To transform democracy, we should face old questions with new tools, new visions and new hope.
This week, I will join a group of people from around the world meeting in Manila to talk about how to make democracy work in newer, better ways. Convened by Making All Voices Count, a collaborative of the Omidyar Network, the US Agency for International Development, the UK Department for International Development and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the group will include Asian and African democracy advocates, civic technologists and researchers.
In the Manila meeting, the participants will be using the term “transforming governance” to describe the changes they seek. The central question of the gathering is: If we want to ensure that citizens have meaningful roles in shaping public decisions and solving public problems, can technologies play a role in helping them do so?
They are asking a very old question, but with new hypotheses, new tools and new principles in mind. It is increasingly clear that the older democracies of the Global North do not have all the answers: citizens of those countries 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 democratic innovations have emerged.
How can our democratic formulas be adjusted so that they are more sustainable, powerful, fulfilling – and, well, democratic? Some of the new answers come from the development of online tools and platforms that help people to engage with their governments, with organizations and institutions, and with each other. Often referred to collectively as "civic technology," these tools can help us map public problems, help citizens generate solutions, gather input for government, coordinate volunteer efforts and help neighbors remain connected.
Despite the rapid growth of these forums and tools around the world, in most cases they are not fully satisfying expectations. One reason is that they are usually disconnected from one another, and from other civic engagement opportunities, so are not reaching their full civic potential. Another is that some are designed mainly to gather small scraps of feedback from citizens on a government service, with no guarantee that government will be willing or able to use the input, so they only have limited civic potential.
But while it is unfair to expect any new technology to automatically change our systems of governance, we should certainly have these tools in mind – along with the many processes for productive public engagement that do not rely on technology – when we think about how to redesign democratic systems.
In that conversation, "transforming governance" can be a helpful term because it urges us to think more broadly about democracy, and about the power of democratic systems to improve our lives. There are at least three ways in which these positive transformations can occur:
These changes can add up, in many different combinations, to democracies that are more participatory, energetic, efficient and equitable. In Manila and elsewhere, we should face the old questions with new tools, new visions and new hope.