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How Innovation and Digitalisation Can Strengthen Democracy

Innovation and digitalisation – the cure for the crisis of democracy? Anu Juvonen, the Executive Director of Demo Finland writes about the topic in the University of Vaasa InnoLab’s InnoBabble -blog.

“A lot is being said about the current state of democracy. Is democracy really in crisis, and if so, what is causing this?

How do disillusionment, the public’s lack of participation, and governments’ inability to meet the people’s expectations factor into this debate? How can we make democracy more inclusive?

As with any societal system, democracy is characterised by a constant need for innovation in order to respond to widespread changes.The Internet and the corresponding rise of social media have provided new ways of engaging with the democratic electorate.

While both offer easy targets for manipulation, the scale of their potential is even more impressive. When used wisely, digital innovations offer exciting possibilities for strengthening democracy. Constantly developing technologies in information and communications provide tools we can use to improve the accountability and efficiency of democratic governments.

Digital technology in elections – good or bad?

A recent interesting illustration of this is Kenya, where the government and civil society organisations deployed digital technology in the latest elections. One especially visible example is how they have targeted young people, via various apps and digital platforms, to encourage them to vote. In another example, voters can register electronically using biometric data, a practice that helps to avoid vote rigging.

However, there are still problems associated with these advances. Recently, the importance of data protection has made global headlines. This is a serious matter to consider in a heavily digital democracy.

For example, Kenya’s presidential elections have also been in headlines lately due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, as there are revelations on using the company’s data analysis skills for furthering the messages of Mr Kenyatta and his Jubilee Party.

Furthermore, in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, occurrences of electoral violence have been documented with tailor-made applications and software that collect information via crowdsourcing. Other innovations for monitoring elections are also in great demand.

Digital innovations must overcome the digital divide

The digital divide is another issue that needs to be tackled. Despite the fact that many of the least developed countries do have wide smart-phone coverage, there is still a generational digital divide–as there is here in Finland. For new digital innovations to be truly successful in their encouragement of further political participation and their fostering of a sense of belonging, they should be inclusive of all members of society.

Several important questions come to mind. How can political systems be made more responsive? Could a minority shout so loud that it falsely appears to be a majority? A small Argentinian start-up created an app called DemocracyOS in order foster a more open and responsive democracy. Through DemocracyOS, the electorate can follow parliamentary bills, debate them, and vote on them. This has now been adopted in many other countries, such as in Mexico and few states in the USA. Hopefully we can look forward to seeing an app in Finland soon that, like DemocracyOS, would trace, in real time, the motions of local councils and Parliament.

Political parties must employ digital tools

Political parties also need to address the decreases in their membership numbers, as no other entity can take their role in a democracy. There is an urgent need for them to adapt new digital innovations to help them accomplish their goals.

In our enthusiasm for pursuing cutting-edge innovations, however, we should not overlook more established initiatives, like Nouabook in Tunisia. Nouabook is an online citizen–MP engagement platform that was developed by Demo Finland’s local partner, Centre des Etudes Méditerranéennes et Internationales (CEMI), in order to encourage debates with the electorate in 2017. This is a ground-breaking initiative in a country that, after the Arab Spring, is now taking its first steps as a democracy. Nouabook has enhanced debate in the spirit of the Tunisian School of Politics that has trained hundreds of young politicians for a new multiparty system.

Innovation for accessibility

There is also a lot of potential for innovation in financing political campaigns. A recent report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), called ‘The Global State of Democracy’, reflects new developments in the field of political financing. For example, crowdsourcing platforms that enable small monetary donations and social media tools for both reporting and oversight provide interesting options for political engagement on a small scale.

Finally, there is definitely space for more innovations to ensure full access by disabled people to the political process, protect the safety of female voters and candidates, and enhance the participation of young people in politics. Co-operation between public and private entities is also needed, as well as co-operation with civil society organisations and academia. More holistic approaches will bring about the best outcomes for engaging informed citizens more fully in political decision-making.”

Read more about Demo Finland’s work here.

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