Democracies of the Future Will Be Digital

by Pranav Ramesh
September 17, 2021
Illustration of interconnected devices and data streams, symbolizing the digital future of democracies

Democracy. Digital. Iceland.

These seemingly disparate categories came together in 2012 in what is known as pirate party politics. That year, as a response to the financial crisis and corruption which engulfed Iceland at the time, a few enterprising citizens and digital activists decided to found a political party to promote authenticity, open debate, transparency, and most importantly, increased participation through the use of digital technology. They committed to pirate party politics which entail direct democracy, civil rights, net neutrality, and the free sharing of knowledge. It was the birth of the Icelandic Pirate Party (Píratar).

The party uses a variety of digital technologies to promote democratic values, for example, using online video conferencing tools to facilitate policy debates between party members and constituents. Perhaps their most striking blend of technology and democratic processes is their digital platform x.piratar.is. The platform is an established part of the party’s deliberation processes. Every new policy is first aired on the platform, where it is debated for a week and then voted on by the party’s members around the country. In addition to x.piratar.is, the Icelandic Pirates also use forum tools such as Discourse to host general discussions with the Icelandic public.

Thanks to their efforts at creating a digitized, transparent, and more accessible democratic system in Iceland, the Icelandic Pirate Party won over 15% of the vote in the 2016 general elections and became Iceland’s second-largest political party. Since then, people have taken to calling Iceland, and other countries with technologically driven civic participation, digital democracies.

But does digital transformation serve a greater purpose beyond just simplifying processes or ease of access? Can these so-called “digital democracies” actually lead to greater civic participation and democratization of society? The short answer is—yes, without a doubt.

GovTech and Democracy

Governments around the world have realized the importance of digitizing their processes and the role digital transformation can play in improving both the quality and accessibility of public services. In democratic countries, digital transformation has the added benefit of bringing the government closer to the public and giving citizens a greater say in the running of their country. This union between governance, public services, and technology, has led to the rise of what some experts are calling GovTech.

Govtech is a partnership between governments and private entities to develop solutions for public problems. Governments fund the development of this technology or contract third-party tech companies to work on solutions for identified problems. Govtech has been developed to find solutions in transportation, education, financial services, procurement, public utilities, etc. Estonia, for example, is considered the most advanced digital society in the world. 99% of Estonia’s public services have been digitized, and over 95% of its citizens use an electronic identity card.

Experts have predicted that continued development in government will eventually make for a more competent and democratic state where public services can more effectively match citizen demands. Research by Accenture suggests that 75% of citizens globally support GovTech as beneficial for democratic participation and over 60% are willing to take an active role in personalizing services. When the Danish government introduced NemKonto, an online portal that allows Danish citizens to carry out all public transactions through a digital id card, over 95% of the country signed up!

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