Technology is turning our world upside down. In the governance arena, it presents a powerful opportunity to re-engage communities.
WHEN the financial crisis of 2008 hit Iceland, it bankrupted three major commercial banks in the span of ten days, sinking trust in the government to an all time low. Approval ratings for the previously stable Icelandic parliament (The Althing), which has existed since 930 AD, plummeted from 60-70% to less than 10%. Icelanders protested in the streets, disillusioned with a system that they felt had failed them.
As many governments learned in the years following the crash, re-engaging a population and reclaiming its trust is no easy feat. Today, a similar crisis of confidence threatens to resurface. Multiple Western nations find themselves contending with a rising tide of populism, and with voters who are disengaging from traditional institutions.
In order to defend against these potentially destabilizing trends, the evolution of civic institutions is imperative – specifically, finding ways to marry the digital sphere with traditional mechanisms of governance. In the coming decades, reinventing governance models by integrating new technologies will be crucial in making them smarter, more efficient, and better for the people they serve. Failing to do so may well render them too slow, out of touch, and eventually obsolete.
In Reykjavik, Iceland, we implemented digital engagement tools as a way of counteracting the dearth in trust in the years following 2008. We created Better Reykjavik, an online citizen engagement platform that enables citizens to publish ideas about necessary adjustments within their city, and for their fellow voters to respond. Users post suggestions on the public forum, and the rest of the community upvotes or downvotes them. The most successful ideas are then processed by the local government and eventually there is a final binding vote from citizens utilising an e-ID apparatus.
This method supersedes the typical modus operandi of citizen engagement. One where suggestions disappear into an endless email inbox, never to be read by those in positions of decision-making power. Instead, individuals are given a direct line to those who are responsible for making change in their world.
As a result, what begins as one person's humble opinion can become a reality – whether that be a change in education policy, a decision to divert funds to a new project, or an improvement in the public spaces in a local neighbourhood.
Better Reykjavik was a hopeful resurgence in democratic engagement, and has exceeded expectations over the last decade. In the week before Iceland’s 2010 elections, over 40,000 citizens went onto the platform to have their say. Today, some instantiation of the operation can be found anywhere in the city. Close to 800 citizen ideas have been processed since 2011, while 3.5 million EUR of the city’s investment budget is now decided by its inhabitants. Everything from accessibility, to education, to tax spend, has been a work of collaboration. Doing things collaboratively is now deeply embedded within the city’s culture.
This illuminates the power of technology to reinvigorate democracies and to push the boundaries of governance to an entirely new space: one where people don’t just vote for a political party, but for the entire political agenda. As a result, citizens are less alienated from the mechanisms which govern their lives.
It is a small but ever-widening window into the future of governance, as well as the endless possibilities wrought by new technologies. Governments have traditionally been slow adopters of new tech, but this will change as digital methods of governance become more commonplace. At Citizens Foundation, we have worked to bring these small revolutions to 2 million people in over 20 countries, and regardless of their political models or national cultures, the results have been astonishing.
Even more impressive is that regardless of an idea’s success, citizens have been found to remain engaged. At its core, democracy is not about every individual getting what they want, but about upholding a principle that every individual has a right to have their voice heard. Through technology, this is more achievable now than ever before.
With the relevant resources and an open mind, any government is capable of transforming the democratic process into something more personal, intelligent, and effective. The largest barrier to progress lies within a government’s lack of in-depth technical knowhow; however, this is easily solved by making digital resources widely accessible.
Accessibility is also essential to protect against the risk that governments will be tempted to outsource or privatise those functions at the core of the democracy itself, because it will be seen as too difficult to create solutions internally. To do so would jeopardise fundamental principles of governance such as independence, and the protection of the dialogue between the citizens and the state.
But by making these tools open source and therefore easy to adopt, the temptation to outsource diminishes, and the trust between the people and the state remains intact. A tech-savvy government would run with the efficiency of other successful corporations, and without the fear of privatization.
With change inevitably comes hesitance, particularly of the potential erosion within a governance system that people feel has always worked. In Iceland, we know all too well the impulse to hold the current system of governance as sacrosanct, being the proprietors of the oldest parliament in the world. But that is why when I look to my own country I am so inspired – far from erosion, technology is protecting the roots of our past and our way of life by facilitating a very necessary evolution, and saving our government from obsolescence at the hands of the more technologically evolved.
Digital, data, artificial intelligence, and automation are an inescapable part of our future. However, far from being a threat to our centuries-old governing institutions, they may be exactly what is needed to preserve them.
Robert Bjarnason is the President of Citizens Foundation, a Not For Profit which creates online communities for civic engagement.