Insights

Is Digital Citizenship To Regenerate Democracy?

Consulting & Marketing Director
Valtech France

February 22, 2016

Digital as a driving force of citizen empowerment 

Is liberal democracy running on empty? With persistent abstention, ascending populism, increasing votes for extreme parties in Europe and the appearance of new “alternative” political groups like Podemos (Spain) and the Five Star Movement (Italy), the gap between citizens and leaders has never seemed so great. According to the French Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po (CEVIPOF), 85% of the French population does not trust politicians. Although multiple causes, including economical reasons, can explain this falling out, one of the main factors is the sense of abandonment felt by part of the electorate towards “politicos” disconnected both from reality and from the people. Despite being a major claim during the previous centuries, voting now seems pointless and ineffective to these citizens who feel stripped of their sovereignty.

How can we deal with this alarming situation? How can we “revitalize” citizenship? Some wage on digital as part of the solution. Innovations like the Internet have indeed set up a new deal as regards our consuming habits: consumers now have more influence and the power relationship with brands has evened out. Why would citizenship be any different? It could be reinvented just the same. Whether through association or union membership, participation to public life or voting, digital is destined to transform almost every aspect of citizenship. Of course, digitalization has already started: politicians have invaded social networks, voters get information from the Internet and political campaigns increasingly include digital advertizing. However, this trend is about to rise in the coming years, especially under the influence of Civic Tech start-ups. These companies advocate for the use of digital as a way to renew and reassert the role of citizens in society. How, you ask? By tackling obstacles that prevent individuals from fully enjoying their citizenship.

By overcoming the barrier of information, for instance, which is often incomplete or conversely overabundant, partisan or difficult to comprehend depending on the source. This is all the more true in a political world that is particularly fond of sound bites. In this context, making a well-informed decision is a hard task. As a solution, many mobile apps and websites compile and decode political agendas, like the American app Politomix, a feed aggregator which categorizes the news based on the media source’s political leanings (left, right and center). Other examples include Questionnezvoscandidats.org and Questionnezvoselus.org, two French websites on which voters can directly ask questions to candidates or elected officials. By collecting the discussions between citizens and politicians, these websites work towards more transparency. So is also the French government, which has been launching more and more open data initiatives, including by nominating a State Chief Data Officer and redesigning the platform: data.gouv.fr. The government also endorsed the Open Government Partnership, which aims to improve transparency in the context of decision-making and public policy implementation.

Furthermore, many Civic Tech start-ups promote participatory democracy. By nature, digital is a major asset to enable such sharing and governing practices as it makes it easier for citizens to get involved in the political life and to communicate with elected officials. The mobile app eDémocratie is a dedicated social network on which digital citizens can both debate among themselves and interact with politicians. Digital also establishes the conditions necessary to the creation of co-decision platforms like the initiative launched by the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo: a citywide participatory budget (Budget Participatif de la Mairie de Paris). Every year, Parisians can vote online for the project they want the city to invest in. The envelope amounts to 5% of the city’s investment budget and anyone can submit a project, which is then approved by the municipality. The mayor of Paris also as a “Decision Maker” profile on change.org, a petition website on which individuals can question politicians or companies.

Engagement in public life, however, goes beyond merely expressing one’s views from behind a screen. Historically aimed at artists or start-ups, crowdfunding is now encompassing a broader range of applications. Thanks to Citizinvestor, which is similar to Kickstarter, individuals can directly invest in public urban development projects (such as renovations or the construction of a park…) that have been abandoned by municipalities for financial reasons. But civic engagement fostered by digital is not only financial. Famous serial entrepreneur Sean Parker introduced the beta version of his mobile social network called Brigade: by answering questions on important society issues, users join a community of interest whose members share the same views. The app will gradually include new content and features to give these civic communities the means to take concrete action “in the real world”, especially on a local scale.

Voting, which is the most symbolic cornerstone of citizenship, has yet to be digitalized. In many liberal democracies, the voting procedure is still paper-based. However, technological innovations in the field of electronic authentication (e.g. fingerprints) suggest that online voting will be common practice in the medium term. If one can now check their bank account on their phone, why couldn’t they also use it to vote? By making the voting process easier, dematerializing might lower abstention rates or even increase opportunities for voters to be consulted. In the meantime, some initiatives are systemizing this practice, including in the physical world. During the Google Impact Challenge (which rewards innovative start-ups), Silicon Valley residents could vote using “clickable” interactive posters in public spots. Similarly, in the context of the COP21, the French app GOV (which enables users to express their views about different issues regarding politics or society for instance) also installed 1600 interactive posters throughout the country. Users could use these posters to vote and see the real-time results of the polls.

As Armel Le Coz (co-founder of the community group “Démocratie Ouverte” and of the Smart Gov association) states, “first and foremost, being a connected citizen is simply being a citizen”. Digital allows for better expression of citizenship, which seems to be shaken by the current context, with rather uncommunicative politicians. First, digital citizens have better access to information. It is easier for them to communicate with one another but also with candidates and elected officials. They might even be able to vote online in the future. But citizenship is not only about elections: digital citizens can engage in public life, be it through participatory democracy or by investing in a public project. Digitalization is, therefore, an instrument of citizen empowerment. In the long run, it might even trigger renewed interest and engagement, especially among the young generation.