Participatory democracy can create efficient, effective and popular solutions to policy challenges presented by new digital technologies. This report recommends that governance institutions use methods of participatory democracy to shape policy on digitalisation, engaging people collaboratively in the decision-making that affects their lives. Successful uses of participatory democracy in digital and technology policy include vTaiwan, a deliberative process on the fair regulation of Uber; the public engagement process that contributed to the Scottish Government’s AI strategy; and a citizens’ forum on disinformation in the Philippines. The application of these processes in this policy area, where they are particularly relevant, can provide a new approach to policymaking.
This report will address the importance of finding a new approach to policymaking on digitalisation and new technologies; lay out why using methods of participatory democracy is the new approach that should be taken; and explore the key considerations in the design and application of a participatory process in this policy area. Annex 1 provides a case study, designing a hypothetical participatory process to tackle universal digital inclusion at national level, to better illustrate the analysis and recommendations.
The issue is two-fold. First, institutions and governance structures are failing to seize the opportunity of a digital society: they are slow to keep up with innovation in the private sector and to incorporate thinking from the third sector. The public sector is neither maximising the opportunities presented by this change, nor mitigating the risks. Secondly, as the digital revolution occurs, it is negatively impacting governance. Trust between citizens and the state is decreasing, polarisation is increasing, and people are frustrated that institutions and public officials are slow to change and create change while everything else seems to develop exponentially. People are unsatisfied with democracy; according to the 2018 Democracy Perception Index, “citizens in democracies don't feel their voice matters”, with 54 per cent of residents of democracies responding that their voice “rarely” or “never” matters in politics. Active engagement can help to counter this dissatisfaction.
Digitalisation can be polarising. People tend to feel either very positive about the convenience it lends to their lives and the potential benefits for wider society, and are happy to accept any payoffs that come with that, or they feel fearful about the implications, and wish to slow or stop change. Additionally, there is a difference between those who see the digital revolution, and how we handle it, as vital and those who do not consider it important.
Digitalisation and new technologies present non-traditional and divisive challenges that give rise to the need for people to be included more. Participatory democracy can offer solutions. Creating “inclusive institutions” that bring people into the decision-making process will increase political trust and understanding, as well as creating buy-in to an approach or attitude to digitalisation. In 2009, President Barack Obama wrote about how participatory democracy can enhance the effectiveness of institutions and improve the quality of decisions by allowing the public sector to take advantage of knowledge that is distributed throughout society. To help policymaking become more adaptive, meaningfully engaging people will grant the benefit of diverse perspectives, opinions and experiences. As individuals are faster to embrace technology than institutions, they may also identify opportunities and potential issues faster.
This Is Not a Traditional Political Conversation
Attitudes to policy challenges on digital and technology do not necessarily align with traditional political leanings. Not everyone votes in elections, and single policies in election manifestos do not affect voting intention. Decision-makers therefore must use a new approach to understand people’s attitudes to complex and nuanced topics such as digitalisation and new technologies. Bringing together more, different, diverse and traditionally underrepresented or disenfranchised people to deliberate lends nuance and may help find the middle ground where the answer normally lies. Policymakers will be more accurately able to gauge public opinion, as opposed to relying solely on party-political positions that the public can vote on, which often do not reflect public opinion.
This Is a Low-Risk, High-Reward Approach
Digitalisation is allowing for decentralisation and community organisation on a scale that was not previously possible, and rather than institutions working against this, they should make use of it. Incorporating methods of participatory democracy is a convenient and compelling way of realising this advantage. Participatory democracy can be inexpensive and expeditious. “Participatory systems are often remarkably simple – they have to be, or they just don’t work.”[_] This allows for experimentation with elements that can be developed based on the need, constraints and scenario, and on the feedback of participating citizens. Participatory democracy can make governing “more transparent, responsive, and in turn more efficient with regard to public spending”, such that investment in time and money may be recouped through results.
Counter the Lack of Trust in the Public Sector
Until recently, the relationship between the state and the technology industry worked in favour of both parties. However, trust in the state to represent the best interests of citizens in the face of the increasing power of big tech is eroding on a transnational basis. There are regular revelations about the exploitation of individuals’ data to further the interest of the private technology companies, and how governments have been complicit in, and also profited from, this misuse. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed that the public can be more likely to trust private-sector digital services than public-sector digital services. This was illustrated by widespread scepticism in Europe about “track and trace” apps, compared to a willingness to accept conditions of private apps including social media. The 2019 European Tech Insights survey by the Centre for Governance of Change at Instituto de Empresa revealed that while “people are deeply fearful of advancements in tech, particularly increased automation”, “one in four Europeans would prefer artificial intelligence to make important decisions about the running of their country”, indicating an extreme lack of faith in traditional decision-making mechanisms. By bringing citizens into the process of reframing the state’s relationship with big tech, and addressing policy challenges collaboratively, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the relationship people want the state and industry to have in this sector.
Better Public Understanding of Decision-Making
Producing policy is a complicated and challenging process. It is often opaque and little understood by the people who are not actively involved in it. This is particularly true of policy on digitalisation and new technologies, which is often shrouded in technical language. People should have the option to understand and meaningfully engage with subjects, politics and legalities, and the policymaking process should be transparent. In this way, exposure to the decision-making process can also rebuild trust and understanding. Methods of participatory democracy can help encourage more substantive feelings of citizenship, including “common identity, recognition of duties and rights, a sense of belonging—which can help assure democratic legitimacy”, and can make controversial public decisions legitimate and acceptable.
Preparation for the Shift to E-Governance
Institutions are moving towards e-governance and e-society, motivated by its supposed usefulness as a way to implement all policies and to improve effectiveness and efficiency. The Covid-19 pandemic, and in particular the resulting lockdowns, accelerated this shift, but also exposed the digital divide: often the poorest and most vulnerable in society were unable to access resources. While the transition to e-governance seems inevitable, the lack of trust in institutions to handle the relationship between tech and the state, as highlighted above, must be rectified, in order to lend legitimacy to this change.
To illustrate the application of methods of participatory democracy to policy challenges on digitalisation and new technologies, this section will lay out some of the key considerations when designing a participatory process for this policy area. This is informed by my own work in designing and delivering participatory democracy projects at several levels of governance and on a range of policy issues, and lessons learned from other processes using participatory methods on a variety of policy challenges.
Similarly to any other project, it is important to consider what you hope to achieve and what success would look like, before beginning to design the process. Being able to clearly communicate the purpose and outcomes of a process with participants, from the start, will help gain buy-in, will help to prevent participation or decision fatigue, and will set expectations about how their contributions will be used.
Reach consensus and clarity on the broader aims that you hope to achieve. For example, a goal could be anything from “reforming the regulatory framework for social media companies, so it better serves the public interest”, to “improving the use of public libraries as digital access points”.
Policies addressing digitalisation and new technologies must be forward-thinking. Starting from a place of ambition will allow for creative design of the process that can fit into a wider strategy for society.
Consider establishing process goals, which could include the wider implications of a participatory process—for example, “we want to ensure the wider public is aware of this process taking place, and its outcomes”.
Keep these goals open: make sure you are not trying to pre-empt the outcome of a process.
Within ambitious goals, consider the specific targets for this participatory process. Defining measurable targets, which you can communicate easily to participants, will ensure everyone is moving in the same direction.
Where challenges on digitalisation and new technologies are complex and perhaps unfamiliar, due to rapid and recent developments in the field, it may be necessary to use objectives to narrow the scope of the process.
What can realistically be achieved through this process? Consider cost and time constraints, and any other parameters.
Inform participants of the objectives in a way that shows the process is relevant to them, and communicate how their contribution will be useful to the wider goal.
Consider what form the outcome of the process will take. For example, a strategy or policy position, cocreated with participants; a specific policy proposal put to a public referendum; or a specific sum of money to be spent in a way decided by participants via participatory budgeting. Additionally, consider what impact or accountability mechanism this outcome will have: a strategy might be presented to a governing institution for consideration, or public money might be guaranteed in the fiscal budget.
How will participants’ contributions be used? Participants should be able to track their contributions through the process, into the final product and beyond.
Ask subject-matter experts, public officials and legislative or political bodies about the reasonable restrictions that any outcome must have to be viable.
Think about wider outcomes and how to accommodate these. For example, do you want to form a lasting relationship with participants, and involve them in future work? Is this process part of a larger internal culture change on participation where staff can be trained?
Break Down the Problem
Breaking down the policy challenge into more specific “key themes”, which will allow participants to deliberate more focused, tangible questions that will allow for sharper deliberation and specific outcomes.
Ask participants to decide these key themes: ask what they think the most important aspects of the wider policy challenge are. Importantly, participants’ choices will be different from those chosen by subject-matter experts or decision-makers.
Involve subject-matter experts, either working with participants directly as they decide the key themes, or afterwards to provide context to the key themes chosen.
If possible, try to make a potentially complex and technical subject more understandable and tangible. Allow the breakdown to relate to people’s day-to-day lives; show why it is interesting or important to everybody.
The best results will be achieved if the challenge is framed as positive—moving to maximise an opportunity rather than solve a problem. Encouraging people to feel as if they are coming together to create something constructive and productive will allow people with different views and backgrounds to collaborate and listen to one another more openly, and make for a more pleasant and effective process.
Digitalisation and new technologies impact all other policy areas and parts of life. This can be used as an advantage if it is about the positive impact on areas that already matter to participants.
Allow the process to become personal; introduce ways for participants to build relationships not only with each other but also with facilitators and organisers.
As previously mentioned, policies on digitalisation and new technologies must be forward-thinking. Asking participants to develop a shared future, rather than finding solutions to past issues, will encourage this.
Decide What You Want from Participants
Participants are giving up their time and ideas to contribute, so it must be clear from the beginning how they will have an impact, whether immediately or as part of a pathway towards change. Participants’ roles must be clearly defined from the beginning to set expectations and ensure everyone can follow the process.
There are three broad ways participants can contribute: by gauging opinion; generating ideas; and making specific decisions. All three aspects can all be part of one process, and naturally flow from one to another, or can be used separately.
Gauging Opinion – Requires Prioritisation
Using a participatory process to gauge opinions can include asking people to rank a set of ideas or potential solutions to a policy challenge, or even to talk about specific tradeoffs or costs, and to rank how worthwhile or positive these would be.
Be creative in asking people to share their opinions. There are plenty of online ranking, voting and prioritisation platforms that could complement a virtual roundtable; or there are creative ways to do this exercise in real life such as asking people, at the end of a “learning” session, to place coloured dots around the ideas they prefer—creating a visual result that participants can see in real time.
Use a combination of both group agreement and individual voting to form consensus, to ensure that stronger personalities don’t dominate decision-making, and that both minority and majority views are recorded.
Generating Ideas – Requires Collaboratively Creating Solutions
Collaborative idea generation means you can benefit from the lived expertise and individual experiences and perspectives of participants. Many heads are better than one!
Using a set of clear questions or challenges will help participants to generate ideas.
Give participants an idea of any constraints or boundaries that need to be observed by their ideas. If you ask people for their ideas, and later say they won’t work, that may result in decision fatigue.
Allow for a number of ways to contribute ideas, as a group and individually. Some participants may not feel comfortable voicing their ideas but are happy to write or draw them down.
Decisions and Actions – Requires Specifics and Therefore a Clear Focus
Allow participants to take specific decisions and actions, which can be immediately translated from the result of the process to action: for example, choosing the specific measures of a white paper to be put to public referendum, or choosing specifically how a sum of public money is spent.
The framework needs to be worked out in advance. Legal and political advice should be clear before the process, so that decisions are viable.
For a specific set of results, any policy challenge needs to be broken down into “key themes” that should be broken down further into questions to be deliberated on, one at a time. The less translation needed between the deliberation and the results, the better.
Participants should be given plenty of time to learn, discuss, collaborate and decide. Complex and challenging subjects need in-depth and careful consideration.
The Practical Aspects of Building a Process
Online and Offline Methods
A truly democratic process must combine online and offline processes, or at least provide equipment, connection, training and support to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate.
Online participation may consist of video calls, the use of shared documents, and e-democracy platforms, whereas offline processes can make use of accessible public spaces such as libraries or schools.
A combination of both online and offline approaches in a single process is the most inclusive approach.
Ensure that the two groups are not totally separated, but that progress or key points are shared between groups and included in each other’s deliberation.
Where possible, have the online and offline processes following the same model and timeline. A learning element can be done together in person, or in people’s own time digitally; the deliberative aspect can take place in small groups in person or over video call online, and any voting or decision-making can be done physically, or via digital democracy platforms.
Recruit a Representative and Diverse Group of Participants
For a process to be truly democratic, and to benefit from a wide and representative range of perspectives and experiences, participants should be recruited mindfully. Participants are often recruited to represent the population, by key demographic features including age, gender or socioeconomic status. For challenges on digitalisation and new technologies, use attitudinal recruitment related to this topic.
In recruiting a diverse group of participants, you must also ensure you are enabling them to participate fully, meeting people where they are rather than expecting them to come to you.
Consider one of the selection factors to be attitude to, or experience with, digital. Categories might include: whether they have internet access at home; the amount of time spent on the internet; how comfortable they rate themselves as being with using technology.
Considering what time of the day or week would be convenient to participants, making childcare available, scheduling breaks to cater to participants who need to observe religious duties and making sure all materials are provided in a range of accessible formats are just a few considerations that ensure everyone is able to contribute meaningfully.
It is good practice to pay or otherwise compensate participants for their time, to avoid socioeconomic barriers to participation but also to indicate the value and gratitude for people for giving up their time and sharing their thoughts.
Include a “Learning” Element
The standard format for models of participatory democracy, “includes time for learning, deliberating, and voting”, and the learning aspect is vital to planning. Taking participants and those running the process through background information together, making sure everyone has a shared understanding of some of the key components of the issue, will ensure a shared starting point, even if some have additional knowledge.
Use a range of formats such as text, videos and exercises to share “self-study” information, to keep people interested and to make sure there is a way to take on information that suits everyone.
When meeting, include presentations on specific subjects from specialists, stakeholders, activists and experts, allowing participants to ask questions. Allow participants to discuss what they learn from these presentations.
If subject-matter experts are involved in deliberative sessions, allow them to advise, at the request of participants, but not to share opinions. Make sure that participants can lead the conversation.
Bring in Partners
There are a multitude of civil society groups, practitioners, consultancies, academics, think tanks and other organisations who work on methods of participatory democracy and their application. This includes those who specialise in addressing policy challenges related to digitalisation and new technologies. Using their expertise and experience to shape and deliver the process will help ensure its success.
Skills such as facilitation are vital to ensuring effective deliberation, for example, and involving those with existing skills will maximise the efficacy of a process.
This also applies to the use of online platforms, where there are many options to choose from to support in-person participatory processes.
Introducing the use of participatory processes to build policy or strategy may require culture change and training for those applying it. Working with experienced partners can aid this.
Methods of participatory democracy should be part of shaping any policy response to a challenge on digitalisation and new technologies. We need a new way to address policy challenges in this area, as governance institutions at all levels must quickly adapt to a new world defined by the use of digital technology. Incorporating methods of participatory democracy in policymaking can help decision-makers take advantage of the benefits for society, counter the negative effects that the digital revolution is having on outdated governance structures, and create a better relationship between people and institutions. Incorporating these methods into decision-making is efficient and effective. Additionally, the specific nuances of policy challenges presented by digitalisation and new technologies, which affect all policy areas and all people in society, mean that the meaningful engagement of a diverse group of people will be beneficial to innovative ideas and solutions.
These participatory processes need to be designed with the complexities of digitalisation and new technologies in mind, ensuring meaningful participation and advantageous results.
There is a need to reform traditional consultation processes, which will have a clear advantage for society, democracy and policymakers in meaningfully involving citizens through participatory processes. The recommendations in this paper, while not exhaustive, are a starting point for those seeking a new approach to apply methods of participatory democracy to policymaking on digitalisation and new technologies.
This case study on universal digital inclusion will show how methods of participatory democracy can produce effective, efficient and popular policy decisions. This example is a design for a participatory process, at national level, aiming to produce a draft strategy to achieve universal digital inclusion.
Universal Digital Inclusion
Access to technology is transformational—for people’s health, education, participation and prosperity … The great development challenge of the 21st century is unlocking opportunity, and this will only be possible when everyone has equal access to the global digital commons. We have the technology at our disposal—from fibre and 5G to satellites and free-space optics—to connect everyone on the planet, and we should do what it takes to close the digital divide well before the decade is out.
The policy challenge of universal digital inclusion is relevant at all levels of governance, from local through to supranational governance, and across all geographic spaces as well—with differing starting points, priorities and challenges in each case.
This case study illustrates the analysis and recommendations made throughout this paper through the design of a participatory process, to solve the policy challenge of universal digital inclusion at a national level. The strategy contains a series of quantitative standards, as well as qualitative recommendations of actions to achieve them. This is influenced by the ECAST pTA method, my own experience designing and delivering these processes, and lessons learnt from other participatory processes. It is similar to the model of a citizens’ assembly, which is time- and resource-intensive but provides adequate time and robust support to grapple with complex and challenging topics, such as universal digital inclusion.
It should be emphasised that these processes are flexible. For any actual process, there will be multiple considerations, including time and cost constraints. Additionally, this case study is not exhaustive in its considerations, for the sake of concision, but aims to illustrate the ideas presented in the main report.
Goals, Objectives and Outcomes
For this hypothetical case study, I would lay out the goals, objectives and outcomes as follows:
Goal: the creation of a national strategy to achieve universal digital inclusion.
Objective: to deliberate and decide on recommendations and suggested actions to achieve universal digital inclusion, by involving a diverse group of citizens in a meaningful participatory process.
Outcome: a report outlining the recommendations and suggested actions created by the citizens through the participatory process, to be presented to the relevant governance institution, communicated widely, and to serve as the basis of the national strategy to achieve universal digital inclusion.
These goals, objectives and outcomes are about a broad and complex policy challenge, containing a range of constituent questions. Therefore, a process with emphasis on deliberation, over a realistic period of time and with an initial “problem-framing” component, similar to a classic citizens assembly model, should be adopted.
Around 100 people, recruited to represent national demographic data from the last census. Recruit based on attitudinal factors relevant to universal digital inclusion, for example:
Do you have internet access at home?
Do you own any type of personal computer, tablet or handheld device?
Do you believe that internet access is a human right?
Have participants meeting one weekend per month, for six months.
Participants should be given the option to join online. Make sure these groups are coordinated: livestream plenary sessions to online groups, and have online groups; contributions to plenary sessions broadcast on screens to in-person participants.
The first weekend of this process would be used to decide, with participants, the key themes within the challenge of universal digital inclusion.
Subject-matter experts would present to participants during a plenary session. Participants would have time to discuss in small groups, after every presentation, and then ask questions of the expert.
Deliberation would be an “ideas generation” session to break participants into groups of no more than ten, each with a facilitator and notetaker, to discuss the topic.
Facilitators would have pre-prepared questions to stimulate conversation, such as:
What are your hopes and fears about universal digital inclusion?
How has this or will this impact you, your family or your community?
What do you think are the most important or urgent aspects of universal digital inclusion?
After synthesis by facilitators, creating one list of key themes decided by all groups, participants would be asked to check if they were happy with these or whether they want to add, combine or change any. They would then rank these key themes in order of priority, as part of the group, and then individually.
Each weekend of the process after the initial problem framing would focus on one of the key themes decided.
As illustrated above, these key themes would have been decided by participants, but for the purposes of this case study, regarding universal digital inclusion these could be: access to broadband; access to hardware/devices; digital literacy and empowerment; relevant content and inclusion and accessibility.
For each of the weekends examining a key theme, the structure would be the same. This is the design for one of these weekends on a key theme, using the example of “access to broadband”.
Similarly to above, during a plenary session participants would hear from subject-matter experts and then be able to discuss these contributions in smaller groups and follow up with questions. On the topic of access to broadband, this may be someone from a national regulatory body, an activist campaigning on the topic, an academic or researcher covering the subject or a member of the public recounting their experience. A range of opinions should be represented, as well as a mix of theoretical analysis and lived experience.
In groups, participants would discuss one of the key questions that fall under the theme of access to broadband. In this case these may be:
What does universal broadband access mean? Every person, every household or every business? Is there a threshold?
Should there be a minimum standard for broadband speeds, decided nationally?
Who should be responsible for funding this? Private sector, public sector, charities?
If one provider is responsible for broadband rollout, how should they be designated? How can the implications of this choice be mitigated?
Each table or “room” online would discuss one question at a time, and would then feed back a summary and the results of their discussion to the whole group.
To translate the results of the deliberation into something usable, participants will need to make a decision via consent, concerning each question. Facilitators and notetakers will extract the key discussion points from the deliberation phase and re-present them to participants. Participants will be asked to translate these into recommendations and actions. Taking the example of “what does universal broadband access mean?”, a point may have been about the necessity of broadband access to education. Facilitators can help guide participants to a recommendation such as “all children in education should have access to a broadband connection”, and more specifically “the public sector should fund broadband access for all children in education, provided via educational institutions”.
The final weekend of the process would see participants reflecting on the process and focusing on the outputs. Where there are opposing views, you must identify and work through conflicts to achieve resolution. Encourage participants to develop proposals that satisfy everyone and develop these until consensus is reached.
Since the previous weekend meeting, organisers would have consolidated the results and recommendations from each session. This synthesis would be presented back to participants, with an explanation of the process. Participants would be able to ask questions.
Participants would be asked to deliberate in groups on a series of more reflective questions:
Are there any other topics related to universal digital inclusion which you would like to cover?
Which of the recommendations do you think are most important, and are there any you would change?
Do you think achieving universal digital inclusion should be a policy priority?
What would you like decision-makers to know about this process and its outcomes?
As before, the key points from deliberative sessions will be drawn out and discussed, but this time the subject will be the process itself. It is interesting to hear participants’ perspectives on the broader challenge of universal digital inclusion at the end of an in-depth examination, over six months. It is also important to ask for their assessment of the process itself, so as to improve methods in future, but also to take into account any blind spots.
The writing up of results from each stage of the process, and each of the key themes, to present to decision-makers and publish publicly. With this example it would be a clear strategy to achieve universal digital access at national level, explained with group rationale and individual rationale. It would include specific targets and recommendations for actions to be taken in support of achieving this goal.
Alongside a written report, participant testimonials in the form of videos, audio or written statements would emphasise the importance of individual perspective and experience. Accompanying an explanation of the methodology would be a reflection by participants on the process, and what they thought worked or could be improved in future.
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