07 September 2023

Democracy Technologies: You are about to publish a book called The Design of Digital Democracy. What’s its main premise?

Sgueo: The genesis of this book started two or three years ago. I had just published a book on the use of game design, gamification in public policy and democratic engagement. This idea of how you design participatory processes was promising much more than just game design. So, I started to collect materials, analyse different topics, and look at case studies.

I came to a conclusion, which is the main claim of the book: When we as consumers interact with technology, we normally expect to receive fast, easy, personalised services from our technological products. And usually, they are free of charge, at least on the surface. 

In digitising participatory processes, policymakers are trying to replicate these experiences. They are trying to promise the idea that participation is fast and easy to access, personalised in a sense, and obviously free of charge.

I’m thinking about the Conference on the Future of Europe, for example. It had this idea that you could quite easily tell the European Union what it should be doing over the next few years. And this to me is problematic because democratic processes are complex procedures. It takes time and it takes a lot of effort to guarantee all interests are included. 

In the book, I’m trying to compare these two approaches to design and how, in my opinion, digital democratic spaces should be redesigned. I’m suggesting three different options. 

One is more elaborate storytelling explaining the opportunities, but also the time and the endeavours that are requested of participants. 

The second one is an approach that is not dependent on the final outcome. So it’s not necessarily saying, if you participate, this is going to change, but it’s the value of participating that is already important for a citizen, for a stakeholder.

The third one is the use of game design. So in certain cases, making more playful interactions could guarantee better results in engaging citizens.  

DT: Could you name some examples where this could be improved?

Sgueo: I would say there are two cases that I observe quite often. The Conference on the Future of Europe, which I regard as quite an innovative approach, failed precisely in this idea of channelling the entire participation around promising citizen participants that they could achieve a direct outcome.

It’s already two years after the end of the conference and pretty much nothing has happened yet. I don’t expect major changes to happen in this legislative term of the European Union, precisely because the democratic process involves complex procedures that require different layers of power. 

DTs: So they should not have even promised this, in your opinion?

Sgueo: Not in the way they did. One part of the explanation is that because of the pandemic, the conference, which was meant to last two years, was summarised in just one year.

But to answer your question, I think the communication, the storytelling, of the conference was entirely focused on how you, as a European citizen, can shape the European Union for the future. This is an extremely powerful narrative. But it also holds a lot of potential to fail. Once you have these interesting proposals, you still need a lot of political forces and even treaty changes to implement these decisions. So this is, to me, one example that could be redesigned. 

Another example is the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate that was done in France, by Macron. And again, I think it’s four years after the end of it and it’s quite clear that that process was an exit strategy from the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests), the big protests that were happening in France. 

The process itself was very successful. The numbers are extremely interesting, with a lot of people participating. The digital part was extremely interesting. However, if we look at democracy as a process that has a beginning and an end, and the end involves policy changes, this second part is completely missing. 

DT: How would you suggest dealing with citizen expectations – the desire for immediate feedback?

Sgueo: For me, the key is to instil the value of complexity in every process of participation. I’m not suggesting to undermine the idea that by participating in a digital format, you as a citizen or you as an interest group will eventually have the power to produce some change. I’m suggesting that the process should also take into account the challenges that are related to the process and should defend their complexity. This is a way to protect all the stakeholders.

Complexity, for example, is a way to guarantee that people with no access to a broadband connection could still have a chance to participate. 

So if you focus entirely on the simplicity of the digital tools, you will only focus on the promises and you will miss the steps that are needed to reach the final outcome.

What I’m suggesting is to introduce small design changes in policy-making processes that are devoted to participation, to guarantee that participants fully understand that they’re taking part in a complex procedure. That takes time. It takes political negotiation.

It can indeed fail, or it can lead to a result that doesn’t reflect entirely what citizens have suggested. But it’s a minor change, an improvement, not a revolution. These are rather small design changes to make participating in digital formats more satisfactory for participants.

DT: Could you name some examples for these changes? 

Sgueo: I can tell you one example of the need for storytelling. Between 2011 and 2013, I was working for the Italian government. For the first time in Italy, we launched a very simple, very basic digital participation platform. Citizens could write to the government, and they could say, I’d like this to be implemented or changed. 

In that case, our mistake, I can say now in retrospect, was that we communicated the project as: You as a citizen have the power to tell the Prime Minister what you would like him to do.

I remember one huge topic was the spending review in Italy. There was this idea that the public administration was spending too much, and so a lot of citizens were asking us to cut public expenses, to reduce the salaries of top hierarchies. 

This was a good idea, but we couldn’t implement it. Not because we didn’t want to, but because it takes a lot of additional procedural steps to cut the expenses. 

So the idea here required more thoughtful storytelling so that citizens’ expectations could be better managed. Say, “Please bear in mind that once we have your proposals, we will start a process to check whether they are feasible and when they could be implemented”. 

I understand this is less powerful than the original approach but it is probably more realistic at the end of the day and better for long-term trust in the government. 

My proposal is based on research. I’ve been looking into American bureaucracies. They have a chief storytelling officer. This role is dedicated to narrating the public administration. I couldn’t find anything close to that here. We have a lot of media roles in the public sector, but there is no storytelling officer role. 

DTs: We haven’t addressed the challenge to include people who don’t normally participate. That’s also one promise of digital democracy that it often doesn’t manage to keep. Does your book have any answers on that one?

Sgueo: Thank you for this question because to me it’s a crucial problem. We all imagined until very recently,  that digital technology would be an enabler of broad participation. Everybody would finally be free and able to say what they thought. 

But overall, the problem of representation remains. So the digitalisation of government hasn’t led to generalised accessibility by all stakeholders. Actually, we have new cases of exclusion. 

But as a scholar, I’m not necessarily providing answers. I’m more interested in looking at and reflecting on problems in this book. I tried to sketch some preliminary answers, but there must be more reflection that should be done in terms of accessibility.

Among the many problems, two main aspects stand out. The first is that being enabled to participate via digital tools requires a certain level of digital literacy. And surprisingly, a lot of people, in spite of using technology, have a very low level of digital literacy. 

The other one is the dynamics that you can observe in many participatory processes. These involve certain levels of literacy and education. I don’t have a solution to these problems. But I think they in part could be solved with a more appropriate design. So, for example, by introducing a level of complexity that requires a public administration to be forced to go to the stakeholders that normally do not participate. That means more time, more money, and the possibility that a longer negotiation will be needed. So we go back to the word complexity, again. 

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