To forge closer ties between the public and politics, the Netherlands can draw inspiration from digital citizen engagement tools deployed in other countries at the national level.
We differentiate between tools for:
• informative citizen engagement (e-information);
• agenda-setting citizen engagement (e-consultation);
• direct citizen engagement (e-decision-making).
The various categories of tools can form part of a response to (1) citizens wanting to feel adequately represented by politicians and public administrators in debates and decisions, and (2) politicians and public administrators wanting to understand what is happening in society and to harness the knowledge and skills of the public.
In this report, we highlight how digital tools contribute to democratic legitimacy and under what conditions. Our international comparison of online democracy experiences in Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Taiwan and Scotland revealed a wide range of information systems, interactive online platforms, voting and visualisation tools and ad hoc deliberation processes with digital elements. Some examples were initiated by governments themselves, others are institutionalised private initiatives. They give shape to three forms of online citizen involvement: e-information (chapter 2), e-consultation (chapter 3) and e-decision-making (chapter 4). We are also familiar with such instruments in the Netherlands.
We have found that well-designed digital civic engagement can be an answer to citizens' need to feel more heard. At the same time, digital civic engagement offers opportunities for administrators and politicians to have more contact with citizens between elections at the national level. The foreign examples are rich in insights into the conditions under which digital instruments can contribute to the democratic legitimacy of legislative and decision-making processes. But they also show that it is not easy to fulfil the promise of online democracy. Online platforms and digital tools are no panacea or quick fix. It takes effort and more than technological gadgets to create fruitful, free and safe interaction between politicians and citizens.
With this research, the Rathenau Institute is drawing attention to the question of how technologies can contribute to a future-proof democracy. Previously we published Griffiers en digitalisering (2019), on digitisation in local democracy, Prospects for e-democracy in Europe (2017), on digital citizen participation for the European Parliament and Digital Democracy: Opportunities and Dilemmas (2015), on digital citizen engagement for the Dutch Parliament. 'Knowledge for Democracy' is a spearhead in the work of the Rathenau Instituut. A central question is how citizens can be more involved in democratic decision-making, where scientific insights, interests and different values play a role.
We summarise our most important findings. Inspired by foreign examples, we make three recommendations and give some considerations that are important for digital civic engagement initiatives.
1. Invest in the basics: accessible information
Transparency about political trade-offs and active sharing of government information are crucial for the workings of a representative democracy. We have three recommendations for the Netherlands regarding e-information:
- Improve information management
Estonia’s national information systems make government processes transparent. Such systems can help interested citizens to engage and help MPs and public officials to take responsibility for their actions and decisions. Transparency is not simply a matter of making information available on websites, but also of making it findable and easy to understand. If the Dutch national government were to improve its own digital infrastructures, the public would be able to monitor political decision-making and policy processes (directly) online. Adopting standards for data and information sharing allows other parties to quickly retrieve raw data and use it in their own applications and analyses.
- Encourage accountability platforms
The transparency of parliament can be improved by making the decisions, voting behaviour and lobbying activities of individual members of parliament available online, following the example of Germany and Greece. The Dutch House of Representatives and the government can support public and private initiatives aimed at increasing transparency and oversight and at facilitating direct contact between citizens and individual politicians. Such new tools for online communication between politicians and the public may offer a valuable alternative to current interactions on social media platforms, which were never designed for facilitating democratic debate.
- Provide for direct question-and-answer channels between citizens and their elected representatives
Creating more channels for direct, moderated interaction between citizens and their elected representatives may help to ensure well-balanced information and communication flows, allowing parliament, the government, citizens, stakeholders and the media to influence and correct one another. Examples from Germany and Greece show that a platform with a question-and-answer feature encourages politicians to account for how they are fulfilling their political mandate.
2. Innovate digital citizen engagement: experiment and learn
In agenda-setting and decision-making citizen engagement, it is important to do justice both to the public’s input and the autonomy of parliament. To seize the opportunities offered by digital tools, we recommend the following:
- Make digital citizen engagement (of every kind) low threshold and accessible
Videos, live streaming, digital voting, online interaction, and the analysis and visualisation of arguments all represent opportunities to involve larger groups of people and to better harness society’s knowledge and expertise. Public authorities can create or support online citizens’ initiative forums and make use of consultation platforms. Online components can also lower the user threshold in citizen deliberation mechanisms and participatory budgeting schemes by facilitating different forms of engagement. Nevertheless, guaranteeing diversity and inclusiveness remains challenging. It remains crucial to run campaigns and proactively communicate with the public about the availability of platforms and how they operate.
- Be clear about the process and purpose of citizen engagement
To ensure that citizens’ initiatives, public consultation processes, citizen deliberation mechanisms and participatory budgeting schemes are successful, it is crucial to manage expectations and to be clear about how public input influences formal political decision-making. This requires political will and a commitment from the government or parliament to take the results of these processes seriously. It also involves interim feedback and accountability after the fact.
- Learn and improve
Painstaking design, repetition and reflection are needed to determine how, when and why a participatory process contributes to democratic legitimacy. We know little about the long-term effects and influence of digital citizen engagement on trust between citizens and public authorities. To capitalise on lessons learned when designing new platforms and initiatives, careful monitoring of experiences and flexible structuring are crucial.
3. Customise the use of digital tools as appropriate
Digital tools are not a miracle cure or quick fix. The challenge is to reach an informed decision – and one that has political support – as to which technologies to use, when to use them, and how to thereby improve institutionalised practices of representative democracy. We have three recommendations in this regard:
- Combine online and offline tools
Digital tools for citizen engagement can help to modernise democratic processes. Online interaction can complement both traditional, physical participation processes and more ad hoc digital interactions on existing social media platforms. It can be difficult to reach new and diverse groups and respond to different needs, however, even online. The effort required to organise productive, unfettered and safe interaction between politicians and citizens goes well beyond mere technological gadgetry.
- Select or design appropriate digital tools
A number of digital tools have been designed and tested for use in various phases of a deliberative process. Before making use of them, it is advisable to look specifically at what such tools can and cannot do. There is no one category of tool that lends itself to all forms of digital citizen engagement.
- Be aware of security issues and the potential for fraud
Digital tools are also vulnerable to certain risks, for example with respect to security and authorisation. It is important to consider which measures and investments in digital security are proportionate. To make a proper assessment, public authorities and parliament require specific IT knowledge and expertise.