Transforming governance: how can technology help reshape democracy?

Research Briefing by Matt Leighninger: “Around the world, people are asking how we can make democracy work in new and better ways. We are frustrated by political systems in which voting is the only legitimate political act, concerned that many republics don’t have the strength or appeal to withstand authoritarian figures, and disillusioned by the inability of many countries to address the fundamental challenges of health, education and economic development.

We can no longer assume that the countries of the global North have ‘advanced’ democracies, and that the nations of the global South simply need to catch up. Citizens of these older democracies have increasingly lost faith in their political institutions; Northerners cherish their human rights and free elections, but are clearly looking for something more. Meanwhile, in the global South, new regimes based on a similar formula of rights and elections have proven fragile and difficult to sustain. And in Brazil, India and other Southern countries, participatory budgeting and other valuable democratic innovations have emerged. The stage is set for a more equitable, global conversation about what we mean by democracy.

How can we adjust our democratic formulas so that they are more sustainable, powerful, fulfilling – and, well, democratic? Some of the parts of this equation may come from the development of online tools and platforms that help people to engage with their governments, with organisations and institutions, and with each other. Often referred to collectively as ‘civic technology’ or ‘civic tech’, these tools can help us map public problems, help citizens generate solutions, gather input for government, coordinate volunteer efforts, and help neighbours remain connected. If we want to create democracies in which citizens have meaningful roles in shaping public decisions and solving public problems, we should be asking a number of questions about civic tech, including:

  • How can online tools best support new forms of democracy?
  • What are the examples of how this has happened?
  • What are some variables to consider in comparing these examples?
  • How can we learn from each other as we move forward?

This background note has been developed to help democratic innovators explore these questions and examine how their work can provide answers….(More)”