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The future of democracy is digital

CitizenLab CEO and co-founder Wietse Van Ransbeeck comments on the encouraging signs that ‘Civic Tech’ could be the answer to increased participation and trust in local politics, following a year like no other. 

It’s been a year of immense challenge. Yet with all eyes on the health of our citizens, less attention has been paid to the health of our democracy. But with many elections on hold and traditional forms of political participation currently impossible, the voices of citizens across the world are struggling to make themselves heard. With trust in government low and voters feeling disenfranchised, how can we protect and enhance democractic participation?

We created CitizenLab five years ago because I felt frustrated at the lack of opportunities to get involved in local politics and contribute to decision-making in my community. Over the last 11 months, these familiar feelings of atomisation and disempowerment have returned. And I know I’m not alone. Many of us have never felt so local, so literally rooted to our local environment, and yet had so few avenues through which to express our opinion.

The pandemic has reinforced my belief that, although things are gradually changing, we’re not doing enough to empower citizens to have a say in their communities. It’s time to forge new pathways to civic engagement and embrace new tools to drive up participation.

If you’ve ever written to your local council or MP, it’s likely that the experience wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. Slow responses or those containing nothing but platitudes are commonplace. Frustrating waits on hold, or a struggle to pinpoint the right person to contact; these are hallmarks of ‘engaging’ locally. It’s why most people don’t bother unless they have to. This is at the heart of the problem. Traditional routes are hard, boring, or infrequent in occurrence. And, thanks to Covid, even those pathways have been blocked or made more difficult to access.

And the impact of a disaffected citizenry runs deep. Brexit is a prime example of an outcome driven by those who felt disenfranchised and pushed for a disruption – any disruption – to shake up the status quo they believed was no longer working for them. The rise in the anti-vaxxer movement also stems from a distrust in officials and the process by which they achieve and retain power.

As a result, people take things into their own hands. They congregate on social media, where misinformation is rife. They withdraw from traditional processes, pushing down participation and weakening representation even further. Or they are drawn towards populist or alternative thought leaders, many of whom wreak havoc if they assume positions of power.

If we are to reverse these trends, local governments and communities need to harness some of the same tools (namely, technology), and repurpose them for better outcomes. Thankfully, councils are beginning to reinvent the way they can include citizens in decision-making through technology. This will allow for the energy displayed at protests and online forums to be utilised into tangible action.

Here is where the emerging sector that is ‘civic tech’ comes in.  In short, Civic Tech focuses on citizens. Wikipedia defines the term as “a technology that enables engagement, participation or enhances the relationship between the people and government”. It aims to encourage citizens to act in the interests of the public.

My experience of feeling disempowered sparked my interest in civic tech and how it could tackle the issue I’d stumbled upon. CitizenLab, the company I co-founded, is based upon the belief that technology could unlock the door to better civic participation. Through equipping age-old democracies with the digital tools to truly engage with their communities, trust in government at all levels can begin to recover. 55% of citizens say they would like to be involved in local decision-making, but 83% say there is a lack of transparency in politics preventing them from doing so. Civic tech provides the road map to address this.

By intelligently and strategically developing tools which can easily be used and understood by communities, millennials and future generations, democracy has a fighting chance to make a comeback in a new, less bureaucratic way. This means, for example, that community meetings can be supplemented with virtual discussion forums, enabling more people to join the discussion. Decisions can be crowdsourced through polling and survey tools.  Future proofing local government and encouraging people to voice their opinions through these tools is paramount in a world increasingly hosted online.

Civic technology is enabling local governments to collect real-time insights into their communities’ priorities, which in turn is helping them shape better policies. It’s not just about the numbers: the digital democracy tools are evolving and they are now enabling rich, in-depth online conversations at a time where offline meetings have become impossible.

With an increasing consensus amongst governments globally that the future of democracy needs an overhaul, Civic Tech could be the answer to repairing the political chasm that’s defined the past few years. We encourage positive means of community engagement that we know remain effective, such as citizen’s assemblies, for example. Through taking what works and adding a digital element to it, we can enhance the outcomes for local communities. As the last months have shown us, we’re all deeply and intricately connected to the environments and infrastructure amongst which we live. It’s time to ensure we all have the chance to shape what those look like and how they, and we, are governed.

 

CitizenLab CEO and co-founder Wietse Van Ransbeeck

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