This month’s elections will present local governments with a fresh democratic mandate. But unfortunately for much of the electorate, this is likely to be their last form of democratic engagement with the local council until … the next election.
This lack of engagement is emblematic of a broader government culture that conflicts with the reality of life in the digital era. While technology has transformed how we live, work and communicate, government institutions appear immune to the paradigm shifts occurring within society. Local governments in particular have a distinctive democratic platform on which they could innovate – they have the mandate to engage citizens on everyday matters they are actively invested in rather than partisan issues from which they are disconnected. And technology is the means by which they can foster this relationship in between elections, not just around elections.
Covid-19 has highlighted the role that local government plays in society and the power it can wield. The pandemic has equally shown just how dependent on technology we all are. This is why local governments across the country should be seizing on this unique opportunity to adapt how they govern to better meet the needs of citizens through a sophisticated approach, consistent with the expectations and possibilities of the digital era.
For this, we can look to the rapidly growing field of digital democracy, a set of tools and methods for collaborating with citizens and building a more responsive infrastructure. So, what is digital democracy, why is it valuable and what are some key considerations for practitioners?
Digital democracy is a form of citizen engagement using technology, and is part of a broader field of democratic innovation that includes deliberative democracy (by discussion) and participatory democracy (where citizens can get involved in the decision-making process). Digital democracy isn’t necessarily separate to these concepts; it is one way of enabling them.
While we look here at digital democracy in the context of how it can enable citizen engagement between elections, online voting and voter information remain essential components of a modern democracy, as we have written about previously.
The route to frictionless collaboration with citizens
Digital democracy has many different manifestations from participatory budgeting to public deliberation and citizen decision-making, from the development and scrutiny of proposals to the monitoring of public actions and services. Nesta outlines more here.
The benefits of using technology in government engagement are extensive. In the long term, it can renew legitimacy in institutions, facilitate the tailoring of public services closer to user need and create a more conversational infrastructure between government and citizen. In the short term, it breaks down barriers to scale, makes participation easier, invites new audiences, provides continuous feedback loops and enables experimentation at low marginal costs.
At a local level, these tools can really shine. While local government is not immune from partisanship, it is also responsible for dealing with pragmatic issues such as waste collection and social care; services that quickly come to the attention of people when not functioning properly. The options for addressing these issues can often boil down to binary questions, making them a great fit for online tools and the ideal laboratory for frictionless collaboration and co-production between governments and citizens.
Council leaders and mayors are also closer to a genuine feedback system than central government because policies are often rolled out in a matter of months. Digital democracy tools can make these feedback loops shorter, more robust and more accessible. Additionally, this technology can give local governments the opportunity to build services around citizens in a far more sophisticated and targeted understanding of user needs – akin to how successful technology companies approach their service design and product strategies. The narrow mandates of metro mayors in particular mean they can devote significant attention to getting a smaller number of services just right.
Evolution – not migration – of engagement tools
It would be misleading to characterise digital democracy as merely migrating old tools to the internet. Digital democracy doesn’t just make existing democracy work better, it can also amount to an evolution of how governments engage with citizens. Streaming council meetings, online consultations and transferring some public services online are all essential developments – yet such examples fail to fully grasp the opportunity of the internet. It is true there is value in the transparency that digitisation provides but technology has the potential to offer much more than this alone.
Digital democracy tools require active engagement, like responding to questions instead of passively watching a committee meeting. Even some of the more impressive uses of social media by local governments like this Twitter bot by Camden Council, although they demonstrate essential innovation in government engagement, don’t get the most out of the available technology. From developing proposals to monitoring public services, technology’s potential use in democratic engagement is wide-ranging and goes beyond online surveys and a responsive Twitter account.
Digital democracy is not just for the ‘hyper-engaged’
At first glance, democratic innovation and digital democracy run the risk of low participation; would those who do engage have done so regardless of the tools? But it’s important not to compare voter turnout with democratic innovation. The act of ticking a box once every four years simply cannot be compared to the act of solving a local, social problem. Whatever the reasons behind low voter turnout, there is no reason to believe that people would be similarly detached from solving essential local issues that directly affect their lives, ranging from the smooth running of the bus service to timely bin collection.
Still, although technology can enable participation at larger scale than ever before, it is not a silver bullet for universal participation nor should that necessarily be the goal. Digital democracy should be about better engagement, not just more engagement.
Local governments should be driven by need, not merely by the capabilities of tech, even when accessible digital platforms help them do so at scale. In Reykjavik, Iceland, an ideas-generation platform has had more than 70,000 visitors from a city-wide population of 120,000. Ideas that citizens submit online are evaluated offline by the local government to establish their cost and feasibility, before eligible projects are put to users for an online vote. Without proper management of the process, this use of technology could have translated into an uncontrollable cacophony of ideas but instead it actually enabled a set of small- and large-scale public investment, including improvements to roads and increasing the provision of homeless shelters.
Consider the potential trade-offs
Technology should not be thrown at a problem in a tokenistic attempt to provide more legitimacy to a process or decision. Proper appreciation of the potential organisational changes required to complement such innovation is needed. Digital democracy is best designed around an end-to-end process of engagement, from involving users in preliminary ideas generation to informing citizens of the outcome of such engagement.
To achieve this significant financial investment in the technical tools is necessary; so are investment in the human resources to manage of the process and institutional-level investment to ensure the outcomes are heard and acted upon. Technology often comes with a trade-off: high upfront versus low marginal costs; in addition to staff resources, there are outreach and communications, IT, software and insurance or risk assessment costs to be taken into account. The end output could, in the final calculation, enable streamlining of services to some extent by tailoring them according to what the citizen needs and expects. But digital democracy tools are not by themselves an answer to financial woes.
In the face of the global pandemic, funding cuts and growing disillusionment with institutions, governments need to start seeing democratic innovation as a must-have, not a nice-to-have. Technology has driven the need for change but is also part of the solution. Today, local government is ideally positioned to become a crucial laboratory of innovation from which central governments can learn. All the while, digital democracy has the power to bolster relevance, restore legitimacy and improve public services.
Access further resources on the subject from UK leaders:
New Conversations: LGA Guide to Engagement – Local Government Association Using Digital Tools and Methods to Engage Residents in Covid Recovery – London Office of Technology and Innovation
Digital Tools for Citizens’ Assemblies – mySociety
The Rise of Digital Democracy and Digital Democracy – Nesta