Transforming Governance: How Can Technology Help Reshape Democracy?

August 25, 2016

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. We are concerned that many republics don’t have the strength or appeal to withstand authoritarian figures. And we are 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 organizations 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 neighbors 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?

Public Agenda developed this research brief to help democratic innovators explore these questions and examine how their work can provide answers. Click here to download the full research brief.

About this Publication

This briefing note is one of three that were written as background notes for the Making All Voices Count Learning Event on Transformative Governance, held in Manila, Philippines, in February 2016. The other briefings are:

Aceron, J. and Isaac, F. (2016) Getting strategic: vertically integrated approaches, Brighton: IDS

Halloran, B. (2016) Accountability ecosystems: directions of accountability and points of engagement, Brighton: IDS

The report of the Learning and Inspiration Event is:

Making All Voices Count (2016) Transforming governance: what role for technologies?, Brighton: IDS, http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/123456789/11675

About Making All Voices Count

Making All Voices Count is a program working towards a world in which open, effective and participatory governance is the norm and not the exception. This Grand Challenge focuses global attention on creative and cutting-edge solutions to transform the relationship between citizens and their governments. The field of technology for Open Government is relatively young and the consortium partners, Hivos, the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and Ushahidi, are a part of this rapidly developing domain. These institutions have extensive and complementary skills and experience in the field of citizen engagement, government accountability, private sector entrepreneurs, (technical) innovation and research. Making All Voices Count is supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the Omidyar Network, and is implemented by a consortium consisting of Hivos, IDS and Ushahidi. The program is inspired by and supports the goals of the Open Government Partnership.

ONE WEEK IN MANILA: DEMOCRACY, DEVELOPMENT, AND “TRANSFORMING GOVERNANCE”

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:

  • Changing how people think and act in democracies, by giving them the information they need, the chance to connect with other citizens, the opportunity to provide ideas and recommendations to public officials and public employees, the confidence that government is accountable to citizens’ needs and desires, and the encouragement to devote some of their own time and energy to improving their communities.
  • Changing how governments work, so that public officials and employees can interact effectively with large numbers of people, bridge divides between different groups of citizens, provide information that people can use, gather and use public input, and support citizens to become better public problem-solvers.
  • Changing how civil society organizations (intermediaries) and information mediators (info-mediaries) work, so that they are better able to facilitate the interaction between citizens and government, monitor and report on how decisions are being made and problems are being solved, and provide training and support to new leaders.

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.