How better online engagement supports digital democracy

I was pleased to discover The Democratic Society is holding DemFest 2016, a new democracy festival this weekend, although sadly I won’t be able to make it to North Wales where the event is being held this year.

Screenshot of Democracy Club results for the recent May 2016 local elections
Screenshot from Democracy Club, a volunteer-led digital democracy project proving improved access to information on elections

Digital democracy: beyond Boaty McBoatface

One of the parts of the festival I’m most interested in the session called ‘digital tools for democracy: beyond Boaty McBoatface’, which aims to explore how digital tools can be used to create positive outcomes, as opposed to embarrassing headline generating gaffes (or comedy gold, depending on your point of view).

While I’m excited about DemFest and the potential for digital tools offer in terms of improving both representative and direct forms of democracy, I am realistic enough to know that not all my fellow citizens share my enthusiasm. In order to achieve DemFest’s longer term objective of democratic renewal, we need to think about digital democracy across the engagement spectrum.

Access to information

Engagement starts with having access to clear and impartial information. With the Digital Action Plan, we encourage participants to think about how they make their information more accessible and engaging.

Bath and North East Somerset Council showed what a difference the right information can make for democracy when their zero budget, tongue-in-cheek ‘love your vote’ video produced a 500X increase in voter registrations over the weekend of Valentine’s Day.

In future, I’d also like to see politicians and public servants build on the interest they’ve shown around open data and give more support to volunteer-led voter information projects such as Democracy Club, which aim to crowdsource information such as details of candidates standing in elections and locations of polling stations.

Growing the civic conversation

At its best, social media provides opportunities to ‘grow the civic conversation’ (HT to Nick Booth from Podnosh for the expression). For digital to contribute to the renewal of democracy, it’s crucial politicians and public servants acquire the skills and confidence to use social media effectively, listening to citizens and engaging with them in an ongoing basis.

Democratising decision-making

At the other end of the engagement spectrum, digital offers new ways to involve citizens in democratic decision-making.

In the UK, Delib are well known for tools such as Budget Simulator, which helps citizens better understand the decisions and trade-offs involved in setting a budget for their local council. Further afield, Iceland is lauded for its ‘crowdsourced constitution’, even though it ultimately didn’t make it into law.

Getting the basics right

While I am excited about the potential of digital technology to democratise decision-making, I hope for the sake of democratic renewal that politicians, public servants, and civil society organisations don’t lose sight of the basics of engagement.

Access to high quality, impartial and engaging information is essential to a functioning digital democracy. Providing plentiful opportunities for citizens, politicians and public servants to engage in civic conversations will draw more people into democracy. If we get the basics of engagement right, I believe more citizens will ultimately want to make use of digital tools which support greater involvement in democratic decision-making.