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Nesta: Transforming Political Engagement through Digital Democracy

This report “Digital Democracy: The tools transforming political engagement” published by Nesta, aims at providing useful insights on the use of digital technologies by governments, municipal authorities or political parties in order to engage citizens in decision-making. Based on lessons from Nesta’s research, it is focused on examples of pioneering innovation in digital democracy across Europe and beyond today.

Today democratic institutions are considered to be largely untouched by the rise of information and communication technologies (ICTs). However, ICTs have dramatically transformed almost every sphere of our daily life and new opportunities and solutions have emerged through the increased access and use of data. It is argued that this gap between citizens’ daily lives and the way politics and democracy are carried out has contributed to declining trust and confidence in democratic institutions.

In response, it is claimed that digital technologies can be a means to not only encourage participation but also contribute to making better decisions and building trust:

Digital democracy can achieve deeper and broader participation; it can contribute to a richer public sphere for argument and debate than was ever possible with traditional mass media; and tapping into more individual sources of expertise can achieve better decisions than relying only on professional politicians and civil servants.

Over the last decades there have been thousands of experiments of using digital tools in democratic institutions. Online petitions sites, participatory budgeting and co-design in decision making are some of the examples of these experiments. A typology of digital democracy is provided as a theoretical background of the report, as it can be seen in figure 1.

                                                          Figure 1. A typology of digital democracy, Source: Current report.  

A detailed analysis of 7 case studies are presented next, attempting to highlight how these initiatives affect the legitimacy and quality of decision-making (see figure 2).

Learning from the innovators

The lessons acquired by Nesta’s research on the aforementioned case studies are summarised into the following points:

  • 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.
Figure 2. Seven leading examples of digital democracy, Source: Current report.