24 April 2024

Democracy Technologies: Can you explain the basic idea behind Democracy Guide? 

Franziska Hollstein: I am the leader of the city committee in a small town in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. When I took over the position, I expected to receive a lot of emails with questions about our local politics. But the emails never came. It was a really sad moment. But then I decided that if the people weren’t coming to me, I would go talk to them to find out what is on their minds, and how I could help make their lives better. 

When I did this, I realised that most people did not know how to find the right person to contact. Germany has a very complex federal system. We have no database that provides clear information on who is responsible for what. If a citizen has an idea and wants to participate, they often don’t know who to turn to. Cities are responsible for managing the data about their elected city council members – but there is no rule about how to manage this data. North Rhine-Westphalia alone has 396 cities, each with a different management system. 

I am a strong believer that in a democracy everyone should know who is elected and who is responsible. So we decided it had to change. The basic idea was to build a map of the government, which we called Demokratie-Wegweiser (German for Democracy Guide). It is the most intuitive way to show who to contact in the government for which topic. 

DT: What were some of the key challenges you faced?

Hollstein: Firstly, the biggest challenge was the lack of readily available data. There was no existing database or geographical data for electoral districts. This meant we had to piece it together ourselves, which was a real learning curve. Initially, I underestimated the complexity of creating a map starting with nothing more than a list of streets. 

Additionally, identifying and engaging stakeholders was challenging. Convincing them of the benefits of our innovation wasn’t easy, especially given the rigid structures at the communal level in Germany. While we succeeded in persuading many, some remained hesitant or even resistant to the idea. Nonetheless, we persisted, leaving the door open for future discussions.

Our overarching goal is to promote transparency in politics, as we believe it fosters trust and acceptance. It’s disheartening to see diminishing trust in political systems, and we aim to counteract this by empowering citizens to engage actively. Democracy isn’t just about those in power; it’s about all of us. Our project seeks to reinforce this notion, reminding people that their voices matter and they can bring about change.

DT: Why is it so important to connect people with their representatives?

Hollstein: The real question is, how do we empower people to see their power for themselves? You can draft the most perfect laws at the federal level, but it won’t make a difference if there’s a disconnect between the people and their representatives. That’s where the real issue lies. This gap can’t be bridged solely at the federal or state level. It needs to happen in our cities, at the grassroots level.

In our cities, we have passionate individuals who dedicate their free time to improving their communities through local politics. These people are the strongest advocates for democracy. By bringing them together with the residents they serve, we create opportunities for dialogue and collaboration. These moments of connection build trust and understanding. When people feel heard and valued by their representatives, they’re more likely to engage with the political process.

As these interactions become more common, people start talking about it – with their families, friends, and neighbours. They share stories of being heard and supported, of having their concerns addressed. It’s about recognising each individual’s role as a citizen and giving them a voice. This, I believe, is the key to repairing the broken relationship between citizens and politicians.

DT: How do you ensure that you reach a diverse audience?

Hollstein: At this stage, our audience isn’t as diverse as we’d like it to be. While we’ve successfully engaged many key stakeholders at the state level, reaching every citizen remains a challenge. That’s why our focus has been on communicating with stakeholders first. We believe that change must come from within the system.

Progress varies across different stakeholders. Some are quick to adopt, while others require more time to see the benefits. Our goal is to expand our reach to every city, and we’re currently developing plugins for each city’s website to facilitate this. This approach will significantly increase our outreach.

For now, our initiative serves as a proof of concept. We’re gradually shifting the culture within cities and gaining buy-in from key stakeholders. Our next step involves working closely with cities to directly engage citizens in using the tool. It’s a process of gradual change, but we’re committed to seeing it through.

DT: What kind of feedback have users given you so far?

Hollstein: They’re genuinely thrilled with what we’re doing. Initially, their reaction is often one of surprise – they wonder why a tool like this isn’t already in place. Among those in city parliament, the question then shifts to how they can implement it in their own city. I always have to manage expectations a bit, explaining that these things take time, but eventually, they’ll have access to it.

While there are valid concerns about data security, we’ve addressed them effectively, and we’ve encountered no significant issues thus far. Everyone seems to welcome the initiative and recognize its value. Our main challenge isn’t opposition but rather moving from mere enthusiasm to concrete action. We’re working on motivating them to actively engage and participate in the implementation process.

DT: What do you see as the sustainable or long-term impact of this project?

Hollstein: I firmly believe that those in positions of responsibility are genuinely trying their best. However, simply discussing problems isn’t enough when the underlying structures are flawed. We need to examine deficits in democracy and address them head-on. 

Currently, digitalisation efforts are often limited to converting analog processes into digital documents, overlooking the vast opportunities technology presents. We also aim to demonstrate the positive impact of innovation on democracy, particularly at the city level. 

Our ultimate goal is to advocate for a standard system that ensures transparency not only in our region but across Germany. We believe in the power of open data to clarify responsibilities and make the electoral process more transparent for everyone involved.

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