Demsoc joins Chatham House’s Conversation on the Future of Democracy and Tech

As part of our digital and data work, we’re excited to announce that we’re working with Chatham House on its Commission on Technology in Europe to explore how technological change is influencing democratic governance. 

Technology and democracy

Launched in early 2019, the Commission is putting forward three research questions:

  1. What effect is technology having on democracy in Europe?
  2. Against the background of social and technological change, how can democracy in Europe be made more responsive?
  3. Are there ways in which technology can revitalise democracy in Europe? 

Chatham House are very keen to develop answers to these research questions in a crowd-sourced and collaborative fashion. Given our expertise in and commitment to improving participatory democracy, we were invited to initially share our thoughts and, subsequently, lead the writing of a response to the question 2: 

Against the background of social and technological change, how can democracy in Europe be made more responsive?

What is the problem?

In keeping with the idea of collaborative research, we pulled together a problem statement of the current challenges and broad landscape drawing upon prior submissions received in the first phase as well as our own experience, thoughts, and views. You can read it on the Chatham House website

We believe that profound technological and social changes in recent decades, together with globalisation, have enabled citizens to self-organise like never before. At the same time, however, this enormous progress has been accompanied by a growth in mass disinformation and distrust in government institutions. 

Indeed, there is no doubt that representative democratic systems are floundering the world over. Against this backdrop, there is a growing movement for more experiments in direct democracy. But while this is welcome, what confidence can we have that these experiments will always work – or successfully mitigate against democratic deficits – if these experiments rely on existing network technologies that in some cases themselves stand accused of reinforcing or exacerbating existing inequalities or creating new ones?

Others are looking to participatory and deliberative democracy as a way to make existing decision-making more consensual, more meaningful and well-informed. For example, with our partners mySociety and funder Luminate, Demsoc is involved in Public Square. This  programme is exploring how citizens can be more meaningfully involved in decision making in a handful of councils in the UK. 

Similarly, in the IiDP (Innovation in Democracy Programme), we are working with partners Involve, the RSA and mySociety, to implement three ‘Area Democracy Forums’ with three UK councils. And we’ve assisted Involve in delivering the UK’s first citizen’s assembly on climate change in Camden. Despite their current popularity in the UK and in many other places around the world, participatory approaches have their drawbacks. For example, they can sometimes be used by governments as one-off interventions that may not leave a significant impact.

Does this mean democracy is doomed? Absolutely not! But if you’re interested in finding out more about our response, please visit the Chatham House website. And while you’re at it, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. 
Only have a spare three minutes? Watch Demsoc’s president, Anthony Zacharzewski, discuss our thinking on European democracy and technological change at the Chatham House London conference in June.

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