This article is part of our Essential Guide: Essential Guide: Digital transformation in the public sector

How software can support public involvement with democracy

Iceland, Scotland and Sweden have experimented with using online software to involve citizens more deeply in democratic processes. The key seems to be encouraging enlightened debate

Imagine an ancient democracy in crisis, with citizens torn between differing views of its future. Britons may find this isn’t hard to do, but Iceland was in a worse state a decade ago than the UK is today.

In late 2008, the country’s three main banks crashed, leading to severe financial and job losses. Despite very deep democratic roots – the country’s Althingi assembly first met in 930AD, making it the world’s oldest running parliament – people protested and rioted in front of the Althingi over the governing right-wing Independence party’s handling of the crisis, a movement known as the pots and pans revolution.

After a change of government in April 2009, Iceland pioneered new ways to involve its citizens in democracy. It set up a constitutional assembly with most members chosen at random from the population, with the resulting new constitution approved by voters in a 2012 referendum, and it started using digital techniques to involve people.

The non-profit Citizens Foundation, founded during the pots and pans revolution, launched an online system called Your Priorities to encourage constructive debate on laws. Chief executive Róbert Bjarnason recalls two or three users getting into a personal argument over fisheries law on its first evening, which led it to look for ways to improve the quality of discussions. “Somebody proposes an idea and then you ask people to come up with pros and cons,” he says. “This puts people in a bit more of an analytical mode.”

The system doesn’t support threads (comments on other people’s comments) because these can easily descent into insults. The model is a university debating society rather than a pub argument. “People can add their points, but they think about it,” says Bjarnason.

One of the foundation’s early projects was Better Reykjavik, opened in 2010 with the city council, initially to help set its agenda. Since 2011, it has also been used for a participatory budget called My Neighbourhood, which collects ideas on how to spend 450m Icelandic króna (£2.8m) in the city’s neighbourhoods, followed by cost evaluation by the council and an authenticated online vote on which ones should go ahead.

“People can look outside the window, look at something for which someone came up with an idea on the website, and it’s actually there,” says Bjarnason.

In general, he says, the system works best when it has “a real chance of impact”, such as deciding how to spend a pot of money, improving existing proposals or collecting ideas that have a chance of being used. The platform proved its ability to keep debate calm when, in 2017, Reykjavik collected ideas for a new education policy, and someone proposed the Bible’s New Testament as required reading in schools. This generated 200 responses, but Bjarnason notes: “We didn’t have to remove a single comment.”

The foundation already uses artificial intelligence for toxicity analysis of comments, although these are rare. During the most recent Reykjavik participatory budget, just one comment was judged toxic and it turned out to be a schoolchild’s joke. In future, says Bjarnason, it could use natural language processing to score comments for toxicity before submission and advise users to tone down their language.

The Scottish parliament and digital participation

The foundation’s open source software has been adopted by the governments, parliaments and organisations across Europe, as well as in the US and Australia. The Scottish parliament recently started using it to support the work of its committees, with Alistair Stoddart, senior participation specialist for the parliament’s committee engagement unit, seeing it as a way to involve people who live a long way from Edinburgh. “It overcomes barriers of time and space,” he says.

It may also help people who lack confidence to take part in more formal written, or face-to-face, consultations or who would prefer to be anonymous. The parliament has already used digital methods to gather views on young people’s mental health services.

The Scottish parliament is testing a number of digital participation systems and has also procured software from Bristol-based Delib for functions including surveys and the digitisation of its written submission process. It is initially using Citizens Foundation’s software to ask people about community wellbeing for its local government and communities committee. At time of writing, this had gathered 43 ideas and 59 discussions.

“It has the potential to be a space where you have structured collegiate discussions, as opposed to people shouting at each other like you might see in social media platforms,” says Stoddart.

But online systems have had less impact so far on slower, more deliberative ways to involve people in decision-making. James Organ, a lecturer in the school of law and social justice at the University of Liverpool, led a project that held face-to-face meetings in Berlin, Budapest, Cluj and Rome discussing how to increase citizen engagement in the European Union (EU).

The EU-funded project discussed ideas including online “legislative crowdsourcing”, where people attempt to write laws collectively, and included an online discussion forum that allowed thousands of people from across the continent to contribute.

But Organ says physical meetings allow people to watch videos and presentations, then deliberate, adding: “It gives them a stronger learning environment.”

But an attempt to get those who attended the face-to-face meetings to continue discussions online did not work well. The participants concluded that the EU’s best option for better engagement was to set up physical “citizens’ assemblies”, where a representative group discusses an issue with expert advice, and makes a recommendation.

Online and offline opinion-gathering

Some similar projects have put online elements to good use, albeit in a supporting role. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) ran a two-year citizens’ economic council that worked mainly through face-to-face meetings and published its final report in March 2018. But it also gathered 47 responses through three online challenges set through Wazoku, a UK-based idea management software platform largely used by businesses to gather proposals from employees and customers.

“They were really quite thoughtful and well-considered,” says Reema Patel, former programme manager for the project, adding that the online process had two things in its favour. It was very structured, seeking only policy or regulatory ideas and asking a number of detailed questions about how they would work. And it was publicised to the RSA’s 30,000-strong fellowship, who join the society partly to be involved in changing society.

Although it was not exclusive to fellows, Patel says a significant number of the responses came from them, pointing out that such online consultations “work best when you have an existing community you know you want to engage with”.

Catherine Howe, a non-executive director of the not-for-profit Democratic Society, says a blended approach of offline and online methods is the ideal, with the latter helping with visibility, transparency and reach. “We live a blended life and our democratic systems have to be blended as well,” she says.

But there are a number of problems to overcome, says Howe. One is that people behave differently online, being more likely to look for differences rather than the common ground they tend to seek face-to-face. Another is that comments hang around online, which makes it harder for people to adjust what they say based on where they are – something Howe calls “the tyranny of online identity”.

Paolo Spada, a lecturer in collective intelligence at Southampton University, is a core developer of Participedia, a website that tracks participatory democracy projects. He, too, sees advantages in combining technology and face-to-face meetings, such as including electronic voting in a physical meeting to widen participation to include people who are reluctant to speak. “People feel face-to-face is always better than technology,” he says. “It’s not true.”

Climate change

Spada says he is a “a bit sceptical” about using citizens’ assemblies to decide policy on climate change, a demand made by protest group Extinction Rebellion, given that it is a hugely complex problem that cannot be solved by one government alone. But software developed in Sweden may provide a way for people to engage with the issue more meaningfully.

ClimateView’s Panorama tool visualises the country’s 53 megatonnes (Mt) of emissions of carbon dioxide and equivalents, allowing users to explore the figures, see the impact of planned reductions and check on progress (or lack of it) so far, with data updated every couple of weeks.

Commentary is provided through virtual yellow sticky notes under the visualisation and organisations can add blue notes with proposals and comments. A new version in development will add more annotation and description, making it easier for non-experts to use, as well as the option for people to use a version on their own websites, where they can add their own commentary.

The tool turns emission reduction into a kind of budgeting exercise where the aim is to spend nothing by 2045 – Sweden’s target date for going carbon neutral (the UK’s is 2050). It shows the relative importance of different sectors, with domestic air travel – demonised by Sweden’s Flygskam (flight shame) movement – responsible for just 0.6Mt a year, compared with the 11Mt generated by passenger road transport, which should be reduced significantly by a shift to electric cars that is already under way.

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Tomer Shalit, chief executive and founder of ClimateView, says it is important that people have a shared plan for decarbonisation. “We believe the only way to do this is to do it together,” he says. The organisation is creating versions for communities that can incorporate commitments by groups of people, such as to commute by bus rather than car, and Shalit thinks it may work better at a smaller scale. “It becomes much more interesting for a citizen to understand where their voices can make a difference,” he says.

A parish council in Cambridgeshire is among those looking to use the Panorama tool in this way.

The tool was commissioned by the Swedish Climate Policy Council, an independent scientific group that evaluates policies against the zero carbon aim. Chief executive Ola Alterå says Panorama started as an information tool, but the intention is to develop it as a way to gather external proposals. “If we can continue to develop in that direction, it could be more of a platform for collaboration,” he says.

Alterå see value in providing easily explored data on climate change which can be used by politicians, journalists and others who set the terms of debate. By focusing on hard data and proposals, it could even help convince those who are sceptical about the area. “I think a lot of that debate is not so much about the science of the climate, but fears of losing jobs, the economy or going back to the Stone Age,” he says.

Like other software designed to involve the public in political discussions, ClimateView’s Panorama aims to generate enlightened debate rather than heated slanging matches. “Especially in this polarised era that we seem to live in right now, these kinds of tools provide a kind of knowledge base,” says Alterå. “That is when informed discussion could start.”

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