The world is changing due to the fast rise of technology and so is our democracy. Our current representative democracy, mainly based on elections occurring every 4-5 years, comes across as slow, sluggish and rigid to citizens who are increasingly used to using ICT to reach out directly to friends, sales and customer care representatives and political representatives and who expect agile and fast responses. In that sense, ICT today serves a similar function to intermediaries such as civil society organisations, trade unions, or political parties, which used to be the only available way to inform citizens, receive their input or reactions, and aggregate that information into a ‘public opinion’ that makes collective sense of a wide range of individual interests. Digital platforms have in fact created new opportunities in the form of tools and methods for social engagement, online activism and movement building by changing the way people access information, provide individual input that forms public opinions and reach out to one another and to decision makers. However, the uptake of the opportunities ICT brings has so far been limited. It is clear that democracy should urgently be upgraded to take into account these technological changes and update the political system for 21st century needs.
There are of course important caveats: although ICT has the potential to make democracy more efficient and more widespread, the societal impacts of this technological wave are still to be defined and the main question that arises is whether these new digital platforms are strengthening or weakening our democracies. As digital technologies have become important and evident parts of our everyday life, they have not only solved but also created new problems that decision-makers are struggling with – such as online privacy, online disinformation, the rise of tech monopolies and influence over the media. Populist and extremist parties are using new technologies by responding to citizens’ call for more direct democracy by rapidly creating and spreading simple (but false) answers to complex problems, further highlighting and feeding frustration about the slow and sluggish institution that is democracy, implying several problems in how we participate in the public debate.
However, the fear of these challenges has steered too many away from the huge potential digital solutions have to drive positive change in society. E-participation, for example, (the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to foster democratic processes by allowing citizens to access and engage with information on specific policy issues and contribute to decision-making processes) is increasingly being implemented all over Europe at local, regional and national level (1). E-participation platforms are being used by decision-makers to inform citizens about policy issues, allow them to form their opinions in a constructive way and ultimately, have a say in policy-making. There are a wide range of e-participation experiments being implemented all across Europe – such as participatory budgeting, e-consultations, e-initiatives and crowdsourcing legislation. As one of the ways new technologies are being exploited and used, e-participation platforms are increasingly part of the digital ecosystem and have the potential to contribute to improving public discourse and policy-making.
While many European countries have started exploring ICT with the aim of revitalising European democracy by developing more responsive, informative, transparent, and participatory decision-making processes, there is still the need to gather more evidence to prove the success of e-participation in meeting these objective. Formal channels for e-participation at local, national and especially EU level are currently limited and often short-term experiments, which explains the important lack of data, lessons learned during and beyond projects, and longitudinal comparisons of e-participation case studies in time series.
In order to make democracy in Europe more responsive, we need to focus on complementing our representative democracy by grasping the collaborative opportunities of participatory democracy, especially by harnessing the potential of ICT. We should start by improving existing e-participation channels, implementing new ones where necessary and assessing more thoroughly if exploiting new technologies for e-participation mechanisms can contribute to increasing the quality of public discourse and reshape European democracy.
1. For more details on e-participation examples in Europe see: Lironi E. (2018) Harnessing Digital Tools to Revitalize European Democracy, Carnegie Europe https://carnegieeurope.eu/2018/11/28/harnessing-digital-tools-to-revitalize-european-democracy-pub-77806
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