How the digital age is reshaping politics

With half the world’s population expected to be online by 2019, technology could play an important role in getting people more involved in democracy and politics

The problem with politics, Oscar Wilde once complained, is that it “takes up too many evenings”. In the digital era, though, it’s increasingly easy for people to engage one another and their political representatives without ever leaving home. That’s an attractive proposition for politicians: in 2002, then-leader of the House of Commons, Robin Cook, called the internet “a tool for participation without precedent in democratic history”. The subsequent coalition and Conservative governments echoed New Labour’s techno-optimism, pushing ahead with e-government initiatives ranging from online forums to petition tools. Jeremy Corbyn has been getting in on the act too, peppering David Cameron with crowdsourced questions during his first prime minister’s questions as Labour leader.

But despite such efforts, British e-democracy initiatives remain “limited and largely unsuccessful,” according to University of Leeds researchers Giles Moss and Stephen Coleman. That’s not to say Brits have no appetite for it: indeed, many initiatives have met with a remarkably positive response. The government’s e-petition system, launched in 2011, drew 36,000 citizen-created petitions and 6.4m signatures in its first year online. But such efforts have been undermined, Moss and Coleman assert, by a tendency to use digital tools as window dressing, and a reluctance on the part of lawmakers to give up their monopoly on power.

Other countries have been more successful: in Estonia, citizens can now access hundreds of basic government functions – from filing taxes to starting a business – through a web portal, and even cabinet meetings are tracked online in real time.

Anger is helpful, but you have to transform that into a constructive proposition and alternative to what you’re angry about

Estonians take pride in e-government in the same way that other countries take pride in space programmes, says local tech guru Daniel Vaarik. “It started as a way to differentiate us from many other post-Soviet countries. Suddenly we could have this clean start,” he says. “We grabbed the opportunity to talk about the future, instead of about painful issues to do with the past.”

The crown jewel of Estonia’s e-government platform is an online voting system that lets Estonians cast ballots from anywhere in the world. Rolling out universal electronic voting was a big gamble, but with a third of the population now routinely voting online, it’s one that’s paid off, Vaarik believes. “Every product has its testing period,” he says. “Estonia has chosen to be the country that’s doing the testing.”

More than a dozen countries are tentatively following Estonia’s lead, with Switzerland, France, Australia and Panama all piloting online voting systems for expatriate citizens. That’s a big deal, says Sebastián Calderón Bentin, a Panamanian working in New York, who for years was effectively excluded from his country’s elections by rules demanding that expats physically return home to cast their ballots. In 2014’s hardfought presidential election, however, Calderón Bentin was able to register to vote by flashing his ID card during a Skype chat with a government official, and later cast his vote simply by logging on to a secure website and clicking a button.

“It was very significant for me,” Calderón Bentin says. “It was a situation where every single vote counted…I was very happy that I could be a part of that.”

But digital participation isn’t just about casting ballots. In Finland, gay rights activists celebrated an important victory in 2014 after more than 1,100 people used an online crowdsourcing platform, dubbed the Open Ministry, to collaboratively draft legislation establishing gender-neutral marriage. A petition in support of the bill won more than 160,000 signatures – more than three times the number needed, under a new citizen’s initiative law, to bring the bill before the Finnish parliament, where it was swiftly voted into law.

“It ended up as a kind of folk movement,” says Juha-Pekka Hippi, former chairman of Finnish LGBTI advocacy group Seta, who helped lead the campaign. “Lots of people were involved that had never been involved with these issues before.”


Brazil, too, has helped put legislative crowdsourcing on the map: more than 10,000 people contributed via online platforms to the drafting of 2014’s Marco Civil, a groundbreaking bill of rights for Brazilian internet users. Born out of dismay both at the judicial treatment of web users and at the NSA’s wiretapping activities, the crowdsourcing effort showed the power of an angry crowd, says Ronaldo Lemos of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas School of Law in Rio de Janeiro, who oversaw the process. “In the end, I think, anger is helpful – but you shouldn’t respond only by being angry, you have to transform that into a constructive proposition and alternative to what you’re angry about,” he says.

With the Marco Civil enacted, Lemos is now working on the Plataforma Brasil, a campaign using digital crowdsourcing to build consensuses on thorny public policy issues. In its first few months, the Plataforma sparked a major debate about campaign finance reform, reaching at least four million Brazilians via Facebook and Twitter. Lemos credits that, and the flood of speeches and media commentary that followed, with convincing Brazil’s supreme court to bar corporations from bankrolling political campaigns. Indeed, the court’s September ruling quoted directly from Plataforma materials.

That kind of real-world impact is a sign of what can be achieved through digital democracy. If it can work in Brazil, a country in which barely half the population has web access, then why not elsewhere? “These are lessons that can be applied everywhere,” Lemos says. “The technology that allows you to do this exists, it’s cheap, and it’s just a matter of linking the dots.”

Still, technology has its limits. Increasingly, places with well-developed e-democracy programmes are now looking to find ways to anchor this approach in more conventional and human, face-to-face interactions. In Estonia, for instance, officials are now supplementing online outreach with realworld festivals where people can come together and discuss important issues. The big unanswered question for e-democracy, says Vaarik, the Estonian tech thinker, is “how to translate this online experience back to the physical world, and how to…make it meaningful again.”

One promising approach, made popular in Latin America and now taking root in the global north, is participatory budgeting, a system in which local governments allow citizens to make choices about how public funds are spent. It often involves online forums and digital access to financial data, but it’s underpinned by face-to-face interactions in which people deliberate together about how to use their community’s resources. “It’s about giving people real power over real money,” explains Josh Lerner, director of the Participatory Budget Project, which introduced the concept to the US in 2009.

People like it when politicians share  meaningful power with them

Since then, at least 100,000 people in the United States have come together to distribute $98m (£65m) in public cash. One such project helped the city of Vallejo, California, to bounce back from a bankruptcy crisis, after officials voted in 2012 to set aside $3.28m (£2.26m) for citizen-managed spending. Holding meetings to thrash out plans for projects such as traffic calming systems and community gardens helped restore confidence in City Hall, and gave locals a deeper sense of ownership of their community, says Vallejo resident Ravi C Shankar. “We suddenly realised, we can do these things,” Shankar says. “There has been a huge change in public engagement and public involvement.” Participatory budgeting can be remarkably effective. Studies in Brazil found that over seven years, the programmes helped double the number of children in primary education, reduced infant mortality by up to 20 per cent, and sparked a 50 per cent increase in tax revenues. An added bonus: politicians who backed participatory budgeting were about 10 per cent more likely to be re-elected. “People like it when politicians share meaningful power with them,” Lerner says.

That’s something British and European officials would do well to remember, says Bruno Kaufmann, head of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe. At the end of the day, he says, participatory democracy isn’t about e-petitions and Twitter chats, it’s about treating people like responsible adults, and giving them the information and power they need to make decisions about their communities.

That’s a two-way street. Citizens have the right to a direct say in how their communities are run, Kaufmann argues, but also a responsibility to take democratic engagement seriously. Even in the digital era, it takes determined individual action to turn passion into progress, and to ensure that participation doesn’t devolve into mere populism. “Democracy is a fragile thing, because it’s about openness, and about individual responsibility, and about trust, and all these things are very easily undermined and destroyed,” Kaufmann says.

That means the new forms of participation available in 21st century democracies aren’t just an opportunity – they’re also a challenge, to citizens everywhere, to keep striving to build better societies. “It’s not enough to fulfil your duty every fourth year and go vote,” Kaufmann says. “You need to be on duty all the time.”

Illustration by Heng Chun Liow


Mark Ryan 1The challenges of e-voting

Mark Ryan, professor of computer security at the University of Birmingham

Online voting is attractive because it promises convenience. But providing true end-toend verifiability remains an enormous challenge.

Any e-voting system would have to arrive at its conclusion in such a way that voters and observers can verify the count, independently of the software used. Unlike online banking transactions, we can’t just have a huge ‘statement’ recording who voted which way. Instead, all votes must be gathered in encrypted form to ensure ballot secrecy. The challenge is to design a way of using encryption that allows an independentlyverifiable tallying of individual votes, without removing the secrecy it affords the ballots.

Another issue is vote tallying, which could be easily rigged if someone has attacked the server with malware. There have been various attacks on existing e-voting systems, such as iVote in the New South Wales elections in Australia or the AVS WinVote machines used in three presidential elections in Virginia in the US.

Solutions for a democratic world

Helping people make good decisions together


How can the internet be harnessed to bring people towards consensus, and do so irrelevant of where they are? New Zealand-based cooperative Loomio emerged from the need for a scalable way to make group decisions during the Occupy movement in 2011. Started by social entrepreneurs, it helps turn discussion into action. First people share ideas and perspectives and then propose courses of action, with which people can agree, abstain from, disagree or block. The community then creates a proposal together, with clear deadline.


Bite the Ballot
Mobilising young people to vote

Bite the Ballot 2

According to youth empowerment organisation Bite the Ballot, only half of the 7.4 million 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK are registered to vote. Of those registered and eligible, only 43 per cent cast their ballot in 2015. As well as continuing its push to get young people registered to vote, this year the organisation is launching a Changemaker Curriculum. The programme will be delivered to hundreds of thousands of young people and aims to lay the foundations for every 16-year-old in Britain to view political engagement as commonplace.


The Seasteading Institute
Running social experiments in floating cities


Imagine being able to start society afresh. What political and economic systems would we put in place? By constructing floating cities, the Seasteading Institute is hoping to make this a reality. The seasteads will be a testing ground for people to test new ideas about how to live together, with the hope that the most successful will inspire change in the wider world. Though no such cities yet exist, the institute – a nonprofit think-tank – is in talks with several potential host nations.


Explaining law in human terms


Laws prescribe what we can and cannot do, often resulting in undesirable consequences if breached. They are arguably vital for creating certainty and governing our relationships with each other. But for something so integral to daily life, law is often incredibly difficult to understand for those who cannot afford a good lawyer. Ozoris aims to rectify this and make understanding legal information more democratic. Using digital technology, it aims to transform reams of complicated legal text into something that is accessible to ordinary people.


Reporting neighbourhood problems with one click


Graffiti-covered street signs and potholes may not seem the most pressing of political problems, but social enterprise mySociety believes that engaging people in local democracy, matters: “Strong democratic accountability is vital to our common welfare, and this cannot survive if people do not engage with government and communities.” Their digital tools give people the power to get things changed. One project, FixMyStreet, allows people to easily report problems in their area, with the information then reported to the relevant council department.