What’s the relationship between tech and democracy? What online spaces can deliberation take place in? What does open democratic innovation look like? On November 20th, we co-hosted an event with Dreamocracy to try and answer some of these big questions with key thinkers in the field. Here are our 5 main learnings.
1. Yes, democracy is resilient.
The introduction by Stephen Boucher and Lex Paulson focused on how strong and resilient democracy has been in 2020. In line with the recent Edelman barometer results, Paulson highlighted that levels of trust and attachment to democratic principles are strongest when it comes to local governments, and that the polarization at play in national debates is less present on a local level. In the US November election, the results were disputed by Republicans on a national level – but locally elected Republicans stuck to the integrity of the vote and ensured the legitimacy of the voting process.
Stephen Boucher added that when it comes to building resilience, democracies must think about emotions. Populist regimes are good at capitalizing on negative emotions such as fear, anger or despair. Our modern democracies should be able to lead on positive emotions to bring together and inspire their communities.
2. The global challenges we face are also opportunities.
The Covid crisis is, of course, a threat for local governments. It has also been hailed as a way for authoritarian regimes to grab more power and to enforce restrictive laws. However, as Lex Paulson explains, it has also been an opportunity to increase citizen engagement and cooperation with civil society. 2020 has shown that citizen expertise is the best way of dealing with a complex problem and getting innovative solutions to emerge. Collective intelligence is the only way to tackle the complex, global issues that governments are faced with (ranging from health to climate and terrorism). Without collective intelligence, authoritarian regimes will be unable to adopt an agile approach and to adapt to these changes – which, according to Paulson, could be their downfall.
3. Trust is built both online and offline.
One of the main challenges with online citizen participation and online conversations in general are that they are dehumanized, and can fail to reach the warmth and depth of real-world discussions. According to Robyn Scott (Apolitical co-founder), online platforms can also lead to a sense of dis-inhibition, which leads people to act out in a toxic manner when interacting online. The anonymity linked with the invisibility of participants can lead to a lack of reprisals, but also to a feeling that other users are characters, and not real people who deserve respect and attention. Until new online spaces emerge, it’s necessary to maintain a form of offline deliberation where participants can meet and discuss face to face.
Micah Sifry, co-founder of Civic Hall New York, added that creating a place for deliberation wasn’t enough. The most important factor for impactful deliberation is trust between participants. Trust builds over time, and it enables participants to agree and disagree in a constructive way – which is key to building consensus. According to Sifry, most of the online deliberation spaces we have today aren’t built for these types of interactions: as he puts it, “Internet is a great place to say No, but not to say yes”.
“Internet is a great place to say No, but not to say yes”.Micah Sifry
The issue with such physical spaces where trust is built is that they are very difficult to scale. As Xavier Troussard, head of the EU Policy Lab, explained, digital tools can help institutions and governments reach much higher numbers of citizens, but the resulting deliberation and engagement is much more shallow. Few digital tools truly enable co-creation.
4. Innovation is actually pretty simple!
Tech tools can be deceptive, and they’re not always a solution for democracy. As Ines Hijazi from BetaGouv (the French state’s incubator for digital public services) puts it, “tools alone don’t change democracy” – governments do. What governments need is a structural change and a more open approach to collaboration. Innovation starts with hybrid cooperation. As the private sector’s share of the common good is increasing (with private companies now focusing on health, education or community engagement), it’s necessary to “hack the institutions” and open the doors to outside innovation and services. Contrary to popular belief, our institutions aren’t threatened by the GAFAs but by much more complex, global threats that can be difficult to pinpoint. The answer to these challenges lies in the collaboration with the private sector and civil society organizations.
Tech tools alone don’t change democracyInes Hijazi, Betagouv
5. Collective intelligence doesn’t stop at deliberation.
As Stephen Boucher puts it, 2020 has been the year for collective intelligence. This year, exciting experiments in citizen engagement have been going on across Europe, a lot of which have been focused on citizen panels and deliberative practices. Claudia Chwalisz’s research confirms that the use of representative, deliberative citizen panels by governments is increasing. The common goal of these groups is to reach consensus and inform decision-making.
However, it’s important to consider that collective intelligence doesn’t stop at assemblies and deliberation. Lex Paulson pointed out that by focusing too intensely on these participative processes, we might be missing out on a broader conversation around how to bring citizens in parliament. There are many other options to consider: hashtag campaigns, wikis, hackathons, citizen science, data gathering… Collective intelligence science is hugely complex we still have a lot more to discover!