Last week, CitizenLab headed to the city of lights to attend one of the most renowned events in the GovTech sector: the GovTech Summit!

Every year, this event gathers Europe’s brightest and mightiest to rethink the structures of government. This year was no exception, and we ended up having some stimulating conversations about GovTech, citizen participation, and e-democracy. So without further ado, these are our top 4 takeaways!

1. Give citizens a say in how governments manage their data

Citizens have their rights, and that’s no different in the online realm. But in the age of the internet, many of these online rights are relatively new or are being developed and tweaked as we speak. Protecting citizens’ online safety and data has become a pressing and important challenge for governments.

When we talk about the potential risks, the technology itself is often not the problem. The true challenge for governments lies in setting up an appropriate governance structure with clear rules. Involving citizens in the discussion on their digital rights and the protection of their data helps you to build their trust.

Jamie Boyd, a representative of British Columbia, gave a great example of how to tackle this. They set up a citizens’ assembly to debate the question “how should we manage your data?” A representative group of 30 citizens got together to understand the topic, agree on the definitions, and finally voice their preferences in a structured and constructive debate.

2. 150 principles for those who shape technology

Technology is never neutral. It is always programmed by humans, who are inherently biased. As governments are increasingly choosing a digital approach in servicing and interacting with their citizens, it is important to think about how we can eliminate the bias in tech.

In this regard, The Copenhagen Catalog is a great resource. This guideline describes 150 principles for a “new direction in tech”. By doing so, the guide intends to make people in charge of shaping technology more aware of their responsibility. Choosing value over profit, loving your competitors, or making the evolution of society your main goal: the principles touch upon every single aspect of tech and progress.

3. How representative should your sample of citizens be to draw valuable conclusions?

This point is not really a takeaway, but rather a question we remembered from the ‘Technology & Democracy” panel. At CitizenLab, civil servants often ask us to what degree the insights on our platform are representative of the population as a whole. We believe in a hybrid approach to participation that mixes offline and online methods to ensure an inclusive deliberation.

But do we need an exact, statistically representative sample of citizens to draw interesting conclusions? In many cases, citizens’ opinions will still be diverse, even if the sample isn’t 100% statistically inclusive.

Of course, there’s no question about it: we constantly need to ensure that marginalised groups and minorities are included in participatory processes as much as possible. It’s one of our top priorities, which is why we’ve written an interesting (and free!) e-guide on improving inclusiveness on our platforms and in our projects. But that being said, depending on your final goal, it’s possible that not every single project requires a representative sample.

4. ‘Privacy’ and ‘Innovation’: friends or foes?

At the GovTech Summit, I participated in a panel on privacy and innovation. One of the discussions we had focused on the fact that while the EU has pretty advanced legislation on data protection (GDPR), that’s not the case when it comes to regulating AI and algorithms. Because, as we already discussed, (this) technology can include bias, partly stemming from the people who developed or programmed them.

In this opinion piece for the Financial Times, Marietje Schaake discusses the dilemma that often arises when considering the legal regulation of the tech industry. Will strict rules ‘stifle innovation’, or are they simply necessary? “Corporate initiatives are no substitute for democratic lawmaking,” says Schaake.


As you can see, we’ve returned to our HQ in Brussels with a lot of food for thought. Did you make it to the GovTech Summit? Which were your personal takeaways? Find us on Twitter and let us know! Or get in touch with one of our experts on citizen participation.

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