• PTP Chicago

Democracies of the Future Will Be Digital



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!


Bringing water to Mexico City

Mexico City was hit with a major water crisis in 2018, when their water supply system, called Cutzamala, was closed down for some much-needed repair work. Over a million Mexico City residents found themselves without access to a water supply, creating city-wide panic about the possibility of drought. Public officials tried to mobilize government resources to put an emergency water supply system in place but failed. Faced with the prospect of a citywide drought, the Mexico City government partnered with a private enterprise Cityflag, to develop a way out of the crisis.


Working in conjunction with city officials, Cityflag developed and deployed a mobile application that could monitor water distribution in real-time. It used a dashboard feature that could track water supply to individual localities around the city, delivering over 400,000 gallons of water to millions of Mexico City residents, and averting the crisis. Mexico City’s venture with Cityflag has been held up as a model example of the kind of public service that is possible through the development of GovTech.


The Rise of Civic Tech

The other side of the coin from GovTech is civic tech. Civic tech describes technology created by private enterprises with the express intent of solving civic problems. Unlike GovTech, which is developed by the government to solve local problems, civic tech often has global applications because the developers were able to identify a problem common to many societies.


The ultimate aim of GovTech and civic tech is the same, however—to develop technology to improve public services and create better governance. And, much like with GovTech, civic technologies can aid in strengthening democracy and democratic institutions.


Civic tech can help advance democratic values by:


Putting citizens first: Civic tech is designed to solve shared civic concerns. Invariably its use will make it easier for citizens to achieve a higher standard of life than they previously experienced.


Making governance less expensive: Civic tech is often developed to reduce financial burdens on less wealthy nations, by finding simpler and cheaper means of achieving a goal.


Removing middlemen: Middlemen are a common phenomenon in developing countries where a well-connected third-party operator is often required to navigate lengthy bureaucratic processes. Middlemen help cut through red tape in exchange for a fee and, in the process, increase state corruption. Civic tech can help remove the need for middlemen by giving citizens direct access to government services.


Decide Madrid

In the aftermath of the anti-austerity protests in 2011 and the Spanish financial crisis of 2014, like-minded Madrileños, backed by the political party Ahora Madrid and supported by the city’s mayor, collaborated to develop an online platform called Decide Madrid. The stated aim of the platform was to ensure that everyone’s voice was heard and to give every Madrileño participation in the city’s decision-making.


Citizens could participate in four ways—propose ideas for new legislation, which is then debated in an open forum and voted on; vote on which projects would be prioritized in the year’s budget; hold public debates; respond to surveys on various public matters.


As of 2018, Decide Madrid had over 400,000 registered users and recently won the UN Public Service Award for “establishing more open, transparent, participatory, and inclusive governance models.”


Conclusion

More than 5 billion people now have access to and regularly use the internet. That’s over two-thirds of the world’s population! A We Are Social report published in 2020 revealed that on average people spend over 6 hours a day online, whether it be for entertainment, work, education, or other activities. This average increases to 9 hours in developed countries where high-speed internet is easily available.


In the few decades since the dawn of the digital age, digitization and digital transformation have become an essential part of our daily lives. There is an increasing dependence in our private lives on the Internet of Things (IoT), and the interconnectedness that brings. The good news is that most companies today realize the importance of investing in digital transformation. The better news is—the public sector isn’t far behind.



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