The role of digital technology in democratic innovation

Christopher Edgar / Senior researcher, NESTA

In recent years, there has been an increasing desire to enhance the democratic process and make it more accessible to citizens. In the UK for example, recent findings indicate that 77% of the general public believe that local residents should have a say in determining how government funds are utilised within their respective communities. These findings support a broader global trend, with one study reporting that 56% of people surveyed across 17 advanced global economies believe there should be major or complete reform of their political systems. There is a clear demand for democratic reform, and this demand has led to the development of a number of tools and platforms that facilitate citizen participation and engagement in democratic innovations such as citizens assemblies and participatory budgeting initiatives.

Given this demand, the increased proliferation of these tools and platforms, and discussions around the use of data in political action generating headline news in recent years, it can be surprising to learn that the adaptation of digital technology into democratic innovations can be slow. Here at the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design,  based at Nesta (the UK’s leading research and innovation agency), we wanted to develop a stronger understanding of how integration of digital tools can help foster democratic innovation. To that end, we recently published a report on democratic innovation and digital participation. In it, we provide a comprehensive overview of the current state of these processes, the barriers and enablers to their success, and offer recommendations for how to use digital tools to facilitate their implementation.

We found that use of digital tools can lead to a variety of broader benefits when implementing democratic innovations. This includes increasing citizen engagement, improving transparency, and increasing the efficiency of democratic processes. The use of such tools can also help address issues relating to representation of those who are not typically engaged in the democratic process (e.g. U-Report: a messaging tool used by UNICEF that allows young people to share their opinions on issues that affect them). Thus,  digital participation can enhance the quality of democratic decision-making by increasing the diversity of voices and perspectives that are heard. By providing citizens with new ways to participate and engage, digital participation can increase the representation of marginalised groups and increase the inclusiveness of democratic processes.

We also highlight the potential for digital participation to increase transparency and accountability in democratic processes. By using digital platforms to collect and share data, decision-makers can be held accountable for their actions and citizens can more easily hold them to account. The accessibility of digital platforms, and their ability to clearly convey useful information on them, improves the flow of information between citizens and decision-makers, making it easier for citizens to understand what has been asked of their political representatives and the extent to which their requests have been addressed (e.g.FixMyStreet: a digital platform that allows citizens to report issues to the relevant authorities for resolution).

Despite the potential benefits of combining democratic innovation  and digital participation, there are also challenges that must be addressed. For example, participation on digital platforms can increase the risk of misinformation and propaganda spreading between users, as well as raise concerns about privacy and security. There is also a risk that digital participation may further marginalise certain groups if they do not have access to technology or are not able to use it effectively.

To address these barriers to implementation, we recommend a number of steps that can be taken to further enhance the use of technology in the democratic process. These include:

  • Encouraging experimentation and innovation in democratic processes by providing funding and support for digital democracy projects.
  • Building the capacity of citizens to use digital technologies effectively by providing training and resources.
  • Ensuring that digital participation is accessible to all citizens, regardless of their background or socio-economic status.
  • Developing guidelines and standards for the use of technology in democratic processes to ensure that it is used in a way that is transparent, secure, and accountable.

There is clearly great potential for digital technology to enhance democratic processes and increase citizen engagement. However, there are also significant barriers that must be addressed in order to ensure that digital participation is used in a way that is inclusive, transparent, and secure. It is hoped that by identifying these barriers and enablers, and through providing our own recommendations for addressing associated challenges, both practitioners and policy makers can embrace the use of technology in the democratic process and make it more accessible to citizens.