Our Response to the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission
Technology - and social media in particular - has developed a terrible reputation for its impact on democracy. Many are concerned that it allows fake news to spread, encourages polarisation of views, and provides a platform for extremists. In the recent US election, voters and commentators rightly paid great attention to the ways in which the presidential candidates used social media, and the tech firms’ various efforts to make sure information shared on their platforms was true and accurate.
These concerns are valid and legitimate. But democracy has even broader problems: research by Cambridge University’s Centre for the Future of Democracy found that dissatisfaction with democracy globally is now at an all-time high. You might put this (indirectly) down to tech too: in a world where news, information and goods move faster than ever before, choosing between two or three political parties once every 5 years feels somewhat archaic by comparison.
At the same time, technology has the potential to make governments radically more accountable, transparent and responsive to citizens’ needs. At election time, it can connect voters with the information and tools they need to participate through tools like MySociety’s TheyWorkForYou and Democracy Works, and in time might make it easier and more convenient for people to vote. In between times, it can help governments access expertise and better understand different groups’ views and preferences, and allow many more people to have a meaningful say on the laws and policies that affect them using deliberative democracy platforms like v.Taiwan.
The UK Public Accounts and Constitutional Affairs Committee has set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to take a broad look at the health of the country’s democratic culture and institutions. You can read our response in which we make the case for looking at the role of tech in revitalising democracy below. And if you’d like talk to us about how we can harness the power of technology to upgrade democracy and overhaul public services, get in touch -- we’ll be looking at these issues in much more detail over the next few months and we’d love to hear from you.
Given the remit of the Commission to look at “the broader aspects of our constitution” & “come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions & in how our democracy operates” are there issues not on the Government’s list that need to be examined?”
The government should be much more focused on the opportunity that technology brings for democracy and civic engagement. With decreasing trust in governments, a global pandemic and a constantly evolving political landscape, government need to explore more innovative methods of engaging the public that bring them closer to the decision-making process.
We are facing some of the most difficult issues experienced for generations; a global pandemic, climate crisis and technological revolution. This is happening at a time when democratic engagement plays out largely online, making society more pluralistic than it has been before, but democracy and related institutional structures are largely built for an analogue age. Sentiments of citizen powerlessness and disengagement are intensifying and trust in government is decreasing.
The challenge for governments now is how to restore trust in institutions in a constantly evolving operating environment. It is essential for governments to recognize that to restore trust in democracy in the internet era, democratic engagement needs to be designed to respond between elections, not just for elections.
Nb. In this response we define digital democracy as a set of tools and interactions with the public throughout government and parliamentary engagement and, for the most part, outside of election periods.
A closer relationship between the citizen and state, properly scoped, should help leaders understand the plurality of public opinions on thorny policy issues, in turn potentially addressing the growing disconnect between public institutions and those they represent. Internet technologies have amplified the voice of the networked public, creating political pressure that’s here to stay. It would be far more effective to channel this constructively, using technology to be more responsive to people’s needs and underrepresented voices, than allow it to take on a destructive approach and be externalised elsewhere.
There is an opportunity to use more civic and democracy tech to better engage with people and to allow government and parliament to make better decisions.
Governments and public institutions around the world are increasingly turning to more innovative ‘deliberative’ solutions to explore difficult and far-reaching issues, as can be seen in Ireland’s Citizens Assembly on Abortion or the UK Climate Assembly. Graham Allen and Dr Blick spoke in great detail in the oral evidence for this Commission on 6th October the benefits of deliberative democracy. As they clarified, in an offline world, ‘deliberative democracy’ is the idea that moderated discussion between citizens can enable consensual decision-making, and is considered to be more authentic and immune from some of the disadvantages of party politics. This creates an opportunity to empower both citizens and government – specifically by making policymaking more legitimate, effective and inclusive.
But technology adds a new layer to these benefits and can allow deliberative democracy to go from a nice-to-have to a must-have. While it has many benefits, offline deliberative democracy can be limited to all of the participants being in one room, not having the right stakeholders in the conversation, slower feedback loops and doesn’t take advantage of the advanced computational power of technology.
Digital democracy could provide an entire suite of tools to government which allow better civic participation in policymaking and in turn, more effective policy. Various case studies from around the world show that technology can enable deliberation at scale, personalisation of policy, continuous feedback loops and improvement, experimentation at low marginal costs, collaboration with citizens and more effective resourcing of expertise.
Digital democracy is as much about the policy making process as it is about procedure
It is worth noting that digital democracy is not necessarily embedding technology into parliamentary procedure, but the broader policymaking process. Using technology to better engage with citizens could manifest itself in a number of ways; informing citizens, issue framing, citizens scrutinizing proposals, participatory budgeting, citizens providing technical expertise or public deliberation.
Further to this, participatory, deliberative or digital democracy are not concepts in conflict with representative democracy. On the contrary, they support and further legitimize it. Political engagement in the internet era is indistinguishable from that of the 20th century, and it is essential that democracy adapts to the new plurality of the electorate. These insights should inform, rather than substitute, the policymaking process. Modern technologies allow governments to use their unique position to engage the public and aggregate views.
We recently conducted some polling with YouGov which demonstrates increasing levels of comfort with technology in the public sector, and notably in the democratic process through online voting. 43% of the British public would prefer to vote online in a national election in the future, with no significant partisan differences in preference either. Covid-19 has demonstrated that physical presence is no longer a barrier to meaningful participation. Government should take advantage of this to bring people into the policymaking process, when the government most need effective policy and citizens most need a government they can trust.
1. Digital democracy enables participation at scale which empowers citizens
Using technology to reach new audiences and as large an audience as possible, without overwhelming the government, is one of the benefits of using technology in democracy. There are some good examples of digital democracy initiatives from around the world that have led to a much higher level of participation than would be achieved through offline initiatives:
Iceland’s Better Reykjavik is an idea generating platform for the city that allows citizens to suggest, debate and rank ideas for improving the city.
Madame Mayor, I have an idea, was started by the Mayor of Paris in 2014 as a participatory budgeting pilot.
2. Democratic institutions can become more responsive to citizen needs
Using digital democracy tools in public consultations could enable as many people as possible to participate and better reach the people that the policy is likely to have the most impact on. Building stronger feedback loops between citizen and government and making policy generally more responsive to citizen needs is a crucial tenet of digital democracy.
Parlement el Citoyens is a website which brings together representatives and citizens to discuss policy issues and collaboratively draft legislation.
vTaiwan’s forward thinking collaborative tools categorise and synthesise responses to government policy, as well as reach relevant stakeholders with considerably more precision than offline methods. Taiwan uses an artificial intelligence tool, Pol.is to conduct surveys, which prompts people to agree, disagree or skip several statements, as well as offer their own statement. It then clusters users who voted similarly into opinion groups and builds ‘consensus statements’. This allowed them to solve complicated policy issues such as regulation of Uber.
3. Democratic institutions can become more transparent
Digital democracy tools and methods can indirectly produce more transparency by engaging people in the process, and/or the tools can be deliberately designed with the aim of making government and parliamentary structures easier to understand.
The Carbon Neutral Helsinki 2035 plan outlines 147 goals with concrete actions assigned to civil servants within Helsinki’s government who in turn report data on their progress through the city’s Climate Watch website.
E-Democracia Brazil was set up with the aim of making the legislative process in Brazil more transparent and to improve citizens’ understanding of the legislative process which is particularly complex in Brazil.
The benefits of participatory and deliberative democracy are more responsive, representative and effective policy and public services. The benefits of technology are that it reduces barriers to scale, iteration, feedback, experimentation and collaboration, which can unlock a much wider potential of deliberative and participatory methods.
More and better democratic engagement could restore trust in our institutions and how our democracy operates, and the UK government should use the experiences of other countries as lessons to implement their own democracy tools.
We will be conducting more research on digital democracy over the next year and would be happy to discuss these ideas in more detail with the Committee.