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Mapping DSI: Digital democracy

10th October 2018

Introducing our overview of DSI in the field of digital democracy, led by ePaństwo Foundation.

Across the world, we are witnessing growing mistrust in democratic institutions and governments, the rise of the politics of populism and fear, the shrinking of civil society spaces and the emergence of misinformation. This is particularly striking in Europe, long considered - for all its challenges - a bastion of functioning democracy. These challenges are vast and multifaceted and strike at the heart of our societies.

But with these great challenges comes great opportunity. Digital democracy has become an increasingly relevant and popular topic across the EU. Cities and countries are implementing participatory budgets, opening up data sets, crowdsourcing information from residents and facilitating better forms of public discussion and debate. Citizens and civil society organisations (CSOs) are monitoring governments’ budgets, elections, public procurement and urban planning, to name only a few.

This analysis, led by ePaństwo Foundation, identifies a number of trends, including the importance of cities (as shown by city-based participatory budgeting and platforms like Decide Madrid); spaces for collaboration and networking (such as Paris and Barcelona’s Civic Hall, Berlin’s CityLab and London’s Newspeak House); hackathons (such as the EU Datathon, Hack for Sweden, KodujProCesko or KrakHack); open-source tools (such as Consul, Your Priorities or Alavateli); data visualisation (such as various open data indexes and the OpenSpending platform); and fact-checking in digital democracy (such as Romania’s Factual and Poland’s Demagog Association).

We are also seeing new ideas and technologies take shape and increase in popularity. For example, liquid democracy - a process whereby people can delegate their votes to experts on particular issues - is gaining ground with projects such as, Licracy and blockchain-based Sovereign.

The key areas of opportunity and challenge for DSI initiatives in this field centre on the following:

  • Citizen engagement and promotion: encouraging people to give up time and to feel engaged in digital democracy is an ongoing challenge. Solutions to this challenge include investing in accessibility, user experience and design, marketing and communication, and ensuring the process is seen as one in which citizens are active co-creators. Feedback has also been shown to be key to engaging and keeping citizens.
  • Funding, maintenance and sustainability: Funding for early-stage projects is not lacking, including from structural, research and development funds; but it often comes on a project basis which impedes scaling and sustainability. There is a strong reliance on volunteers within the field which, despite their commitment, is not always sufficient to sustain digital democracy projects.
  • Knowledge of the landscape, scaling and replication: There is not yet a networked ecosystem of actors within the field, and practitioners are often unaware of others who may be doing similar things elsewhere. In turn, this leads to duplication and wasted resources and lack of scaling, and ultimately reduces impact. Despite some examples from across Europe, including databases, networks, events and campaigns, we have a long way to go to build a proper network of digital democracy projects.
  • Impact measurement: This is essential for projects to improve and refine their work, but also for digital democracy to gain legitimacy among policymakers, funders and citizens. Unfortunately, impact measurement is currently very undeveloped, both from a qualitative and quantitative perspective, exacerbated by the fact that there is little consensus on what constitutes “impact”.
  • Policy developments: Policy and political developments can be both an opportunity and a challenge for these initiatives - for example, benefiting from freedom of information laws or progressive open data regimes, but suffering where these are not in place or where transparency and corruption are not important to governments.

In terms of policy, there are two main areas for action. Firstly, we must reshape funding at European, national and local levels to become longer-term, more flexible, more sustainability-focused, and more collaborative. Funders should also better support not just the development and delivery of software, but also the processes surrounding this such as communications, marketing, business development and impact measurement. Secondly, governments should ensure data and information is freely accessible and available in open, machine-readable and standard formats. They should also work more closely with civil society organisations, campaign groups and citizens’ groups to identify the specific opportunities for digital democracy and to access larger networks of knowledge, skills and opinions. We will be continuing to explore what specific policy steps are needed to support DSI in this field over the coming months.

DSI4EU aims to support the growth and scale of digital social innovation (DSI), tech for good and civic tech in Europe through a programme of policy, research and practical support. This feature is part of a series of introductory texts exploring the landscape, challenges and opportunities for DSI in different social areas. Read the other features in the series.

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