Nesta: Digital democracy needs good planning, high-level buy-in and honesty

Written by Rebecca Hill on 23 February 2017 in News

Countries that want to use digital tools to increase public engagement with the democratic process must gain cross-party support for the intervention and be honest about what it will and will not do, a report has said.

Technology offers policymakers new ways to engage with the public, but projects need good planning and support - Photo credit: Pixabay

Innovation agency Nesta’s report Digital Democracy: The tools transforming political engagement, launched today in London, looks at the ways policymakers around the world are using innovative technologies to increase citizen involvement in politics.

The report said that democratic governance is one area that “seems to have remained impervious” to the benefits to digital technologies due to a failure to change.

However it added that, with the rise of populist parties and an increasing use of social media to mobilise political support, there is growing interest in digital democracy.

Examples of projects that are leading the way analysed in the report include Paris’ platform where people can share ideas about where to spend the city’s budget, and the vTaiwan project that aims to facilitate constructive conversation between different groups.

In addition to best practice case studies, the report’s authors also set out what they see as the fundamental things policymakers should consider before embarking on a digital democracy project.

These include making sure there is a purpose behind the engagement, so people feel there is value in their contribution, and that it’s clear how their input will be used by government.

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Projects should also remember that some people are not able to access digital tools and consider other ways of engaging them in the project, which should be part of effective planning.

Nesta also warned that trying to engender change through digital democracy will not be “a quick or cheap fix”. For instance, the report, said, they will require training for staff and citizens, as well as investment in technology.

Finally, the report said it was crucial that initiatives are supported by decision-makers or, ideally, have cross-party support.

This idea was picked up on by Nick Martin, chief executive of the Green Party, at the panel debate held to launch the report, who said that if digital democracy initiatives were to succeed political leaders would need to be ready to “give up significant control”.

This, he said, would require a culture change among political leaders, and an understanding that digital tools should be used for more than trying to win elections or mobilising support.

Meanwhile, Helen Milner, chief executive of the Good Things Foundation, said that - although good examples - many of the projects set out in the report would end up focusing on people who were already both politically and digitally engaged.

“Digital isn’t the silver bullet, it’s part of the solution. Our problem is political engagement,” she said, adding that groups should go out of their way to speak to people who would otherwise not engage with politics or the projects. 

Journalist and broadcaster Sue Cameron made a similar argument, saying that tech could not be a substitute for “cleaning up our existing institutions” and finding leaders that would be honest about the complexities of policymaking.

She added: “The vast majority of people don’t want do-it-yourself democracy, they’re busy. They don’t want to spend weekends getting to grips with finer points of European trade policy.”

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