Julie Simon
Theo Bass
Victoria Boelman
Geoff Mulgan
Publication Date
February 1, 2017

"How and to what extent are digital tools being used by parliaments, municipal governments and political parties to engage citizens to improve the quality and legitimacy of their decision-making? What can be learned from recent digital democracy initiatives about how to get the most from digital tools and create an effective platform for participation?"

Arguing that democratic institutions today remain largely untouched by the rise of new information and communication technology (ICT) tools that have impacted almost every other sphere of life, this paper shares lessons from Nesta's research into some of the innovations in digital democracy which are taking place across Europe and beyond. First, the authors define what they mean by digital democracy and provide a typology, before sharing their learnings on what makes a good digital democracy process and how current initiatives are affecting the legitimacy and quality of decision-making. These insights are drawn from the detailed case studies they present next: Madame Mayor, I have an idea (France), vTaiwan (Taiwan), LabHacker and e-Democracia (Brazil), Parlement et Citoyens (France), Decide Madrid (Spain), Pirate Party (Iceland), and Better Neighbourhoods/Better Reykjavik (Iceland). They conclude by pointing to some of the challenges and opportunities for the field of digital democracy, calling out to the digital democracy community to consider how it can better measure and evaluate the impact of its worth, to build the evidence base for what works.

Within the literature, there aren't any agreed-upon definitions of digital democracy, according to the authors. In part, they say, this is because the term overlaps with notions of citizenship, participation, transparency, accountability, governance, e-government, civil society, and the public sphere. They simply define the term as "the practice of democracy using digital tools and technologies". Because this definition is so broad, the paper provides a granular approach to help encompass its various activities and methods (a "typology of digital democracy", shown in Figure 2 on pages 13-14). It encompasses things like informing citizens, citizens providing technical expertise, deliberation, issue framing, citizens monitoring and assessing public actions and services, citizens making decisions, citizens developing proposals, citizens scrutinising proposals, citizens providing ideas, and citizens providing information.

"New experiments in digital democracy are showing how digital technologies can play a critical role in engaging new groups of people, empowering citizens and forging a new relationship between cities and local residents, and parliamentarians and citizens. A number of parliaments, including those of Brazil and France, are experimenting with new tools to enable citizens to propose and draft legislation. Political parties such as Podemos in Spain and the Icelandic Pirate Party are using tools such as Loomio, Reddit and Discourse to enable party members and the general public to deliberate and feed into policy proposals. Local governments have set up platforms to enable citizens to submit ideas and information, rank priorities, allocate public resources and receive notifications of upcoming debates....When it comes to more complex democratic processes, such as the development of policy or the drafting of legislation, the best new innovations are explicitly alert to the issues of potential bias. They are finding ways to carefully design processes which eliminate the filter bubble and bring together people with opposing views, or previously unheard views, to discuss, deliberate and, where appropriate, reach a consensus."

As reported here, many initiatives exist simply as an app, or web page, driven by what the technology can do, rather than by what the need is. Lessons from Nesta's case studies describe how digital tools are being used to engage communities in more meaningful political participation, and how they are improving the quality and legitimacy of decision-making. Nesta decided to focus their research on initiatives that aimed to engage citizens in deliberations, making proposals, and decision-making. They also focused on initiatives that have been used within the legislative branch of government. They examined 13 case studies, choosing 7 of the less well documented ones for in-depth analysis, so as to showcase experiments that aren't particularly well known to policymakers, parliamentarians, and practitioners. In short, at the parliamentary level, including in Brazil and France, experiments with new tools are enabling citizens to contribute to draft legislation. Political parties such as Podemos in Spain and the Icelandic Pirate Party are using tools such as Loomio, Reddit, and Discourse to enable party members and the general public to deliberate and feed into policy proposals. Local governments have set up platforms to enable citizens to submit ideas and information, rank priorities, and allocate public resources.

After a detailed exploration of these case studies, the authors present lessons from them, including:

  • Develop a clear plan and process: Pioneers in the field engage people meaningfully by giving them a clear stake; they conduct stakeholder analysis, operate with full transparency, and access harder-to-reach groups with offline methods. This might take the form of promotion via outdoor advertising and local journalism, or through proactive outreach to civil society grassroots organisations, as in the Paris and Madrid case studies. "Or it might involve targeting digitally active groups via social media, such as in Reykjavik. This is important for bridging the digital divide and increasing the legitimacy of decision-making by broadening the pool of participants."
  • Get the necessary support in place: The most successful initiatives have clear backing from lawmakers; they also secure the necessary resources to promote to the process properly (public relations (PR) and advertising), as well as the internal systems to manage and evaluate large numbers of ideas. One finding: "initiatives which have sought to actively connect representatives and citizens, for example through shared discussions, have also seen citizen interest and levels of participation rise, as the perceived impact of their contributions is seen as greater."
  • Choose the right tools: The right digital tools help to improve the user experience and understanding of the issue and can help remove some of the negative impacts of those who might try to damage the process. "The best platforms make it easy for participants to see the contributions of others, with some visualising the content to aid understanding. They also introduce features designed to limit the trolling or abusive behaviour associated with many online forums, and to prevent specific groups 'capturing' or 'gaming' the outcome. Open-source tools are optimal for transparency, enabling anyone to verify the code behind voting and other mechanisms."

Next, the authors reflect on the impact of digital democracy on the quality and legitimacy of decision-making. They explore the following:

  • "Can digital tools make democracy more representative by providing new opportunities for people to participate? The evidence from the case studies on this is pretty mixed. Most tend to show that participation is skewed to those who are already politically active and towards well-educated, young men in urban areas....However, it does seem that when done in conjunction with offline and outreach activities, digital democracy initiatives can broaden participation. This is the case in Madrid and Paris, where participation has taken place across all age groups. However, it is difficult to know for sure what the effects of digital technologies on participation are since most of the case studies collect so little data on who is participating. Similarly, it is difficult to know how and to what extent digital technologies have broadened participation in grassroots political parties because of a lack of data."
  • "Can digital tools improve the quality of decision-making by parliaments, political parties and governments?....All the examples we studied can provide at least anecdotal evidence of how these tools and processes improve the quality of decision-making by having more eyes on a document or process, or by bringing in people with a greater diversity of experiences and expertise to provide input or scrutiny. The most common way in which decisions are improved is simply by increasing the pool of ideas accessed or suggestions made, which decision-makers acknowledge would not have otherwise been considered in the process..."
  • "Can digital tools improve the legitimacy of our democratic institutions and processes? The evidence at the moment is tentatively positive with regards to legitimacy....All of the case studies have, to various degrees, improved the transparency of how decisions, legislation and policies are made. Simply by opening up the process to citizen involvement is, by default, an improvement....Involving people in this type of two-way communication requires authorities to be more explicit about the aims and outcomes of policymaking..."
  • "Can digital tools and technologies make public participation cheaper?....In every instance, the costs for the organising institution have in fact increased as a result of launching these initiatives..."

The authors then explore the challenges that digital democracy will need to address in the future. This includes: developing a more nuanced understanding of what we mean by "participation", bridging the digital divide, understanding motivations for participation, balancing aspiration and reality, making digital democracy the "new normal", capitalising on new technologies, addressing the gaps in digital democracy initiatives, and understanding what works in digital democracy: impact and evaluation. They also explore the limits to digital democracy, cautioning against overplaying what can be achieved through digital tools and technologies. "Digital technologies alone won't solve the challenges of apathy, disillusionment, low levels of trust and the widening chasm between the people and the political class - but they could play an important role nonetheless. To understand how digital technologies could make our institutions more open, and reshape the interactions between citizens and the state, we need greater experimentation, better evaluation to identify 'what works', and a greater understanding of how online activities can be used to supplement and support more traditional offline methods of engagement."


Nesta website, March 9 2017. Image caption: "The consultations page on the Parlement et Citoyens website. Each consultation is clearly headed with a video from the Representative leading it."