Why are we doing this?
Across much of the western world, there is widespread disillusionment with existing political institutions. Membership of traditional political parties is falling, turnout in elections is consistently lower than it was two decades ago, and people have little trust in their elected representatives. The growth of populist movements in the USA and Europe has its roots in the widening chasm between the political elite and the people.
Our current model of governance – representative democracy, bureaucratic administration, occasional elections and rule by elected or appointed ‘experts’ – no longer seems appropriate. The global nature of the challenges we face, new notions of expertise, a less deferential society, mass information available on-demand, social media and new technologies for communicating and organising – make this traditional model seem outmoded at best and at worst, simply archaic.
Digital tools and technologies have transformed the way we live and work. Could they transform our politics too? There are now numerous projects, initiatives and tools which point to a new model of governance – one which engages people’s insights, experiences and desires – and has the potential to reform and reinvigorate our political institutions. Recent advances in digital technologies have made it possible to connect with a much larger group of citizens to widen the pool of knowledge and expertise to solve complex problems. At the same time, these technologies are helping parliaments, city governments and political parties to engage citizens in new ways – from crowdsourcing and collaborative policymaking to large scale deliberative exercises.
In the United Kingdom, we’re now facing an historic opportunity to renew and reinvigorate our democratic institutions. The UK Parliament is likely to move out of the Palace of Westminster in the next few years so that necessary repairs can be made to the parliamentary estate. This move could provide the impetus for parliament to reform its working practices and draw in a broader range of perspectives in its deliberations and decisions. At the same time, devolution could also spur local councils to engage with citizens in new ways, enabling them to influence and shape local decisions. Digital tools and technologies provide parties, parliaments and local governments with the greatest opportunity to engage the public in new and more meaningful ways.
What are we doing?
We are currently working on a research report, looking at the most promising and pioneering examples of digital democracy from around the world. This project builds on Nesta’s D-CENT project and aims to understand how digital tools can be used by parliaments, city governments and political parties to engage citizens to make more legitimate and better quality decisions.
We’re also planning a number of workshops to explore the future of the UK Parliament. MPs and Peers are likely to decant to a temporary space in the next few years, so that vital repairs can be made to the Houses of Parliament. We’ll be running workshops to see how committees can make better use of digital technologies to tap into collective intelligence and to identify key lessons from other parliaments that are using digital tools to better engage the public and improve their ways of working.
This programme builds on our previous work on democracy and digital social innovation.
As part of the D-CENT project, we developed a set of open source, distributed and privacy-aware tools for direct democracy and economic empowerment. This three year, EU funded project was led by Nesta with partners from across Europe, including the Citizens Foundation, Forum Virium Helsinki, Open Knowledge Foundation, Thoughtworks and Centre d’Economie de la Sorbonne.
The tools we developed enable citizens to receive real time notifications about issues relevant to them, work collaboratively to propose and draft policies, decide and vote on proposals, and allocate resources through participatory budgeting processes. For example, Objective8, is a tool for online crowdsourcing of proposals and collaborative policy drafting; Mooncake provides a single newsfeed to help bring together comments, media and notifications from other D-CENT tools. For privacy awareness, Stonecutter is a secure single sign-on for D-CENT which gives users control over the personal data they share; and Agora Voting is cryptographically secure, verifiable and transparent online voting software, which opens the ballot boxes and tallies the results while preserving secrecy. The D-CENT project also ran workshops and worked with a number of partners to pilot and improve digital platforms in Reykjavik, Helsinki, Barcelona and Madrid.
Democratic Innovations also links to our broader work on digital social innovation. Between 2012 and 2014, the EU funded research project, Digital Social Innovation (DSI) mapped hundreds of innovators, users and communities using digital technologies to co-create knowledge and develop solutions that address social challenges. Nesta is now building on the research and network developed as part of the digital social innovation study. Our current aim is to support, grow and scale the current DSI network of projects and organisations, by bringing together the communities involved in DSI in Europe such as social entrepreneurs, hackers, activists, developers, the maker movement, academics, politicians and policy makers.