With ministers being held to account through e-petitions and technology fueling a new age of people power, Ben Fowkes explains how digital democracy is changing the global political landscape.
Our democracy is changing. New digital technologies and the forms of participation they promote are beginning to erode and supersede the traditional idea of the representative democracy that we’ve become accustomed to. The last general election neatly outlined both the problem and hope for the future – politicians largely don’t represent the hopes and aspirations of citizens anymore and the voting system is skewed in favour of the major parties; all of this against a back-drop of a surge of political interest. This is where digital democracy presents an opportunity for change.
The question then has to be – what the hell is digital democracy? The two words in question are familiar to all, but it’s also somewhat of a catch all term to describe organisations, digital tools and grass-roots movements that make use of the internet in some way to improve and influence our democracy by challenging, scrutinising or participating in democratic processes. I work in the latter field, helping governments harness the internet to connect citizens to decision making.
“Digital democracy, in my understanding of the term, is about shaping decisions that affect our lives on an ongoing basis rather than merely expressing a preference every so often for a candidate you might not particularly like”
Digital democracy has been around for as long as the internet with pioneers like Delib, the company I work for, and others having been created at the dawn of this century. Bristol has been one of the key centres for this movement, not just in the South West, or even the country as a whole. Bristol leads the world, providing a test bed for initiatives that have been applied to governments in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; in fact pretty much anywhere that understands the power of the internet to strengthen their democracies. I appreciate this all sounds a little esoteric, perhaps not terribly tangible, so I thought it might be interesting to mention a few digital democracy initiatives that have taken place in Bristol. Unfortunately space doesn’t allow for a full history, but I hope these prove illustrative.
It all started with satire in 2001. Three Bristol university students decided to setup a website, Spinon, as a response to the inevitable landslide victory of Tony Blair in his second general election. In the great tradition of Monty Python, Private Eye et al, they realised that if you can’t beat them, satirise them. The site featured games, videos and editorial content, including the borderline genius game – Get to the right of Jack Straw, a game that was impossible to win. The site was one of the first examples of something political going viral online and it led to the creation of Delib, as the founders realised the potential of the internet when applied to government decision making.
Over the next 10 years, Delib experimented with democracy games for schools, bespoke consultation websites, argument mapping, budget prioritisation games and somehow ended up working with Barack Obama on national crowdsourcing sites. These initiatives were largely bespoke and it soon became obvious that the real win for the field of digital democracy, and therefore citizens, was to standardise participation technology and processes, so that greater change could happen, more cheaply, more often and at scale. The platforms developed focussed on three key methodologies – crowdsourcing policy ideas, prioritisation of resources and good old fashioned surveys.
In Bristol, the crowdsourcing platform idea was first trialled with an initiative that was aptly named It’s my Bristol. The council decided to trial participatory budgeting (PB), whereby citizens are given direct control over how a pot of money is spent. This approach isn’t new, PB has been around since the 1980’s, but in the UK it was one of the first attempts to use online crowdsourcing to decide how budgets were to be divvied up. In this case there was £15,000 at play for the citizens of three wards to spend – Clifton, Clifton East and Cabot. Ideas were submitted on a range of subjects with one of the winning ideas being to close the streets to play. Interestingly this idea has subsequently become a national initiative, all from the idea of one Bristol citizen and facilitated by the tools of digital democracy. It also proved to be a soft launch for larger scale work, including HM Treasury’s Spending Challenge, which crowdsourced budget reduction ideas that eventually saved the government £500m in the 2011 spending review. The Bristol trial proved just as effective when applied nationally.
Bristol again embraced digital democracy with the creation of George’s Ideas Lab in 2014, George Ferguson’s attempt to turn Bristol into a test bed for citizen led ideas to improve our city. It generated a lot of engagement and buzz around Bristol but it also demonstrated the problem with digital democracy – George quietly dropped the initiative at the point when the winning ideas should have been announced.
The initial success and ultimate failure of George’s Ideas Lab neatly summarise digital democracy and its future. Citizen enthusiasm for democratic, participatory projects is real, alive and increasing in its demands for change, but we have yet to really access the power that lies at the heart of our democracies – the ‘representative’ politicians. It is for this reason that I set you a challenge – seek out the online consultations that the council and national government run, take part in them, demand to know how your opinion has been taken into account, do not let the politicians use your voice for their own aims, they must be held to account. I therefore ask of you only one thing – go forth; be noisy, raucous and annoying, that’s how democracy began and that’s how it should continue in the digital age.
You can follow @ben_fowkes on Twitter for the latest updates on digital democracy projects in Bristol and beyond.
If you want to embrace the possibilities that digital democracy offers you can submit your views on anything from transport, public health, planning and licensing through to school admissions and the further roll-out of RPZs. All such activity is listed on the council’s consultation portal at: