disciplinary working, and there must be clear incentives and motivation for civil servants to embrace innovative new approaches. A culture of experimentation must be encouraged, and failure accepted as part of this.