Could digital democracy help solve the government trust crisis?
Photo by Chris Slupski on Unsplash
Originally Published on Your Public Value
From Chile to Hong Kong, the year of 2019 saw large masses of people taking to the streets in protest. The protestors grievances span topics ranging from climate change, inequality, corruption to an erosion of political freedoms. While the trigger points for each of these social movements may be different, protest in general is a reflection of the fact that certain sections of the population feel alienated or inadequately represented by their governments. In the midst of these protests, a number of prominent political commentators have begun to sound the alarm, raising concerns about the future of democracy. Against this backdrop, it is only becoming to reflect upon what is causing this disconnect between the government and its constituents and how one can bridge this gap.
The current climate of dissatisfaction might be a reflection of the limitations of the existing structure of party-based representative democracy. A two year nationally representative survey conducted by academics at the University of Sheffield found that 77% of people in the UK said they were dissatisfied with all political parties and the primary reason stated was that parties were “unrepresentative” . YouGov, a global online community for political discussion, in August 2019 analyzed data about the political views of its members residing in the UK. The results suggest that views can no longer be simply classified as left or right wing. For example, 92% of voters who identify as left-wing and 78% of voters who identify as right-wing believe that converting to green and renewable energy should be a national priority. An evaluation of the data on a number of different issues suggest a similar degree of bipartisanship. Further, a significant proportion of left and right voters hold views which are classified as belonging to the opposite side of the political spectrum .
Given how nuanced political opinions appear to be, it comes as no surprise that today’s voters feel inadequately represented by any single political party. Today’s digital technologies however have significantly reduced the costs of secure communications, holding the promise of permitting citizens to communicate with their legislators and fellow citizens on an issue-by-issue basis in real time. While this is already the case with social media, they lack institutional legitimacy and are algorithmically designed to reinforce concordant views, turning them into echo-chambers of political rage. In the digital age, democracy needs a new digital infrastructure that permits deliberation between diverse groups and enjoys institutional recognition. While governments have been slow to act on this promise, a number of citizen initiated civic-tech initiatives are beginning to emerge.
Taiwan: An exemplar of digital democracy?
To see how a country can emerge from protests ever closer to its citizens, one can turn to Taiwan, a country which is fast emerging as a leader in the realm of digital democracy. The years leading up from 2010 to 2019, saw the country climb up 5 spots on the Economist Democracy Index from 36 to 31 in the world, partly attributable to its improved “political participation score” . This is no surprise given the introduction of a number of civic-tech tools in the aftermath of the country’s sunflower movement of 2014.
In 2015, after the dust of the Sunflower Movement had settled, the government involved the civic-tech community g0v (Gov Zero), which played a pivotal role in the protests, in developing tools to foster greater citizen participation in governance. One such tool was vTaiwan, a platform where citizens can propose, debate and discuss prospective legislation. The platform rose to prominence after it helped break the gridlock on the finance ministry’s contentious decision to legalize the online sale of alcohol. After four years of deliberations, the bill was at a standstill with opposing groups failing to reach a consensus. This is when the question was taken to the vTaiwan platform where 450 citizens contributed their opinion and voted on proposals, aiding the government to transform the inputs into draft bill in less than half a year. Another landmark case that found resolution on the vTaiwan platform was the legal status of Uber, which led to the adoption of the “Diversified Taxi Services Plan” in 2016 after much debate between opposing sides .
To build on this momentum, Audrey Tang, a Taiwanese civic-hacker was invited to join the country’s executive branch of government, taking office as Digital Minister in October 2016. Further, the g0v community has developed a number of civic tech tools which extend beyond the vTaiwan platform. Some other projects developed by the g0v community include a tool for government budget visualization, digitized campaign finance data which may be audited by the public, and a legislator voting guide which enable citizens to evaluate the performance of their legislators based on a number of performance indicators.
Some of these tools have been integrated into the Taiwanese government’s official platform for online participation called “Join” which boasts 4 million participants. Building on the foundation of the g0v community’s budget visualization tool, the Join platform permits citizens to engage in participatory budgeting exercises in 7 major cities in the country. Citizens can also raise e-Petitions on the platform and legislators are obliged by law to respond to these petitions in public if they receive more than 5000 signatures , , .
Taiwan’s case however, cannot be looked at independently of the challenging geopolitics in the region. The country recently came out of an election with Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party securing her second term as President in a resounding victory. An election won on the platform of an independent Taiwan may be seen as a reflection of the country’s view on its relationship with its neighbor, a view not seen favorably in Beijing. The country has been bolstering its military capabilities and the role of Taiwanese civilians in the country’s defenses has come into question too . As a country facing challenging issues running as deep as its very sovereignty, it remains to be if questions of deeper consequence would be posed to the public and what this would mean for the future of the country.
While Taiwan serves as a very interesting case given the uniqueness of its issues, it is not alone in seeing the emergence of digital participation tools. A host of other such initiatives have emerged across the world with another prominent initiative being Mexico City’s Constitution CDMX platform which was used to crowdsource the city’s new constitution through a combination of participatory mechanisms . These successes herald signs of a future where digital tools could help resolve the dissatisfaction with the current democratic order by strengthening democratic participation.
Challenges, design considerations and a few notes of caution
Firstly, digital democracy needs secure and trusted foundations, in the absence of which it risks manipulation by malicious actors. One such necessary foundation is a government-issued/recognized digital identity, which can uphold the basic democratic principle of one person, one vote while still preserving the anonymity of the identity holder. Additionally, such a system should be built on open standards, permitting civic-tech solutions and businesses alike to utilize them for authentication, digital signatures, and payments among other functionalities. The benefits of a digital identity go far beyond increased participation, with a 2019 McKinsey report estimating that digital identity systems can help unlock 3% of economic value equivalent of GDP in developed and up to 6% in developing economies . And the results are already apparent in pioneering countries such as Estonia and India. This has been widely recognized by businesses, governments and the international development community alike. This is reflected in the explosion of digital identity projects across the world and the UN SDG target 16.9 among other prominent initiatives .
Another recent technological innovation which presents the potential for an auditable and tamper-evident participation system is blockchain. This has already resulted in a number of blockchain-secured eVoting pilots across the world. While citizen participation goes beyond just voting, the same technological foundations can be leveraged to permit auditability and tamper-evidence in other participatory systems.
Secondly, the system should be designed keeping in mind inclusivity. Given the fact that in large parts of the world, smartphone and internet penetration is not yet universal, such systems run the risk of further alienating disadvantaged. In the case of Mexico City highlighted above, this was mitigated by installing digital kiosks with mobile devices across the city so that populations without smartphones could participate in the drafting of the constitution.
Finally, government buy-in is an absolute necessity for the long-term legitimacy of digital democracy. A number of participatory governance projects are not binding on their governments. This was also the case with vTaiwan where the government ultimately ignored the recommendations proposed by the public on the alcohol sales law.
Thus, while the promise of digital democracy is unquestionable, it brings with it new challenges and risks. Greater use of digital technologies is not an end in itself, but merely a tool which can drive positive social outcomes if designed right. It is thus imperative that innovation process is opened up to diverse voices so as to steer innovation in a direction that maximizes its positive impacts while mitigating any new risks that it may raise. A clear starting step in that direction would lie in the introduction of a trusted digital identity.