Digital democracy that helps elected representatives serve

Digital democracy that helps elected representatives serve

A lot of people are talking about digital democracy these days… it seems to be a particular fascination of silicon-valley elite, intellectuals, developers and many of them seem convinced that it could be a solution to the world’s problems.

In April 2015, even New Scientist wrote about technology and the expectations attached to tools promising to give us all a voice and save our political systems. The editors piece was excellent highlighting use of tools to date as a start and opportunities but while the issues article was interesting and profiled some of the tools available it didn’t connect them to the direct, liquid, representative and deliberative ‘flavours’ it mentioned.

It’s great to see so much fresh interest in democracy and the nerd in me loves these debates but at the same time, the differing voices and approaches can be confusing and run the risk of limiting the efforts of those of us trying to advocate for better engagement inside of Governments now.

I have spoken and written a lot in the past about using technology for Government consultation and engagement, but it’s really important to consider that while there are many useful engagement tools available, not all of them are right for Government. In fact, in this post, I’ll share my views on why some of them can help us work better with Government than others.

Let me just say upfront that I understand not everyone will agree with this post and I would like to encourage discussion. (This is about as political as you will see me get… ☺)

Government consultation and engagement is a unique use case. Data collected through online engagement tools needs to be tracked so issues can be identified and addressed and input gathered analysed and reported for decision-making. When a Government asks for ideas or input, the expectation of participants, us, citizens and stakeholders, is that they will consider each and every suggestion and comment.

In addition, Government agencies have significant and unique privacy, information and records management requirements, many of which are bound be legislation. Not all engagement technologies enable this. These types of requirements can also differ across international borders.

There is also some confusion about what tools can be used for engagement and what tools can be used for digital democracy. In a representative democracy, people and online technologies can contribute to democracy by informing our elected representatives, but this is significantly different from using a tool to give citizens the power to make decisions (direct democracy).

I differentiate between types of technologies that can be used for Government to citizen engagement – engagetech – and tools that can be used for political purposes or citizen-to-citizen engagement.

EngageTech is a term to describe those tools that can be used to support Government engagement with citizens. This includes tools used by Government to identify stakeholders and understand communities, to invite and encourage citizen or stakeholder participation and to collect, analyse and report data.

There are many examples of these kinds of tools – some of the most popular examples of proprietary tools in Australia are Engagement HQ, CitizenSpace, Social Pin Point, The Hive, Crowdspot, Survey Monkey and Survey Gizmo, Consultation Manager and Darzin.

CivicTech tools are those that enable citizen-to-citizen engagement. These tools help citizens engage with each other and self-organise. While these tools can be useful for engagement by Government when used well, many are not appropriate for Government consultation. It is also important when using these tools for Government engagement to check if that the software meets your IT, privacy and records management requirements.

Typical examples of citizen-to-citizen engagement tools are Facebook, Instagram, and Nationbuilder. Wikis, Blogs and Loomio are also used by some Non-Government Organisations to self-organise.

PolTech are tools that can be used for direct democracy, liquid democracy, electronic voting, political campaigning, petitioning and lobbying. The most often cited example is the way Obama’s campaign team used big data to assess community sentiment and identify influencers in communities to determine effective areas for campaigning.

Petition sites have been used effectively (in some cases) used to lobby government to reconsider decisions.

In Spain, the political party Podemos are using tools like Loomio and Nationbuilding to give members the power to decide their party policies should be. There’s also a range of new tools now emerging to lobby Government like fixmystreet and encourage the accountability of elected officials like theyvoteforyou.

Tools for increased accountability, direct and liquid democracy can be threatening to elected officials who in a representative democratic system are given the power to Govern and make decisions on behalf of their constituents. Then there’s the debate about whether evoting tools can be secure from hacking…

Overall, my experience has been that putting these tools in the same category as those that enable participation in our representative system has the potential to seriously affect the ways that public servants and organisations like mine can help improve Government consultation and engagement.

It’s a complex area with so many new products. These definitions are not exclusive and many products overlap. Loomio is an excellent example of a tool being used for all purposes. Nationbuilder is popular with NGO’s and is being used by elected officials and some City Councils in America. Blogging and the use of social media to reach audiences is also now a standard practice for Government agencies.

I’m guessing we could also create an additional category for business to citizen engagement technologies.

I have found these categories and the ones used on the engagetech spectrum helpful when exploring the purpose for engagement and describing how technology can be used to support Government processes.

As I said I have just started road testing these terms, so please share your thoughts about these three categories. I’d love to see if we can come up with something better together.

If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m evolutionary not revolutionary in my approach. I’m not interested in getting into the debates about which types of democracy is better than the other (unless I know you well and you are bringing the wine) but I am keen to promote and support approaches that can be used now by those of us in the engagement industry trying to advance our practice.


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