An article on digital democracy by Julie Simon and Theo Bass, originally published at Nesta:

“Politics is in crisis. Disillusionment, a lack of trust in politicians, apathy, falling turnout at elections and a surge in populist movements around Europe. What is the way out of this miasma?

Digital tools and technologies have transformed the way we live and work. Could they transform our politics too? New technologies are not likely to be a silver bullet to the current predicament, but the lesson from cities across Europe is that they can play a critical role in engaging new groups of people, empowering citizens and forging a new relationship between cities and local residents.

Many of those involved in this new wave of digital democracy came together earlier this summer at the Democratic Cities event in Madrid to discuss the future of politics and democracy. The event also marked the end of D-CENT, a 3-year EU funded project with partners from across Europe, including the Citizens Foundation, Forum Virium Helsinki, Open Knowledge Foundation, Thoughtworks and Centre d’economie de la Sorbonne.

The project, led by Nesta, developed a set of open source, distributed and privacy-aware tools for direct democracy and economic empowerment. These include tools which enable citizens to receive real time notifications about issues relevant to them, work collaboratively to propose and draft policies, decide and vote on proposals, and allocate resources through participatory budgeting processes.

Take, for example, Objective8, a tool for online crowdsourcing of proposals and collaborative policy drafting; or Mooncake, which provides a single newsfeed to help bring together comments, media, and notifications from other D-CENT tools. For privacy awareness, Stonecutter is a secure single sign-on for D-CENT which gives users control over the personal data they share; and Agora Voting is a cryptographically secure, verifiable and transparent online voting software, which opens the ballot boxes and tallies the results while preserving secrecy. The D-CENT project also ran workshops and worked with a number of partners to pilot and improve digital platforms in Reykjavik, Helsinki, Barcelona and Madrid.

The Democratic Cities event was an opportunity to hear about the outcomes of the D-CENT project, but also to learn from digital democracy pioneers from further afield. For example, we heard how – a tool that collects opinion and then visualises consensus and disagreements within a crowd – was recently used by about 600 participants to map different stakeholders’ views and inform new changes to local Uber regulations in Taipei.

WAGL, a “politics start-up” in South Korea built a tool for direct citizen input into the now famous 192 hour filibuster of an anti-terror bill. We also heard how Wellington City Council used Loomio to engage local residents in agreeing a set of principles for the city’s local alcohol management strategy.

The Net Party, the original pioneers of the now widely used DemocracyOS platform, shared their story of building a large following through online and offline methods, and how they secured the political buy-in to pilot their technology within the Buenos Aires legislature. You can listen back and watch some of these stories, along with a handful of others, here.

What have we learned so far?

If this field of digital democracy is to mature – with cities, parliaments and political parties adopting these tools to engage and empower citizens in their everyday decisions and deliberations – digital activists will need to consider the following issues.

1. Keeping users engaged and informed

Advocates will need to follow three tips for encouraging participation. First, tools should be kept simple. Successful upvoting tools like Plaza Podemos (on Reddit) and Your Priorities make barriers to engagement low through simple and intuitive interfaces. Second, users should be trusted with meaningful questions – asking trivial questions is likely to yield trivial answers (Boaty McBoatface is a useful yardstick in this regard). Third, users should be kept engaged with information about how their input was used. This is particularly difficult where the volume of input is high, where time and staff resources are limited, or where the path of legislation is slow and complex. Nonetheless, these insights remind us to keep the scale, expectations and intended goals of the project as clear as possible from the outset.

2. Finding common standards for evaluation

One of the striking features of the discussion was an absence of information about impact. Where is the evidence? Given the now massive list of examples available it’s important that projects learn from others, share best practice, and, crucially, share failures. Previous work in this area has highlighted that honest discussion around failures can be difficult for projects seeking adoption in an already reluctant political environment. Another difficulty is when the design of a tool is over-emphasised (i.e. look at my beautiful code) at the expense of how the project aims to actually attract participation and achieve impact.

Defining ‘impact’ can be challenging in this space: in most cases, the number of participants is used as the only measure. Other, more difficult questions need to be asked, such as: did the process improve the quality or legitimacy of decision making? Did it help to improve the quality of debate and inform citizens about important political issues? Did it succeed in improving public trust? The World Bank has recently published a useful, and more detailed framework for digital engagement evaluation.

3. Blending online and offline engagement

Some of the most successful digital platforms at the city level, like Decide.Madrid, Decidim.Barcelona and Better Reykjavik, have their roots in bottom-up forms of political engagement (originating from Ahora Madrid, Guanyem Barcelona/ Barcelona En Comu and the Best Party, respectively). City governments elsewhere should learn from this: offline engagement is especially important where accessing hard-to-reach groups is concerned. They must also work with social movements and civil society organisations in order to actively reach out to local residents and pilot digital tools in local communities.

This mindset was well captured by Aik van Eemeren from Amsterdam’s Chief Technology Office who said “technology doesn’t own the city, it’s just an enabler”. All this links back to engagement. It’s not all about the tool – a key challenge is working with communities so that they see the value in using it.

4. Broader engagement vs smarter engagement

Other questions arose about the types of crowds necessary to foster collective intelligence. In larger-scale exercises (often above the city level) the shared experiences and knowledge of participants is reduced, segregation of opinion is widened and ownership of the process is more uncertain.

Is the logic of large crowds reconcilable with the logic of policy-making processes in these cases? One study of a crowdsourcing exercise on off-road traffic law in Finland found that “massive, atomic [and] diverse input” was detrimental to the quality of the end result. To make these processes worthwhile, we might need stronger political will; we might need better methods of idea synthesis and aggregation; or perhaps we should seek smaller crowds with more distinct hierarchies of talent and expertise? This is one of the issues Nesta is exploring as part of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance.

Further questions then arise about legitimacy. It was generally assumed among the Democratic Cities attendees, and in the democracy field more generally, that engagement is a good in of itself, and that engagement strategies derive their legitimacy by involving as many people as possible. That is, the more people who were engaged by the process, the more legitimate the process and the decision ultimately taken.

However, there are inevitably some collective problems where a smaller group of participants – who have relevant experience or expertise – can alone improve the quality of decision making. What if processes are perceived as less legitimate but lead to better quality decision making or the inverse, where some processes are seen as legitimate, but lead to poorer quality decision making? This potential tension is something we will consider further over the coming months.

What next?

We’re currently looking at inspiring examples of digital democracy from around the world to distill key lessons for political parties, city governments and national parliaments. We want to understand how digital tools can be used to improve the quality and legitimacy of decision making and how they can be embedded into existing democratic structures and institutions.”

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