The smartphones in our pockets can seemingly accomplish anything—even things you didn’t know you needed (like downloading virtual bubble wrap). While various apps and our social media feeds may threaten our productivity and full night’s sleep, they also connect us to people, organizations, and information at our fingertips. However, there’s one key area that hasn’t quite reached its full digital potential: democracy.
While we live in an increasingly interconnected world, we also use the internet to join neighborhood associations, alumni pages, and other community groups. Digital spaces, which can be used on a city to national scale, may have the power to cultivate meaningful local impacts. It’s no secret that trust in the institutions and processes that govern our lives as citizens is in decline. Could digital democracy, that seeks to involve citizens anywhere, anytime, be the fix?
Jimmy Carter, writing in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, writes the United States needs to improve “systems for inclusive and effective political participation” in the digital era. Between outdated communications, layers of bureaucracy, and purposeful confusion tactics, it can be extremely difficult for citizens to know where to go, and who to talk to about community grievances or ideas.
If democracy is rule by the people, then it makes sense to engage citizens with the tools right at our fingertips. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll, nearly 9 in 10 Americans are now online, and 77% of Americans own a smartphone. People with limited mobility, job commitments, vehicle troubles, childcare responsibilities, and any other hindrance to participating in person could have their voices heard more easily.
At the Jefferson Center, we’ve seen these trends in action. In our current project with the Minnesota Community Assembly Project, citizens in Red Wing, Minnesota wanted strengthened digital public engagement from their city. Better digital platforms would allow more citizens to reach out directly to elected officials to offer their input and recommendations, have conversations with other community members, or vote directly on public decisions.
Digital Democracy in Action
Digital democracy has been taking root around the world, and it’s easy to find success stories. In Seoul, South Korea, residents use an app called “mVoting” that allows residents to share their thoughts on the “city’s public parks, bus routes and designated smoking areas.” To date, there have been 181 cases that have been officially accepted as Seoul policy.
Meanwhile in Spain, “Decide Madrid” is a similar app which asks residents to submit suggestions or new laws, and other communities members can voice their support on suggestions. A South Australian program called “YourSAy” is trying to accomplish a similar task, by offering an online forum where citizens can take part in discussions, vote in polls, and decide where government funds are spent within broader engagement efforts that include face-to-face meetings. The UK Parliament has also begun a system of “evidence checks”, which invites citizens to examine current policies, and the evidence used to support these policies, to identify any gaps or problems. A United States start-up firm called “Innovote” is also working to increase participation and accessibility by taking the vote to your phone, working with governments across the country.
Harnessing people power through technology would require apps, website, and other digital engagement tools. But in the long run, inviting people to participate remotely likely saves time and money, as well as delivering representative results.
Challenges to Inclusive Participation
In Taiwan, the website “vTaiwan” seeks to gather citizen views on issues. The results are collected and the program condenses the range of opinions into core citizen views. The website doubles as a facilitator, where stakeholders can participate in digital discussions, and policies are eventually formed on a national scale.
While the program has been scaled up over time, digital participation still remains in the thousands. Taiwanese activist Audrey Tang states that one driver of this lower participation may be because the process works well when primary stakeholders are online. When affected citizens don’t use the same technology, the process may be limited to niche issues. However, the website has been successful in both deciding and implementing policy, and popularizing media coverage around social enterprise company law, Uber ride service, and others. Minister Jaclyn Tsai commented that the process can be successful “if we can all take the time to understand the problem, read the data, while also listening to the views of the people—and enter a discussion, we are much more likely to reach a consensus.”
While accessibility to democratic conversations may increase for some, many citizens may not have stable internet access, or feel comfortable enough with technology to participate. In order to create representative solutions to issues, technology could be brought to different communities, combining new techniques and traditional advocacy to listen to more people.
Translating the Process
While these examples have largely focused on national and local government, there’s opportunities to broaden this scope. For instance, digital democracy could be used to ask what kind of local news citizens want to read, helping journalists to decide what issues to cover and how best to inform their communities. This could also be used to reduce diagnostic error, by engaging digitally with healthcare consumers to gather patient-focused perspectives.
At the Jefferson Center, we’re incorporating digital tools to recruit people to participate in our Citizens Juries, inform community members, and facilitate decision making. What other ways do you think civic participation organizations can use technology to increase democratic participation?