Technology and citizen participation will restore trust in democracy


Picture of Mark Malloch-Brown
Mark Malloch-Brown

President of the Open Society Foundations and former head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Trust in democratic institutions is in a downward spiral.

Last year a Eurobarometer survey found that less than 50% of Europeans trust the European Union, European institutions and national governments.

The Economist’s 2016 annual Democracy Index revealed a dramatic regression of Eastern Europe’s democratic ratings – the largest of any region during the decade since it started gathering this data. The index also downgraded the United States to ‘flawed democracy’ status as a result of its historic low levels of trust.

Declining trust seems to be related to political disengagement. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey revealed that, across 31 emerging and developing nations, 52% are dissatisfied with their political system. In the last 25 years, global election turnout has decreased by ten per cent.

These statistics help explain why, during the first two decades of the century, we have witnessed a decrease in the number and quality of democracies around the world. As noted by Dr Larry Diamond of Stanford University, since the start of the millennium 27 countries have experienced a breakdown in democracy. This is in stark contrast to the surge in democracy we saw from 1974 to 1999, when the number of democratic countries rose from 39 to 117.

Helping the poor majority in developing countries to vote is the most certain way of getting governing elites to focus on poverty reduction

Technology can magnify distrust but used properly and transparently it often allows citizens to be more engaged and government to be better held to account than ever before. Just as algorithms and apps have already disrupted traditional industries such as banking, music and real estate, these same tools can streamline bureaucratic processes and enable us to bring democracies fully into the 21st century.

Strengthening democracy in these ways could be the key not only to restoring trust but to solving many of the universal challenges we confront today: poverty, inequality, environmental sustainability or political strife. When I ran development activities as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), I was convinced the vote – or more particularly helping the poor majority in many developing countries to vote – was the most certain way of getting governing elites to focus on poverty reduction. If they didn’t, they would lose their jobs via the ballot box.

Technology is key to connectivity. According to a recent World Bank report, the number of internet users has more than tripled in a decade to an estimated 3.2 billion at the end of 2016. Currently there are more than 7 billion mobile subscriptions. This level of connectivity, and the tools that we have in our hands, have the potential to transform how citizens relate with governments and how we hold governments accountable.

As the Chairman of Smartmatic, I have seen first-hand how technology can lead to greater participation and increased trust in elections. Whether it is building reliable voter databases to enfranchise citizens in rural communities, giving a voice to expatriates and displaced voters via online voting, making voting easier and more accessible at the polls or offering quick and secure vote counts, technology can deliver inclusion, participation and trust.

Engaging with democracy directly through technology leads to more transparency and accountability

There needs to be a revolution in how we govern elections. We must update forms of governance and adapt to the new trends and realities.

In Europe, in addition to early-stage implementation of formal electronic voting, some countries have adopted electronic petitioning systems to amplify the voice of citizens and press government for action. In the UK, gathering 100,000 signatures can now initiate a parliamentary debate. This is only one example of how technology can frame new types of dialogues between constituents and their representatives. In the near future, we are likely to see petitions become binding mandates.

Recently, we helped a community in Chile decide on how to best allocate public resources. Using their mobile phones they told local authorities where they wanted to invest public funds. Engaging with democracy directly through technology leads to more transparency and accountability. Giving democracy a direct avenue by allowing citizens to voice their opinions enables a more engaged electorate and puts more pressure on leaders to be accountable and take responsibility for policies.

The ‘popular initiative’ programme in Switzerland has enabled ordinary citizens to propose initiatives to modify legislations on a variety of issues, engaging citizens to be involved in the beginning of decision-making processes. New technology such as online voting is being used to facilitate participation.

These experiences provide a glimpse into what democracy in the 21st century can look like. The future of democracy is digital, and it is our responsibility to find ways to make it a reality.

This article was first published in Europe’s World print issue number 35.

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