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In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, governments at all levels are having to make decisions to postpone elections and parliamentary sessions, all while working remotely and being under pressure to deliver fast-paced and effective decision-making.

In times of crisis, there can be a tension between the instinct to centralise decision-making for efficiency, sacrificing consultation in the process, and the need to get citizens on board with plans for large-scale changes to everyday life. While such initial reactions are understandable, in the current and next phases we need a different approach - democracy must go on.

Effective use of digital tools can provide a way to keep parliamentary and government processes going in a way that enhances rather than threatens democracy. This is a unique opportunity to experiment with digital methods to address a number of business-as-usual pain points in order to support institutions and citizen engagement in the long term.

Digital tools can help with the spectrum of decision-making

While digital tools can’t give the answers, they can support the practicalities of remote decision-making. Our typology of digital democracy shows how digital tools can be used to harness the wisdom of the crowd in different stages of a process:

A typology of digital democracy

A typology of digital democracy

Digital tools can collect information from different sources to provide an overview of the options. To weigh up pros and cons, platforms such as Your Priorities and Consul enable people to contribute arguments. If you need a sense of what is important and to try to find consensus, Pol.is and Loomio may help. To quickly gauge support for different options from stakeholders, platforms such as All Our Ideas enable ranking of a live bank of ideas. If you need to gather questions and needs of citizens, head to platforms like Sli.do or online forms or task management tools like Trello or Asana.

We suggest a set of things to be aware of as you develop a plan, which apply equally during this current crisis:

  • Think twice: don’t engage for engagement’s sake.
  • Be honest: what’s involved and what are you going to do with the input?
  • Digital isn’t the only answer: traditional outreach and engagement still matter - blended approaches may provide the best of both worlds going forward.

Get the necessary support in place:

  • Don’t waste time: get support from decision-makers before you invest too much.
  • Don’t cut corners: digital democracy is not a quick or cheap fix. Still try to find a moment to reflect and explore options.

Choose the right tools:

  • It’s not about you: choose tools for the users you want, considering their user journey.

Maintaining democracy and scrutiny during lockdown

While pressure to take crucial decisions quickly and remotely can put strain on the core principles of democracy, many parliaments have been exploring ways to move online, with as close to usual levels of scrutiny and participation as possible.

The UK Parliament has successfully made the transition to hold its first Prime Minister’s Questions online, through a ‘hybrid’ method; the EU Parliament has moved to e-voting; the Scottish Parliament is holding virtual Question Time; and New Zealand's Select Committees are going online too. Most of these arrangements seek to recreate physical meetings by video call, but creative use of other tools could provide more effective and efficient outcomes than the previous face-to-face procedures.

Interactions are not limited to speech. vTaiwan illustrated online deliberation with members of the public on new policy ideas, France’s Parlement et citoyens scrutinised bills and Decide Madrid combined debates with participatory budgeting. Inspiration can be found from grassroots and civil society democratic innovators who have been testing and developing many of these approaches.

Introducing digital tools could address several existing pain points, for example formal evidence submission procedures in Select Committees. Formal democracy processes could be supported by initiatives providing fact-checking to avoid fake news and reduce panic.

Socially-distanced elections

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, elections and referenda have been postponed or relied on physical distancing or postal voting to go ahead. But what about online options?

Systems for online voting already exist in some places. Estonia became the first country to host nation-wide online elections; Switzerland’s cantons previously offered e-voting; New Zealand has an existing system to enable overseas voters to download and upload their votes, which could be extended; India has electronic voting in polling stations; and online voting was trialled for local elections in the UK and Canada. With adaptation and risk management around lack of slow testing, considering the full set of activities around elections and general safety, these initiatives could potentially provide the basis for digital voting during this and future crises.

A chance to simultaneously centre citizen participation

By embedding civic participation methods at various parts of decision-making processes, governments may also ease citizens’ anxiety around the immediate and long-term situation, giving them more of a sense of control around the circumstances affecting their lives.

Citizens with particular skills can be approached to contribute digitally and existing deliberation (such as the Climate Assembly UK) can be moved online. In the longer term, these initiatives pave the way for greater citizen involvement in decision making and in the implementation of the resulting initiatives. At every stage there is a need to consider accessibility, diversity and inclusion.

What next?

Coronavirus has forced a rapid move to online methods of decision-making over the past few weeks - accelerating a process of adoption which was previously predicted to take years rather than days. This period can be considered as a rapid prototyping phase of digital democracy on a large scale, testing and adapting tools and methods with previous risk aversion no longer a barrier.

The tools chosen and the way in which they have been used will have significant ramifications for the use of digital methods in the long term. Coming out of lockdown, changes to our ways of working are inevitable. The learning from this time will be crucial to inform decisions about the use of digital methods in the immediate and long-term future, as our democracy tackles some of the biggest economic and health challenges of our time.

A version of this blog was first published on The Conversation.


Rosalyn Old

Rosalyn Old

Rosalyn Old

Researcher, Government Innovation

Rosalyn was a researcher in Nesta's Government Innovation team.

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