The panel in action at the Digital Democracy event at NESTA.

Democracy is facing numerous challenges this year, whether it’s the rise of populism, the filter bubble, fake news, a disillusioned electorate or a loss of trust in institutions. In response to this  NESTA have launched a report on how governments around the world are using online platforms, forums and other digital tools to encourage greater participation in politics. I went to the launch event this morning.

The report and the speakers highlighted some really interesting examples. Brazil are making all aspects of the parliamentary process interactive. The UK parliament are also crowdsourcing some contributions to policy. In France an initiative called Parlements and Citoyens crowdsource ideas which are then refined further and put before parliament- two have already become law. France also asks citizens to get involved in participatory budgeting in Paris. Crucially, this platform is offered alongside offline workshops so that people are educated about the political process and can therefore engage more deeply, rather than just ticking a box on a screen. Meanwhile one of the French presidential candidates, tech savvy political newcomer  Emmanuel Macron, is running as an independent candidate representing a movement called En Marche which relies heavily on digital to galvanise his supporters.

Here are my key takeaways from the event:

  • Digital represents a huge opportunity for the political parties. Nick Martin, CEO of the Green Party in England and Wales, said that digital can give parties, especially small insurgent ones, a competitive advantage. Most of the mainstream UK political parties have used digital to communicate in a very top down way, rather than focusing on real engagement. He wants political parties to use digital to build relationships not just with members but partners and other communities of interest. This made me think of all those who registered to vote in the Labour leadership election a while ago without becoming members.
  • Digital is not a magic bullet. Helen Milner, CEO of the Good Things Foundation, pointed out that digital is unlikely to change the deep seated cynicism about democracy. ‘Our problem is political engagement,’ she stated. She said that engaging people both on and offline as in the French examples above was crucial: ‘We need to blend the face to face and the digital…we need to be brave and really challenge the culture and system of democracy in this country,’ she believes. MPs also need to be given the support to develop their digital skills. Does democracy, then, need to reinvent itself in the digital age? Does the model even work anymore?
  • Digital inclusion is vital. Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minster for Industrial Strategy, was concerned about the low level of digital skills in the UK. She says that government need to invest in digital learning and making it free where it is available . She wants this to be taken one stage further than in the government’s recent green paper; it needs to be an automatic right for everyone.
  • Do people really want do it yourself democracy? Sue Cameron, writer and broadcaster, was not convinced that the average citizen wants to get to grips with the finer points of policy on top of all their other commitments. She does not think that using digital in itself will increase trust in the political system; for example, when politicians talk about the future it is not easy to fact check. ‘Digital cannot be a substitute for cleaning up our current institutions,’ she told the audience. She urged us to proceed with ‘very great caution.’
  • Do we all need to check our privilege? CEO of NESTA Geoff Mulgan says that there is a ‘widening chasm between the public and political class.’ It is crucial that adopting digital as part of the democratic process isn’t done in such a way that it replicates the filter bubble on a larger scale. How can we use digital to engage those who are truly disenfranchised?

So where does this leave us all? It’s going to take more than digital to fix a broken political system. But I think this opens up massive opportunities for the charity sector. Political parties can no longer rely on the fierce, long term support from voters that they once had. Yet there are certain charities (UK Scouts and the Samaritans spring to mind) who feel very tribal, in that there is huge loyalty and commitment to their brands. Can charities bring people together and mobilise them for change in a way that some political parties are struggling to do? And won’t it require wider adoption of digital to do so?

Read the Digital Democracy report from NESTA.