Image by Ane Cecilie Blichfeldt, licensed by Creative Commons

Democracy 2.0

Information technologies promoting citizen participation in public life

On 27 September*, we will be celebrating International Democracy Day. This event reminds us how lucky we are to live in a state governed by the rule of law and highlights the importance we must give to welcoming those who have fled oppression. It also gives us the opportunity to imagine the various options for a future civic democracy, one that is more participatory and more aligned with the trends in and expectations of civil society.

It’s no secret that democracy is in crisis. Commitment to the founding principles of Western democracy is under threat from persistent insecurity and an uncertain future. As such, there are many concerns from all quarters: the migrant crisis, unemployment, poverty, terrorism, the risk of a partial decline in America’s commitment in Europe, the stalemate in the construction of Europe... Not only that, but there is also the populist drift, which continues to gain ground in Europe thanks to rhetoric pandering to public opinion, atavism and insularity. How did we get here? An honest answer is not easy.

To start with, there were the devastating effects of the 2008 financial crisis which sped up the disintegration of the middle classes, whose slow decline had begun in the seventies with the two oil crises, inflation, soaring mass unemployment and the resulting debt policies. The welfare state’s now narrow room for manoeuvre gave the impression that the powers that be no longer had the means to correct the social consequences of market internationalisation or to mitigate its brutal, or even devastating, impact on those left behind by globalisation. There was also a drastic decline in the remedial effects on social inequalities, traditionally reduced by redistribution measures ensuring, at the least, equal opportunities. The structural upheavals in the morphology and organisation of the labour market brought about by new technologies also left large sections of socio-professional classes feeling abandoned by progress and modernity, which in turn catapulted the most vulnerable into poverty. 

That said, it would be wrong to believe that the democracy crisis – reflected in Europe by the British vote for Brexit and the rise of the far right, or in the US with Donald Trump’s election – are only due to economic causes. They are just one of the catalysts. In fact, democratic malaise is just one symptom of our difficulty understanding and getting to grips with this changing world. A new era is taking shape, one in which the migrant crisis and the emergence of new technologies are profoundly changing our relationship with country, work, culture and the other, and therefore, above all, politics. The issue of reinventing democracy is therefore central to our future. More than just a populist challenge to democratic order, which cannot however be ignored, it also reveals a strong demand for meaning and civic participation.

This civic commitment has already had a few happy precedents. For example, in 2010–2011, Iceland experienced a groundswell of participatory democracy resulting in a constitution that the people actively helped formulate. Its preamble was remarkable in this respect: ‘We, the people of Iceland, wish to create a just society with equal opportunities for everyone. Our different origins are our common wealth, and together we are responsible for the heritage of the generations, the land, history, nature, language and culture. Iceland is a free and sovereign state, built on the principles of freedom, equality, democracy and human rights.’ The bill was later dismissed by Parliament but the democratic venture remained a true testament to creativity and the interest in a ‘horizontal’ political organisation.

Likewise, in Finland, a citizen’s initiative procedure allows citizens who have reached the age of majority to submit a legislative proposal and put it on the parliamentary agenda, as long as the text presented is supported by 50,000 fellow citizens. It was thanks to this type of process that the Finnish law allowing marriage for all was passed. Estonia’s system of e-governance, aimed at using new technologies as a tool for democratic structuring, which the BOZAR LAB explains in detail, is another precursor of the new relationships between democracy and civil society being made possible by new technologies. There are already many applications in fields other than politics, such as training through university or professional platforms, MOOCs, searchable databases, etc.

While technology has generated too much exclusion due to a certain amount of excessiveness, it also benefits social inclusion, signalling a possible reconciliation between citizens and the state, and projects to ‘re-enchant’ society by consolidating the process of citizen involvement in the organic and political life of the state. The complete antithesis of demagogic responses or populist reactions, the above examples show that citizen participation could work, that it could open the legal system up to the change sought by civil society and instruct public opinion through fun popularisation and knowledge networking. Used wisely, new technologies can be an effective vehicle for citizen emancipation and fulfilment and can bring about a new political model in which the citizen plays a major role. We now need to reinvent democracy to get more involved in it and to become, once again, the co-creators of our collective destiny.


*Which is officially on September 15th.

Sources: © Eurostat – In 2015, nearly 119 million Europeans were at risk of poverty AFTER social transfers.