October 17, 2017

Blog #01 - Technology and democracy

Digitalization is changing all aspects of how modern societies operate, including the machinery underpinning democracy. As the tech industry rolls out new software and hardware solutions by which the people can make their will known, society and the law will eventually catch up. We need to start broadening the debate about the available choices and consequences of this coming shift.  


While very little has changed in the machinery of the representative system since the late 1700s, this arrangement is starting to unravel. The technology by which the people receive their information and make their will known is being revolutionized. Technology now holds the capacity to transfer more power directly to the people, including on the all-important questions of how the state taxes and spends.


The shift to a more digital form of interaction between citizens and their government is being driven by five main forces which, taken together, will propel us further in the direction of a greater use of information technology (IT) in the democratic process.


The five drivers


First, democracy is not static. What we are experiencing today is not the same form of interaction that our grandparents knew. Citizens are deciding directly on more things more often, as shown by the surge of petitions, initiatives and referendums across the globe. Technology is accelerating this trend. The ubiquitous nature of hand-held devices for sending and receiving messages about anything and everything is further shifting power to their users.


The second driver for more digital interaction between citizens and their representatives comes, ironically, from the representatives themselves. Their primary motivation is to offer their citizens “convenience” and “participation”. Most countries have an independent electoral commission whose mandate it is to make sure that elections can be run freely and fairly. Those agencies are now studying the latest technology by which to run elections. At the same time, representatives want to “get out the vote” for them and their party. Those representatives who believe that this can more easily be achieved by permitting the use of mobile devices, will obviously favor the new technology.  On the other hand, those representatives who think that this new technology will give “the others” easier access to the polls, will obviously oppose its introduction.


The third driver for change is the IT industry, which is designing out-of-the-box software and hardware solutions for the people to make their will known. These vendor solutions are getting better and better. Their business is to develop the software and hardware that governments can use to receive secure instructions from their citizens. The IT industry is not going to stop trying to perfect this arrangement. Around twenty countries are now experimenting with this technology.


The fourth driver comes from a disparate range of non-governmental forces: “the grassroots”; “civic society”; and idealists, visionaries and revolutionaries from the left, the center and the right. They want to “improve” the representative model. They’re not in agreement about what the new model should look like, but they are intrigued by the idea that the digital age is opening up new possibilities for citizens to participate even more in the democratic process.


The fifth driver is to be found among the general public, who are currently not too focused on this topic. As governments begin to offer more and more services online, requiring higher levels of cybersecurity, more and more people are likely to notice that almost all their dealings with the government have shifted online, except the really important one of instructing the people’s representatives.


The shift is already under way


Given these trends, seeking refuge in an unreformed representative system from the late 1700s is not the answer. Such a system is not going to survive the disruption of the digital era. Just as businesses are having to adjust their business models to deal with digitalization and disintermediation, countries are going to have to do the same with their governance models.


Unsure of how to tackle this, but wanting to appear modern, parliaments have started setting up online portals that give the people the ability to ping the legislature via the internet. This is already leading to more issues being raised by the public more frequently. One of those issues may well end up being a petition for greater power for the people. In some places, this is already under way.


Constitutions are being amended and laws rewritten to give the people more direct say on more things and to permit binding electronic forms of interaction.  Technology is now making it possible for the people to petition their government electronically, to launch initiatives online, to vote online and, most radically, to compete with their legislature or even to replace it. Technology can now directly connect the people to the server where legislation is being prepared on their behalf. That is very different from how our grandparents interacted with the political system.


It seems inevitable, therefore, that in the digital age the question will now turn to how people vote and what they vote on. These changes may work to improve the quality of government or make it worse, but they appear to be an inevitable evolution to the next stage of how free people want to organize themselves politically.


The question of how this new technology is changing the machinery of our democracy, and which options are available at each stage of the value chain, needs an informed debate. One way to contribute to such a debate is via a platform that can identify and analyze the relevant issues and articulate these for the different stakeholders.


At Procivis we are in the process of establishing such a forum, which will operate along the lines of a think tank. We believe that such an initiative can play a very helpful role in contributing to an informed debate.

By Costa Vayenas