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Digital Democracy: The Tools Transforming Political Engagement

This paper shares lessons from Nesta’s research into some of the pioneering innovations in digital democracy which are taking place across Europe and beyond

This paper shares lessons from Nesta’s research into some of the pioneering innovations in digital democracy which are taking place across Europe and beyond.

Key findings

  • Digital democracy is a broad concept and not easy to define. The paper provides a granular approach to help encompass its various activities and methods (our ‘typology of digital democracy’).
  • Many initiatives exist simply as an app, or web page, driven by what the technology can do, rather than by what the need is.
  • Lessons from global case studies describe how digital tools are being used to engage communities in more meaningful political participation, and how they are improving the quality and legitimacy of decision-making.
  • Digital democracy is still young. Projects must embed better methods for evaluation of their goals if the field is to grow.

Thanks to digital technologies, today we can bank, read the news, study for a degree, and chat with friends across the world - all without leaving the comfort of our homes. But one area that seems to have remained impervious to these benefits is our model of democratic governance, which has remained largely unchanged since it was invented in the 20th century.

New experiments are showing how digital technologies can play a critical role in engaging new groups of people, empowering citizens and forging a new relationship between cities and local residents, and parliamentarians and citizens.

At the parliamentary level, including in Brazil and France, experiments with new tools are enabling citizens to contribute to draft legislation. Political parties such as Podemos in Spain and the Icelandic Pirate Party are using tools such as Loomio, Reddit and Discourse to enable party members and the general public to deliberate and feed into policy proposals. Local governments have set up platforms to enable citizens to submit ideas and information, rank priorities and allocate public resources.

After a detailed exploration of these case studies and the lessons from them, we explore the challenges which digital democracy will need to address in the future. This includes how to develop a more nuanced understanding of what we mean by ‘participation’ and tackling the digital divide.

Lessons from the innovators

  • Develop a clear plan and process: Pioneers in the field engage people meaningfully by giving them a clear stake; they conduct stakeholder analysis; operate with full transparency; and access harder-to-reach groups with offline methods.
  • Get the necessary support in place: The most successful initiatives have clear-backing from lawmakers; they also secure the necessary resources to promote to the process properly (PR and advertising), as well as the internal systems to manage and evaluate large numbers of ideas.
  • Choose the right tools: The right digital tools help to improve the user-experience and understanding of the issue, and can help remove some of the negative impacts of those who might try to damage or ‘game’ the process.

Authors

Julie Simon, Theo Bass, Victoria Boelman and Geoff Mulgan​

Authors

Julie Simon

Julie Simon

Julie Simon

Head of Government Innovation Research

Julie was the Head of Government Innovation Research in the Policy and Research Team.

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Theo Bass

Theo Bass

Theo Bass

Researcher, Government Innovation

Theo is a Researcher in the Policy and Research team

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Victoria Boelman

Victoria Boelman

Victoria Boelman

Principal Researcher, Government Innovation

Victoria was Principal Researcher in Government Innovation in the Policy and Research team. She worked on the potential of new digital tools to transform democracy and the exploring ...

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Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan has been Chief Executive of Nesta since 2011. Nesta is the UK's innovation foundation and runs a wide range of activities in investment, practical innovation and research.

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