In the digital era, MPs walking through lobbies and citizens voting in schools seems quite quaint, and have you ever wondered why this is still the case? 

In recent weeks we have seen Parliament respond admirably to the challenges of a socially distanced world through rapid adoption of digital solutions to keep democracy ticking. Did anyone else wonder why these weren’t in place already, and is it not possible for citizens to have their say online also?  Most modern workplaces have been ‘dialling in’ for yonks, and so we wanted to set the scene and discuss why democracy is so far back in the luddite queue. Perhaps also take you with us on a leap in to the future to take a peek at what democracy may look like in a future digital society. 

You may not like, or even believe, everything you are about to read – I can assure you it is all technically possible, whether it is realised, and at what speed, is down to public and political will, but not technological capability.  

At its simplest, democracy is a system of government by the people, normally carried out through representation. The potential of digitisation at every level of the democratic process would appear at face value to make sense – people can truly govern themselves. The first question to tackle is: is digital democracy inevitable and just because the technology exists does this mean we should adopt it? 

Our experiences during the COVID pandemic demonstrated some of the real-world benefits of digitisation of Parliamentary business. Working remotely builds flexibility in to our MPs’ lives so they can spend more time in their constituency absorbing local issues and achieving better work-life balance. MPs are human too – they get sick, need to travel and some are women who have babies; the ability to work flexibly and remotely solves many of these modern-day challenges. This decentralisation could start to spread the political centre of gravity wider than the Westminster bubble in to the regions. This feels a lot more like representative politics and looks a little like One Nation Conservatism at its best. I suspect it will be these benefits that will start the digital democracy ball rolling, and what will follow in the coming years I’ll now try and tackle. We will use 3 lenses; how citizens interact with democracy, with each other, and how governments interact with their citizens. 

 How will life change for citizens?

 The usual defence for a representative style of democracy is a practical one – it makes far more sense to elect one representative to make decisions on behalf of the population than to consult on every given issue. Voters no doubt would soon tire of marching to the school hall every time a decision was needed, particularly if the matter didn’t directly affect them. It is not hard to imagine how technology could bridge this gap; this could be as simple as downloading an app and selecting which topics you wanted to vote on. There is also an indirect way too – if Facebook can accurately predict how you will vote on a given question after only 100 ‘likes’, it is entirely possible that the Government could predict voter intentions without even asking them. Variable motivations could still mean turn out rates are unstable as citizens are unlikely to want to vote on every issue all of the time, but the same technology could be used to understand what they do want to participate in. 

Digitisation is changing the relationships of citizens with other citizens too. The internet is acting as an incubator and amplifier for online movements. Of note is the Arab Spring, where the actions of one man was amplified online and created a ripple effect across Arab countries. Closer to home we have all felt the impact and disruption of Extinction Rebellion, who use digital media and apps to promote and coordinate events. Stand fast political beliefs, the ripple effect of both movements was a force to be reckoned with. These examples are symptomatic of how campaigns can build momentum and place political pressure without the funding or access otherwise expected. Put simply, the voice of a single citizen is far louder than ever before. 

How will rulers, rule?

Technology is changing the relationship between the Government and its citizens too; greater public consultation, collaborative policy making, e-petitions and e-rule making are all technically possible. Digital technology could predict behaviours and demand on public services. Imagine a city that could harness data to predict demand on energy services and warn hospitals of likely peaks in demand. Much of this is covered in the concept of smart cities, that @digitaltories will cover in another blog. Perhaps the biggest hurdle here is trust. Trust in Government and service suppliers to ‘own’ personal data. Beth Noveck captures the spirit well here: 

 “If we can develop the algorithms and platforms to target consumers, can we not also target citizens for the far worthier purpose of public services?” – Beth Noveck, Chief Innovation Officer at New Jersey Government 

I’d now like to debunk a myth – incorporating Artificial Intelligence (AI) in to democracy does not mean we will surrender No 10 to machines. The prospect of algorithms making decisions over our lives may horrify some. Yet if you understand the technology you will know that the algorithms are written by humans, AI is simply the process by which it is carried out. The algorithm is of course as flawed as humans themselves, and, if not checked, can hold inherent bias too. It is quite likely we will see the days of algorithm audits to apply a moral check and balance on sensitive commercial IP to protect consumers and citizens. 

What is the rest of the world doing? 

Good news, we are not the only country in the luddite queue. The digital democracy sweetshop has been trialled globally with mixed success. 

New Zealand and Brazil have trialled a form of wiki-democracy to some success. The NZ Government gave its citizens the opportunity to participate in writing a new Policing Act in 2007 and Brazil created a national Youth Statute Bill crowdsourced by young Brazilians. Collaborative or ‘wiki’ technology exists, making it technically possible for large groups to collaborate on matters of policy. 

The USA uses e-voting equipment for all levels of elections, and efforts are underway to stress test the back-up systems ahead of the primaries later this year. Paris has gone one step further and uses i-voting on matters of public spending. Switzerland has almost monthly referendums and uses a secure application for consultation and i-voting. 

There are some things to iron out first… 

Algorithms shape the world around us and what we see. Targeted algorithms mean the world I see may look different to yours. Algorithms may tailor what news or information you see for a number of reasons; just as we talk more regularly to friends that share our views and buy papers (old school I know!) that share our values, this is replicated online when algorithms predict what we want to see. The difficulty arises when we start to see a narrow view of the world that reinforces our belief system and never challenges it. This may be punctuated by bots who have selected you to influence – normally paid for by the bad guys who want to make us angry about something. Without the right checks and balances our views of the world will narrow and our judgements may be skewed. When people can no longer deliberate on an issue and reach a rational independent conclusion, it challenges democracy and the concept of a qualified and informed citizen.

Consulting information online to assist in decision making can often feel like wading through treacle of disinformation, bots, propaganda and filtered information in search of a semblance of the truth. Over half of Brits feel vulnerable online, and for good reason. Online crime is the most common offence. 87% of Brits also feel that there isn’t enough regulation in this space.  Of course, cyber security is not yet good enough to guarantee that our democratic process has not been interfered with. This is the elephant in the blog. But, we do know that the technology is advancing and a solution is not far away, most likely harnessing blockchain, making these options a very real possibility in the not too distant future. 

The good news is these are known knowns; we may find it difficult to overcome some of this on our own, but as with any industrial revolution there is a journey to go on and problems to be solved. The market knows this and is starting to provide. We are seeing a rise in fact checking software, but of course Government has a role in determining how the digital life world is regulated too. 

How does this change politics? 

It is likely that as we start down the digital road it will look like a duel carriageway for some time. The most likely course of action is a system that protects the involvement of those who are not able or are unwilling to participate in democracy digitally in the short term until digital inequality can be levelled up. 

Just like in the workplace, increased digitisation is expected to increased overall participation in democratic services, particularly amongst younger voters and women. The ease in which citizens can execute their democratic responsibilities from the sofa or during their cigarette break make voting a more inclusive process for all walks of life. This poses some obvious questions for all political parties, including our own. The internet has enhanced political campaigning and politicians can now reach in to citizens’ lives and communicate to them directly without using the mainstream media.

If MPs don’t need to be in Parliament as much, and are able to vote on behalf of their constituents from their constituency, we will start to see a shift away from the Westminster bubble, localising politics and building flexibility in to our MPs’ lives. This perhaps is the opportunity the One Nation Conservatives have been waiting for; less London and more representative of our vote share. 

Closing words… 

We know what technology can do, but it is less clear on what it should do. In a digital future society, how will legislation be written, how will citizens execute their democratic responsibilities and how much will Governments know about us? What we do know is that we need to tread carefully and ensure that the right checks and balances are created to protect our most vulnerable and prevent deepening of the inequality. 

You may not have liked everything you just read, but every industrial revolution has some hurdles to overcome. As citizens are disenfranchised with politics, greater digitisation and inclusivity in democracy could inject the excitement back in to this frosty relationship. It seems the COVID pandemic has started the digital democracy ball rolling and the public appetite for more inclusive and consultative politics seems high too. The case for change is forming and building traction.