You can’t write an app to fix a broken system
Though often heralded as innovative practice much digital democracy turns out to be little more than a glossy coat of paint, hastily applied to the rusting hulk of democracy. New tools, websites and apps are lauded as effective ways of overcoming the democratic deficit, capable of engaging the public more closely in political processes. In reality they often end up as little more than placebos bolted on to systems and processes that are out of date, out of touch and failing.
What’s wrong with democracy can’t be fixed with a new app.
The raison d’être for digital democracy is better democracy. Not more digital. So unless digital solutions are part of a holistic and transformative process that ensures democratic systems are accessible, accountable, open and transparent then they can only ever have a limited impact.
We’ve got to see the system not the transaction, change the culture not the website.
There are some significant examples of how activists using new technology have improved the democratic process and brought conversations about openness and transparency to the table. Whilst it might seem passé today, when MySociety created ‘FixMyStreet’ it marked a radical and significant departure in the relationship between local government and citizens. For the first time it gave a sizable portion of the general public not just direct access to their local government but direct control over what civil servants were hearing. The same was true for ‘TheyWorkForYou’, it gave an interested public far easier access to the proceedings of Parliament and an understanding of how their representatives voted. This and other examples are today spawning significant developments in Parliamentary monitoring, not just in developed countries where we take democracy for granted but (and perhaps most excitingly) in developing democracies. This matters because the nascent nature of the political process in these countries means that nothing is certain and the risks of corruption, manipulation and, indeed, democratic failure remain high.
One of our biggest failures has been to continually bolt another technical solution over the top of our democratic problems. This leads to failure because technological determinism doesn’t work. Creating interesting technological solutions simply because you can isn’t enough. It isn’t any good. Technology only becomes normative when it works for a significant percentage of the people affected by a problem that it can elegantly solve, mitigate or side-step. Texting is perhaps the classic example of this. We’ve got to recognise the social value, the social benefit, not the technical elegance (which isn’t to say that usability doesn’t matter, gov.uk shows us that it does). Many were critical of gov.uk winning a design award? Is it really that radical? Well, yes, perhaps it is, because the focus has been on building a solution from the ground up where what the citizen needs is the focus, not the technology or the civil servant.
None of this is a criticism of technologists: we need them. We need more people who passionately believe that democracy can be improved through the use of new digital tools. Their motives are genuine and their ambitions positive. But to do things better we need more. We need those who understand the strategic picture, the policy and the human perspective to partner with the technologists and support them to always think beyond the digital. If you get the ‘why’ then help those who can deliver the ‘what’ and ‘how’.