31 August 2022

The Rise of Digital and Remote Politics

Much like in other sectors, the pandemic accelerated digital innovation within political parties. Although early adopters like the Pirate Parties had already premiered tools like Liquid Democracy over a decade ago, the last two years have seen a leap forward in the rollout of democracy technologies within a wide range of parties from across the political spectrum.

Part of the innovation drive came from sheer necessity: in-person events, essential to politics as a whole, were suddenly not possible anymore. Yet the most innovative parties are not simply using these tools to maintain the status quo in the wake of the pandemic. Rather, they are deploying them in pursuit of a series of ambitious goals. Chief among them are the drive to re-engage ever-shrinking memberships and to increase diversity among memberships, in terms of gender, age, and regional distribution. Democracy technologies are a powerful means to advance both aspects, as they allow for participation independent of time and location. As one executive told us, the pandemic has given rise to “remote politics” – in her eyes, a good thing.

PrErfurt, Germany – Mar. 23, 2019: Flags of the german "Piratenpartei" at protest march demonstration demo rally against new copyright law by European union, namely “Artikel 13”.
Mar. 23, 2019: Flags of the german “Piratenpartei” at protest march demonstration demo rally against new copyright law by European union, namely “Artikel 13”.

European Providers of Democracy Technologies

There are already a diverse range of solutions in use. Many of the major players were developed in the USA according to the needs of the American political system. As such, some of the designs simply don’t fit the needs of European parties. Moreover, since they are off-the-shelf solutions, they cannot be tailored easily to suit local needs. And even more importantly, varying regulatory regimes need to be taken into account, especially Europe’s stricter data protection laws. As such, US American providers are not currently seen as innovation leaders in the democracy technology marketplace.

Some parties have responded to the challenge of localisation by developing their own custom-built solutions, including party-specific apps and platforms. While the obvious advantage is the ability to tailor to the specific needs of the party, the danger executives see is to reinvent the wheel, and not to have enough resources to successfully run and evolve the solutions in the longer term. Which is why many custom-built solutions, even by the most innovative parties, have failed.

Which brings us to Europe-built solutions. Party executives see a developing market with few specialised providers. Software-as-a-service is seen as an attractive alternative that may allow for the best of both worlds–a high level of tailoring, and at the same time positive network effects from benefiting from the learnings of others.

Consultation, Collaboration, and E-Voting

The fields in which the most innovative parties use democracy technologies include consultation, collaboration and voting. Consultation is about improving decisions by informing them with the views and opinions of citizens and party members alike. To this end, the most innovative parties use real-time feedback tools like Menti.com or Sli.do for live events, and asynchronous feedback tools like insights.us or Surveymonkey for policy and organisational processes.

Collaboration is about party members and party staff working together to solve problems and address issues, which involves a certain amount of sharing the decision-making power. The most innovative parties use social intranets, like Confluence, often with additional plug-ins, to allow for differentiated roles and rules in the process.

Which brings us to E-voting. Undoubtedly the crown jewel of democracy technologies, it nonetheless tends to be looked on skeptically by even the most innovative parties. But the last two years have seen an unprecedented amount of experimentation–and quite a few pilot projects have been successfully scaled. The most innovative parties are using e-voting tools, like BigPulse, at their party congresses as well as internal elections. While not without problems, most executives we talked to would not want to go back to a time before e-voting.

Just like remote work, remote politics is here to stay. Democracy technologies already play a crucial role in it. According to executives of the most innovative political parties, we are only at the beginning.

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Would political parties become more attractive to younger citizens if they used more online participation tools?

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Josef Lentsch is Managing Partner of the Innovation in Politics Institute, and CEO of the Innovation in Politics Institute Germany. He is a political entrepreneur with more than 20 years of experience in founding and growing new ventures at the intersection of the public, private and third sector. In 2019, Springer published his book “Political Entrepreneurship: How To Build Successful Centrist Political Start-ups”. Josef lived and worked in the USA, the UK, Austria and Germany; he holds an MSc in Psychology from the University of Vienna and an MPA from Harvard University.

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