Can technology renew democracy? Yes, but not without political innovation

Technology to fight corruption, the Internet of Things and public administrations totally accessible from a mobile phone, etc., are soon expected to facilitate and enhance the relationship between governments and citizens. Digital democracy, a recent development designed to tackle public disaffection, has been focused on the tools rather than citizens’ participation in policy-making, as seen in Britain, with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence and its online consultation with survivors, in March 2000. Many of the 199 participants criticised the lack of input from MPs.

The MPs responded that they “could not provide immediate responses to questions or read all the contributions, due to other demands on their time”. Some expressed concerned that “the internet format might give participants the impression that they would receive an instant response to the issues or questions they raised”.

The United States experienced a worrying fall in levels of citizen engagement, including in elections, at the beginning of this century. The issue was one of the core themes at the American Political Science Association’s general meeting in 2002. Pippa Norris, who teaches comparative politics at Harvard, spoke at the meeting of a “Democratic Phoenix“ combined with “a new generation less willing than their parents and grandparents to channel their political energies through traditional agencies” – political parties, churches or trade unions – but more likely to express themselves “through a variety of more ad hoc, contextual and specific activities of choice, increasingly via new social movements, Internet activism, and transnational policy networks”. The “agencies, channels and targets”, concludes the political scientist, “have diversified and evolved during the post-war era”.

The year 2011, with the Arab Spring, 15M and Occupy Wall Street, saw an upsurge in technopolitics – that is, the use of technological tools designed for political action. According to Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí, author of Tecnopolítica, its contribution to political renewal lies in the fact that, aside from “facilitating participation and debate on a wide scale”, it has the “ability to convert members, sympathisers or voters into activists. […] Technopolitics can change equations, as voices turn into networks, words into threads, and people into communities.”

When citizens place their agenda on the political agenda

In Iceland, the crisis generated by the bankruptcy of its three largest private banks created an opening for digital democracy. Amid the protests, programmers Gunnar Grímsson and Róbert Bjarnason launched Your Priorities, a website where citizens shared proposed legislation and budget measures at a time of deep mistrust in their institutions. When the initiative grew to become the Better Reykjavík platform, they started to have a real impact on policy making: 800 citizen initiatives were approved by the city council within seven years.

“It’s an extremely important tool, not only in the local democracy but in the concept of democracy in a country that felt the system had failed them entirely,” says MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir in a documentary on the project.

Madrid has followed in Reykjavik’s footsteps. Its citizen participation platform, Decide Madrid, received the 2018 UN Public Service Award for “establishing more open, transparent, participatory and inclusive governance models”. Quito, Valletta and Turin are some of the cities that use CONSUL, a free software tool allowing citizens to put forward and engage in debates, ideas, votes, budgets and participatory legislation. It provides citizens with the opportunity to have their agendas placed on the political agenda rather than simply reacting to what the institutions propose. As highlighted by the creators of LATINNO, the largest database covering democratic innovations in Latin America, “it is not a question of including more citizens in the political process”, but of developing, through citizen participation, “the governments’ capacity to respond to citizens’ demands, making institutions more accountable for their actions, strengthening the rule of law and promoting social equality”.

Citizens’ initiatives versus parliamentary decision-making

“Under democracy, citizen interest groups are not decision-making but proposal-making mechanisms. Collective intelligence and bottom-up decision-making tools shape the democratic component of political initiative, but not the decision,” Yago Bermejo, Collective Intelligence for Democracy project manager at MediaLab-Prado in Madrid, tells Equal Times. “That’s why the legitimacy of decisions is another layer we’re working on.” This deficit is illustrated when proposals arising from distributed open collaboration (or crowdsourcing) clash with other interests.

In Spain, for example, during the height of the crisis, the Spanish parliament rejected the People’s Legislative Initiative (ILP) put forward by the PAH (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) regarding repossession in lieu of mortgage repayment and the halting of evictions, even though it was backed by one and a half million signatures. A second ILP on the housing emergency was also rejected by the Madrid Assembly in 2017. “We need direct democracy mechanisms such as those in Switzerland or in some US and German states (binding citizens’ initiatives), so that we don’t depend (solely) on political representatives,” concludes Bermejo.

The emergence of technology in the public sphere has given rise to new civil demands such as the right to transparency and to access to public information.

“Within the EU, Estonians are one of the nations that most trust their government and public institutions,” Kristina Reinsalu of the e-Governance Academy tells Equal Times. “The Public Information Act was passed in 2001.

It was quite revolutionary at the time, as it required all public institutions to publish everything online. Transparency and access to information that was previously ‘hidden’ or ‘kept in secret’ increased citizens’ level of trust,” she explains, alluding to the Soviet years.

“It is, after all, our own government, why shouldn’t we trust it? The fact that we provide the state with our data probably makes us much more open than other nations. We see it as beneficial, as we get something in return, such as much more comfortable e-services suited to our needs, and of course there is the rule of law to protect data and privacy,” says the Estonian researcher.

“In Germany, although they are impressed with our Digital Society, and our use of blockchain, they say it could not happen there because of the transfer of data. We don’t understand this. Since we voluntarily give our data to Google and Facebook, the Estonian attitude is ‘why shouldn’t we expect our government to use our data in a way that benefits us?’”.

Digital diplomacy, tech giants and ‘soft power’

Technology is not only gaining ground locally and nationally, but also in the foreign policy sphere. It is telling, in this respect, that some countries have invested millions in companies such as Uber, in order to increase their ‘soft power’, as is the case with the government of Saudi Arabia (with an investent of US$3 billion); Japan and South Korea are also trying to be more present in a sector currently led by US companies.

In addition, the growing economic clout of companies in the technology sector or e-commerce, such as Amazon, makes them powerful political actors. An example is the company’s role in the No Tax On Jobs campaign against a tax (which Amazon argued affected it disproportionately, and managed to topple) that Seattle City Council was planning to use to fund public housing, to tackle rising homelessness.

One response could be that provided by Denmark, with its appointment of the world’s first Tech Ambassador, Casper Klynge. “Instead of talking to departments such as Foreign or Transport Ministries, we are talking to some of the big technology companies, not only in the EU or in the USA but at global level,” he explains to Equal Times.

Based in Copenhagen, Beijing and Silicon Valley, Klynge recognises that his presence in the Valley is designed “to keep an eye on tech giants to better protect our citizens’ rights”.

“Asian tech giants are also becoming extremely large and very powerful,” he adds, and “some of the other companies around have very questionable ethics, very questionable approaches to their responsibility towards society”.

“We think that technology is going to be incredibly important and very influential over global affairs and that’s, of course, the reason for our policy work in this area,” he insists. “A key part of what we are trying to achieve is to bring together, let’s call it, a coalition of like-minded countries, companies, civil society actors, etc., with a similar vision – voices that are positive about what technology can do but also attentive to the challenges we’ll have to navigate.”

According to the tech ambassador: “Bringing civil society on board is essential, it is a critical force. It is something we are already doing in many other policy areas. If you look, for instance, at how we develop cooperation around the world, civil society plays a key role in designing our development cooperation policy. And that’s exactly what we are trying to do here as well.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.