17 May 2023
At a panel for the Innovation and Politics Awards and Democracy Technology Convention last Thursday, leaders from two of Europe’s most successful DemTech platforms (CitizenLab and Assembly Voting) sat down with two civil society leaders (IDEA and ACTE) in the same space for a conversation about the changing shape of democracy.
The shared assessment? It’s not just the technological capacity for democratic citizen engagement that is improving. Appetite for that engagement among citizens is growing too.
Yet despite the growth, there are issues facing uptake, ranging from general trust in the democratic process itself, to participation in and of legitimation democracy technology.
Mainstreaming democracy technology
“We’ve come to a good maturity, but I personally feel rather disappointed and underwhelmed about the general uptake of democracy technologies by the mainstream,” says Wietse Van Ransbeeck, CEO of CitizenLab.
That mainstream, Van Ransbeeck refers to, is less about citizenry and more about the halls of government, where democracy technologies can often still be looked on as a bit of an experiment.
“We have the technology,” he says. “But the thing that we have to work on is building a culture of democracy and of participation.”
For Van Ransbeeck, there are three “fundamental ingredients” that are required in order to advance the cause of democracy tech on the side of government.
“One is a political will. We need to rethink power and how decisions are being made,” he says. “If we don’t do that, then we can still run a lot of cool participatory processes and collect inputs, but then we throw it in the bin afterwards, and people won’t come back, leading to a decrease of public trust, not an increase.”
“Secondly, we need to work on the internal structures of government. It’s maybe a bit of a boring topic, but we need to think how we can organise internally so that different departments can work together on participation.”
“Thirdly, it’s about skills and resources. It’s increasingly difficult to actually fill the positions of participation officers and to find the right talent.”
That is not to say however that government is the only obstacle.
The cultural foundation of democracy is shaken,” says Jacob Gyldenkærne, CEO of Assembly Voting. “Elections are one part, but it’s one component out of a wide range of components that we need to address and bring together.”
“I’m not saying that just conducting a secure verifiable election is going to save democracy. Not at all. We need new formats that are in sync with how we live our lives and the challenges that we face in the 21st century.”
Adrien Duguet, President of ACTE (Association Civic Tech Europe) agrees. “With civic tech, the main beneficiaries are the citizens. So it’s a lot about the basic issues of trust and the legitimacy of policies. How can we use technology to increase trust and the legitimacy of policies in society.”
“The goal of civic tech is to propose new opportunities of engagement for citizens,” he says.
The approach seems to be that every decision is an opportunity.
“We believe that the slightest election in the smallest associations is as important as a parliamentary election because we are all part of the same trust base,“ says Gyldenkærne.
Standards and regulation
Wrapped up in the issues of trust and participation, are the role of government regulation, standards and the legitimation of democracy technology. Here, our panellists took different, although not entirely opposing stances.
For Sam van der Staak, Director of IDEA’s Regional Europe Programme, the need to legislate is about maintaining the momentum of citizen participation.
“Civic tech is developing with such lightning speed, whereas legislation is developing with snail speed,” he says. “There’s a big call for AI to slow down, but at the same time, AI is making enormous leaps. So how do we get government officials to keep up in a way that also keeps citizens on board?”
“Citizens are wanting to get on the train and wanting to use all these instruments, so if governments say ‘slow down’ they run the risk of losing the citizens.”
Whether this necessarily takes the form of ‘regulation’ per se, is another question.
“I think we have to go first with common standards and quality controls,” says van der Staak.
“There’s been a plethora of ICTs and we have to distinguish the ones that work from the ones that don’t – the ones that are risky, from the ones that have a lot of capacity.
Meanwhile, Adrian Duguet views regulation as key to overcoming the issue raised at the beginning – that of mainstreaming the technology.
“Why is it important to have standards and to design new regulation?” he asks.
“Because it gives legitimacy to the sector. Beyond that, it gives legitimacy to anyone in Europe, from citizens to the cities.”