Digital democracy is here, but what does that mean?
When most people think of technology and democracy, they think of voting, politics and elections – and the Cambridge Analytica case in the US – but there’s a lot more to it, especially for government organisations.
What happened with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is not new. In 2009, Barack Obama’s campaigners were applauded for their use of social media and data analytics to encourage volunteers across America to promote his campaign and local candidates. The problem isn’t the technology, it’s who is using it and how.
As a society, we need to decide how and when we should use these technologies for democracy and governance. The technologies and data analytics techniques currently being used to game elections can also be used to understand, serve and govern; transparently or otherwise. They can be used to gather power or to distribute it, to educate or to manipulate, and to enhance representative democracy or erode it.
There is also a plethora of technologies now available to invite and enable greater public participation and cross sector collaboration. Governments across Australia have been experimenting with online engagement and creative ways to collect submissions online. However, most have not considered how they will manage the data they invite and how they leverage the ideas and input of the community, or their desire to contribute beyond informing government policies and plans.
Then there is the rise of e-voting tools which make direct and liquid democracy possible. In direct democracy, citizens can vote on everything from a policy issue to every bill before parliament. Or we can pass our votes onto someone else we trust to make decisions for us, perhaps to someone who understands the issue better than we do – an expert, if you like. This is called liquid democracy, and the blockchain enthusiasts assure us this is now all safe and unhackable.
These tools can be used instead of elections, for elections, or to enhance participation and open government between elections. Using these tools between elections, like a referendum, distributes responsibility as well as political risk. When they are combined with data analytics, they can also help us to assess and increase how representative a community consultation and stakeholder engagement processes has been.
Digital democracy for government is not just about online engagement. Not everyone will participate online. It’s about embedding systems and processes within governments so that no matter how someone participates governments are able listen to, understand and engage community more effectively. It’s about designing systems and processes that help elected representatives lead, public agencies serve and where necessary, to govern. If that is what we want them to do.
Democracy for the 21st Century
On June 5, in collaboration with Vivid Ideas, engage2 and The Mandarin bring you Democracy is Being Disrupted: Governing in the 21st Century, a professional development event that explores how governments might use these new tools to lead and represent more effectively.
Democracy is being disrupted: Governing in the 21st Century is designed to help ministerial advisors, information officers, technology and digital officers, and engagement and communications managers within government agencies understand the technologies and practices available to help governments lead and represent more effectively.