Designing digital democracy: a short guide

Geoff Mulgan at NESTA: “I’ve written quite a few blogs and pieces on digital technology and democracy – most recently on the relevance of new-style political parties.

Here I look at the practical question of how parliaments, assemblies and governments should choose the right methods for greater public engagement in decisions.

One prompt is the Nesta-led D-CENT project which is testing out new tools in several countries, and there’s an extraordinary range of engagement experiments underway around the world, from Brazil’s parliament to the Mayor of Paris. Tools like Loomio for smallish groups, and Your Priorities and DemocracyOS for larger ones, are well ahead of their equivalents a few years ago.

A crucial question is whether the same tools work well for different types of issue or context. The short answer is ‘no’. Here I suggest some simple formulae to ensure that the right tools are used for the right issues; I show why hybrid forms of online and offline are the future for parliaments and parties; and why the new tools emphasise conversation rather than only votes.

Clarity on purpose

First, it’s important to be clear what wider engagement is for. Engagement is rarely a good in itself. More passionate engagement in issues can be a powerful force for progress. But it can be the opposite, entrenching conflicts and generating heat rather than light….

Clarity on who you want to reach

Second, who do you want to reach? Even in the most developed nations and cities there are still very practical barriers of reach – despite the huge spread of broadband, mobiles and smart phones…..

Clarity on what tools for what issues – navigating ‘Belief and Knowledge Space’

Third, even if there were strong habits of digital engagement for the whole population it would not follow that all issues should be opened up for the maximum direct participation. A useful approach is to distinguish issues according to two dimensions.

The first dimension differentiates issues where the public has expertise and experience from ones where the knowledge needed to make decisions is very specialised. There are many issues on which crowds simply don’t have much information let alone wisdom, and any political leader who opened up decision making too far would quickly lose the confidence of the public.

The second dimension differentiates issues which are practical and pragmatic from ones where there are strongly held and polarised opinions, mainly determined by underlying moral beliefs rather than argument and evidence. Putting these together gives us a two dimensional space on which to map any public policy issue, which could be described as the ‘Belief and Knowledge Space’…..


Clarity on requisite scale

Fourth, engagement looks and feels very different at different scales. …

Clarity on identity and anonymity

…. So any designer of democratic engagement tools has to decide what levels of anonymity should apply at each stage. We might choose to allow anonymity at early stages of consultations, but require people to show and validate identities at later stages (eg. to confirm they actually live in the neighbourhood or city involved), certainly as any issue comes closer to decisions. The diagram below summarises these different steps, and the block chain tools being used in the D-CENT pilots bring these issues to the fore.

The 2010s are turning out to be a golden age of democratic innovation. That’s bringing creativity and excitement but also challenges, in particular around how to relate the new forms to the old ones, online communities to offline ones, the democracy of voice and numbers and the democracy of formal representation….(More)