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Tech4Labs Issue 3: Digital tools for participatory democracy

 "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." - Winston Churchill

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."  - Winston Churchill                                     

In our last issue of Tech4Lab, GitHub: the Swiss army knife of civic innovation?, we looked at how GitHub is a potentially powerful tool for civic innovators – allowing greater collaboration, transparency and participation for civic projects. In this third issue, we present a number of participatory democracy platforms and tools we think could enhance the work of civic innovators, particularly government innovation teams and labs, looking for more decentralised, open ways of working.

What is participatory democracy?

A crude definition of participatory democracy is "decision making about public problems where citizens get involved". In the following, we will consider three players:

Decision making in participatory democracy can be broadly divided into the following stages:

  • Problem identification: identifying  problems to be solved and/or choosing which problem/s to focus on

  • Ideation and  co-creation: generate solutions for the problem

  • Drafting proposals based on the solutions suggested

  • Voting for and against proposals

  • Checking that the solution has been properly deployed and actually solves the problem identified in the first step.

Political scientists usually split forms of democracy into representative (aka indirect) and direct democracy. This should not be seen as a binary split but rather as a spectrum along which citizens decide to outsource (or delegate) some of their power for the five stages mentioned above.

We try to illustrate how these two forms fit with decision-making process in the figure below.

In representative democracy, citizens vote for elected officials who will represent them because of lack of time, knowledge or will to contribute to policymaking. In most representative democracies there are still cases of direct democracy in the form of referendum (officials asking for citizens to vote on a given issue), initiative (citizens forcing officials to vote on a given issue of their choosing) and recall (citizens voting to remove an official before the end of their mandate).

In direct democracy, the contribution of citizens for the five stages becomes stronger. In its extreme form, elected officials are not even needed anymore. But as pointed out in Noveck (2009), the success of direct democracy has not been clear cut, despite lots of hopes from new digital technologies.

Participatory democracy lives in a different dimension where the focus is more on the participation of citizens. Here again, political scientists like to distinguish between deliberative democracy and collaborative democracy.

Deliberative democracy puts the emphasis on citizens discussing views and opinions about what the state should and should not do. Focus is on the input, opinion formation, self-expression and talk.

Collaborative democracy puts the emphasis on citizens working together. The focus is on developing a solution leading to action.

From a technology and technical point of view, the frontiers between these various forms of democracy is pretty fuzzy. In the next section, we look at various tools that foster participatory democracy, focusing not so much on the forms of democracy they serve but rather on the stages of the process they facilitate.

Tools for participatory democracy

We now look at various tools that can help with the five stages of the process:

Loomio is an open source tool that makes it easy for groups to make decisions together. Rather than a majority rules vote, Loomio combines deliberation with a flexible consensus-building process. Groups can discuss a topic, build agreement around a proposal, and arrive at a clear agreed outcome that can be put into action.

With the tool, citizens start a discussion on a given topic, invite people and start the conversation. As the conversation progresses, anyone can put a proposal to vote. The proposal gets discussed. People can vote and change their vote. If a proposal reaches a majority, a decision has been reached. Otherwise, another proposal can be issued, discussed and put to vote.

DemocracyOS brings collaborative decision making and easy governance to communities and organisations of all sizes . With the tool, citizens can build proposals, from scratch or by branching from others and decision-makers build two way-conversations with their constituencies. Debates take place with the platform rewarding the best arguments, filtering the noise and keeping the trolls at bay. Then people can vote for or against the proposal.

Your Priorities is a service that enables citizens to voice, debate and prioritise ideas. With the tool, people submit ideas and debate them. The best ideas rise to the top.

Democracy 2.1 is a new voting system. The tool offers voters the additional option of casting up to four equally weighted "plus votes" and two "minus votes".

Google Moderator is a Google service that uses crowdsourcing to rank user-submitted questions, suggestions and ideas. The tool manages feedback from a large number of people, who can submit a question or vote up or down for the top questions.

OpaVote is a service for online elections and polls. The tool lets you create elections where voters select a single candidate, a ranked-choice voting election, approval voting, or any combination of methods.

DeLib Dialogue App is a service to produce ideas that are valuable and actionable through structured online discussion. With the tool, participants suggest ideas, refine them via comments and discussions and rate them to bring the best ideas to the top.

The usage of each tool for direct democracy is summarised below:

We should note that although none of tools have dedicated functionalities to provide tracking of decisions, some features can be used for this purpose.

How to start

Rome wasn't built in a day. Participatory democracy can start small, within your team, your organisation, your social club.These tools could be incredibly useful if you’re looking for some fresh approaches in how you frame problems, crowdsource solutions, make decisions, and ultimately,  take action. Here are some tips to give it a start:

  • Start small and clearly define your scope
  • Start with a willing crowd

  • Identify which stages of the process you want to improve

  • Don't be dogmatic; depending on the context, pick a digital tool or stick to paper and pencil

  • Learn and iterate

Each tool we presented in this column has a very strong community of users and developers. Don't hesitate to reach out to them. They will be more than happy to share their experience and help you.

To continue the conversation:

  • Share your comments
  • On Twitter using #Tech4Labs

  • On Discourse here


Special thanks to Beth Noveck, Andrew Miller, Pia Mancini and Ben Knight for comments on early versions of this piece.


For more resources and digital democracy tools check out Nesta’s D-CENT project. While a map of current direct democracy projects can be found at Direct Democracy Navigator.


List of products mentioned in this article:
  1. DemocracyOS

  2. Democracy 2.1

  3. Google Moderator

  4. Loomio

  5. OpaVote

  6. Your Priorities & Citizens Foundation

  7. Delib


Noveck, Beth Simone. 2009. Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful. Brookings Institution Press.


Images courtesy of GovLab.