We have seen a shift in day-to-day political processes during the pandemic, specifically in the lead up to the US elections. Governments at all levels are having to make decisions to postpone elections and parliamentary sessions, all working remotely and being under pressure to deliver fast-paced and effective decision making.
In times of crisis, there can be a tension between centralising decision making for efficiency, sacrificing consultation in the process, and the need to get citizens on board with plans for large-scale changes to everyday life. While these reactions are to be expected, in the current and next phases we need a different approach since democracy must go on.
Effective use of digital tools can provide a way to keep parliamentary and government processes going in a way that enhances rather than threatens democracy. At Borne, we understand that this is a unique opportunity to experiment with digital methods to address several business-as-usual pain points to support institutions and general population engagement in the long term.
While digital tools can’t give us all the answers, they can support the practicalities of remote decision-making. Digital tools can collect information from different sources to provide an overview of the options. To weigh up pros and cons, platforms such as Your Priorities and Consul enable people to contribute arguments. To quickly gauge support for different options from stakeholders, platforms such as All Our Ideas enable ranking of a live bank of ideas. If people need to gather questions and needs of the general population, they can head to platforms like Sli.do, online forms or task management tools like Trello or Asana.
Maintaining Democracy During Lockdown
While pressure to take crucial decisions quickly and remotely can put strain on the core principles of democracy, many parliaments have been exploring ways to move online, with as close to usual levels of scrutiny and participation as possible.
The UK Parliament made the transition to hold its first Prime Minister’s Questions online, through a ‘hybrid’ method; the EU Parliament has moved to e-voting; the Scottish Parliament is holding virtual Question Time; and New Zealand’s Select Committees are going online too. Most of these arrangements seek to recreate physical meetings by video call, but creative use of other tools could provide more effective and efficient outcomes than the previous face-to-face procedures.
Interactions are not limited to speech. vTaiwan illustrated online deliberation with members of the public on new policy ideas, France’s Parlement et citoyens scrutinised bills and Decide Madrid combined debates with participatory budgeting. Inspiration can be found from grassroots and civil society democratic innovators who have been testing and developing many of these approaches.
Introducing digital tools could address several existing pain points, for example formal evidence submission procedures in Select Committees. Formal democracy processes could be supported by initiatives providing fact-checking to avoid fake news and the panic this may cause.
Since the start of the pandemic, elections and referenda have been postponed or relied on physical distancing or postal voting to go ahead.
But what about online options?
Systems for online voting already exist in some places. Estonia became the first country to host nation-wide online elections; Switzerland’s cantons previously offered e-voting; New Zealand has an existing system to enable overseas voters to download and upload their votes, which could be extended; India has electronic voting in polling stations; and online voting was trialled for local elections in the UK and Canada.
With adaptation and risk management around lack of slow testing, considering the full set of activities around elections and general safety, these initiatives could potentially provide the basis for digital voting during this and future crises.
By embedding civic participation methods at various parts of decision-making processes, governments may also ease citizens’ anxiety around the immediate and long-term situation, giving them more of a sense of control around the circumstances affecting their lives.
Citizens with particular skills can be approached to contribute digitally and existing deliberation (such as the Climate Assembly UK) can be moved online. In the longer term, these initiatives pave the way for greater citizen involvement in decision making and in the implementation of the resulting initiatives. At every stage, there is a need to consider accessibility, diversity and inclusion.
Coronavirus has forced a rapid move to online methods of decision-making over the past year, accelerating a process of adoption which was previously predicted to take years rather than days. This period can be considered as a rapid prototyping phase of digital democracy on a large scale, testing and adapting tools and methods with previous risk aversion no longer a barrier.
The tools chosen and the way in which they have been used will have significant ramifications for the use of digital methods in the long term. Coming out of lockdown, changes to our ways of working are inevitable. The learning from this time will be crucial to inform decisions about the use of digital products in the immediate and long-term future, as democracy tackles some of the biggest economic and health challenges in years.
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