For digital tools to have a positive impact, environment matters

By mySociety

Digital technology can be used to drive greater transparency in democratic governments, either through providing direct contact between citizens and government, or via infomediaries, who are able to translate and repackage often complex governmental information into a more widely consumable format. However, these digital tools are not sufficient in themselves to achieve better transparency and accountability, and must be deployed in an environment in which democratic debate is free, open and acknowledged by government, and must be supported by resources that allow them to flourish.

Parliamentary Monitoring Sites such as TheyWorkForYou (UK), abgeordnetenwatch.de (Germany) or votewatch.eu (EU wide) make the workings of legislatures and governments more accessible to citizens and civil society. Such sites provide significant information on the activities and decisions of individuals and parties, and enable individuals to hold their representatives to account for their actions. Being able to see how their representative in parliament has voted on issues of interest enables citizens to challenge decisions taken in their name, and to make informed choices about which representatives to vote for.

Freedom of Information (FOI) laws provide a key right to citizens in enabling them to see how their public bodies are making decisions and budgeting, however the operation of such laws can be oblique. Online repositories of FOI requests like TheyWorkForYou.com (UK) and asktheeu.org (EU) make thousands of previous requests for information public and accessible. Vitally, these portals also provide the opportunity to citizens to make requests of their own through the online portal, simplifying what can often be a complex process, and providing guidance on how to structure requests, and how to challenge decisions to withhold information.

Digital tools provide an opportunity to revitalise democracy, but their development and use are often constrained by existing government structures and attitudes towards engagement with the public. Digital tools can also provide ways for local authorities to expand their engagement with citizens, as discussed in our recent research paper: https://research.mysociety.org/publications/state-digital-public-engagement, but this is most meaningful when this engagement is supported by a commitment to to be responsive, and to act on citizen input.

The reaction of governments to “civic technology” (where digital transparency is led by groups outside government) is dependent on existing institutionalised attitudes to information rights, as highlighted in our recent research report: https://research.mysociety.org/publications/developing-transparency-through-digital-means. And as explored in our research on the development of PMS sites in Sub-Saharan Africa, https://research.mysociety.org/sites/parliament-and-the-people/, the success of these tools depends less on the underlying technology, and more on the local conditions that allow access, funding and readership.

Civic tech and Gov tech have enormous transformative potential, but it is not a silver bullet. They rely on institutional will to provide an information landscape conducive to the creation and operation of digital tools, and are most effective in responsive environments that support the underlying drive towards greater engagement and transparency.

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