July 08, 2019

A look at the Swiss Civic Tech landscape

The invention of the modern newspaper printing machine, the telegraph and the railway which heralded the Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed the way our economies work. They led to economic growth and prosperity, but also to social grievances and political tensions. Progressive forces recognized the potential of these new technologies to strengthen Switzerland’s democratic processes. It was only with the new technologies that it became viable to carry out regular, supra-regional polls. As a result, in 1869, the voters of Zurich approved a new cantonal constitution that institutionalized the direct democratic procedures of the popular initiative and the referendum. Zurich’s constitution was the first in the world to institutionalize such processes. Other cantons followed suit and consequently, the possibility of a popular referendum on legislation was introduced at the federal level in 1874 and the popular initiative in 1891.

When Radio and TV first emerged, the Swiss legislator reacted by setting up TV/radio channels financed through fee collection and by banning political advertising on these channels. Radio and television did not change the formal decision-making process as provided in the constitution. They did however have a large influence on the culture and nature of political debates. The speed and quality of communication via radio and television is placing new demands on all political actors, including citizens. At the same time, a more direct participation has become possible owing to audiovisual records from parliament, government, administration and, of course, via the non-institutional political arenas.

Apart of a first eVoting pilots, the emergence of Internet technology has not yet had any substantial influence on the constitutional design of political processes either. Politics and our media landscape however are even more profoundly affected by the emergence of the Internet than was already the case for the emergence of TV and radio. The content that was previously tied to programs via ether – and cable – is now increasingly consumed online – time and location independent. The print media, which are central to political decision-making, see themselves under pressure to develop new business models because their content is increasingly consumed neither on paper nor on their web pages, but on social media and micro-blogs. On these platforms, a considerable amount of political advertising and debate is taking place. Considering that they have been built with a primarily commercial interest rather than with an eye to enhancing the quality of democracy, it is hardly surprising that these platforms are now struggling with the spread of fake news and dark ads.

In recent years, new initiatives, projects and companies have emerged under the umbrella term “Civic Tech“. This industry sprung from the realization that for one the digitization of politics is not to be left to foreign, commercial platforms and for the other that there is money to be made with smart offerings in this area. In spring 2019, representatives of this space met for the first time at a conference organized by the umbrella organization of Swiss Youth Parliaments.

Extract of the Swiss Civic Tech map

The graphic gives an overview of which actors are currently active in this field. There is no binding definition of “Civic Tech” hence why the map is intentionally broad. The map was produced in collaboration with “Dachverband Schweizer Jungparlamente“. The full map can be found here.

The individual actors are grouped along the policy cycle, whereby their individual classifications are sometimes overlapping. The overview is supplemented with other actors from science, think- and do-tanks as well as various service providers who support this industry. For illustration purposes, one actor of each category will be shortly introduced below:

– Agenda-setting: wecollect.ch simplifies the collection of signatures for referendums and popular initiatives by allowing personal details etc. to be entered directly via their online tool. Subsequently, it is sufficient to print out the form, sign it by hand and – without a stamp – throw it into the next mailbox.

– Information: politik.ch bundles all publicly accessible information on on-going and completed legislative processes and elections, prepares it and creates visualizations.

– Deliberation: inilab.ch covers the whole political cycle. On this platform, projects – in particular referendums and popular initiatives – can be launched, discussed in a hierarchically structured way, processed administratively and decided informally. In addition to many other functions, all contributions are automatically translated into the other two important national languages.

– Decision: votetandem.org establishes the contact between persons entitled to vote and those, who have no voting rights.  The platform pairs interested individuals to meet in person and discuss political issues. The interactions are registered on a blockchain.

– Project platforms: nextzurich.ch allows ideas to be launched online, discussed with others and further developed. The contributions are collected by the association which operates the platform, edited and worked out with experts and other participants to project drafts.

As pleasing as the diversity of platforms, companies and organizations may be, it must not distract from the fact that the Civic Tech space faces major challenges. The list of failed initiatives is long. While platforms such as wecollect.ch or smartvote.ch operate with technically simple means, the development and operation of other Civic Tech solutions – for example inilab.ch or crossiety.ch – require considerable (financial) resources.

Due to Switzerland’s relatively small size, this problem is accentuated by the fact that costs can only be distributed in a limited way. Therefore, the question remains as to how much responsibility the public sector should assume in financing such projects. In this context, it will be interesting to see how the Federal Council will respond to a corresponding postulate by Member of the Council of States Damian Müller (FDP, Lucerne). As with other digital platforms, concerns about data protection are widespread, all the more because Civic Tech platforms often involve the exercise of political rights. Justifiably, particularly high demands with regards to data protection are made here. Another challenge is that Switzerland does not yet have an infrastructure for electronic identities. Thus, the control of access rights to the individual platforms is only possible to a limited extent. Last but not least, many of these platforms struggle with the same problems as their anachronistic counterparts, who are dependent on voluntary commitment or the idea of militia.

As a glance at the beginnings of modern Swiss democracy shows that political institutions only remain relevant if they succeed in harnessing the technological possibilities of their times. Thanks to the still young but lively Civic Tech space, Switzerland has a number of exciting laboratories at its disposal in which the future of democracy is experimented with. The vitality of Swiss democracy can only be maintained if these good ideas lead to constitutional innovations.

By Dr. rer. publ. Rolf J. Rauschenbach

This article was originally published in German in bundesRUNDSCHAU.