Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Restructuring British democracy in the digital age

Citizens need to pressure politicians to get with the times

Technology is perhaps the most important element of modern life. It influences who we are and what we do in a way that nobody could have imagined ten or twenty years ago. The best aspects of technology’s revolution — and the way technology shapes the lives of people throughout the world — must be adopted by government to improve its relationship with citizens, provide a true voice for the disadvantaged and the disengaged, and to improve the state of democracy so that it still aptly fits the definition of good governance.

Britain’s identity is strongly tied to its status as a world-leading liberal democracy. It’s one of the richest countries in the world, and is a centre of business, innovation and modernity. Yet we are still clinging to outdated systems of governance and democracy; ways of getting things done just aren’t keeping up with developments in technology. It’s an issue that hasn’t been spoken about enough in the lead up to the 2015 general election, by major or minority political parties.

The British public is no longer engaged with the political process. There’s been a huge decline in the number of people turning out to vote over the past 20 years, and the same is expected in this month’s election. Young people are one of the key demographics that are shown to be starkly disengaged; while 76% of those over 65 voted in 2010, just 44% of those aged 18 to 25 cast a ballot.

But technology has the potential to get more people involved with politics, particularly Britain’s young people given its natural influence on their everyday lives. A recent YouGov poll found that 57% of adults want the opportunity to vote on issues using digital and social media methods. Looking at only the 18 to 24 demographic, an eye-opening 72% of citizens would welcome the chance to contribute to politics in this way. Voting is another area in which young people want to engage online; the same poll found that 60% of 18 to 24-year-olds wanted to be able to vote online in elections.

Two reports on the potential for implementing digital democracy in Britain have been published in the past 12 months, one by the Digital Government Review for the Labour Party and the other by the Digital Democracy Commission. Yet these reports have been completed and published without being given the weight or attracting the attention they warrant. In the leadup to the general election, no party has been emphasising what they’re going to do to in terms of digital policy or how they are planning to bring our political system into the world of 21st-century technology.

Not only does technology have the potential to better engage British voters, it has the potential to instigate a stronger sense of direct democracy. In other words, it could give citizens the ability to truly influence and change policy that affects their everyday lives — and it’s both remarkable and shocking that this is not already happening. Politicians need to step up to the obvious challenge before them and to truly understand the importance of technology in the political lives of everyday people, rather than viewing it as something completely separate to the political system, which is certainly how it feels at the moment.

Digital technologies have already brought about positive changes in businesses, workplaces and everyday situations all over the world. Administration has become significantly easier as information is stored, organised and accessed digitally; those with a smartphone and a data plan can use their phones for accurate directions or to access opening times as they walk around their hometown; the Internet has brought about the sharing economy and allowed people to help each other by lending or selling accommodation, transport and even garden tools.

A Kickstarter-backed project called DemocracyOS in Argentina is offering up a new open-source tool for ordinary people to debate and vote on issues, as well as to communicate directly with local politicians. The brainchild of a group of entrepreneurs, students and hackers, it aims to improve political engagement with the electorate and hold elected representatives to account. At the same time, a company called Scytl in Spain is developing innovative online systems for election management and online voting, with the broader aims of improving participatory democracy, empowering citizens and increasing public transparency.

Some governments are getting on board with these advancements and using technology to make sure things are running smoothly. There are already examples throughout the world of the digital and political working together for positive change. Switzerland is a country considered to have a very stable system of government, and its methods of direct democracy now allows its citizens to vote online in elections and referendums. Estonia was the first country in the world to use online voting in its 2007 parliamentary elections, and in this year’s election there, 30% of those who voted did so online.

The key problem for implementing any of this is, of course, that more citizen engagement with political decisions means less power for the politicians in government. The political elite have been resistant to the introduction of such innovative technology primarily because the system of governance in Britain is based on outdated methods that concentrate power in the few. It’s essential for the future of British government that technology is utilised to give a stronger voice to those who elect their politicians, and to provide a stronger sense of accountability in our democracy.

Power and democracy are enemies by nature, and while technology can disperse the concentration of power from the few to the many, it can’t do much to motivate the few to give up their sway over how countries are run. But change can happen through citizens; in fact, it’s only by applying pressure on the government to deal with these issues that we’re likely to see any change. The digital has the potential to revolutionise democracy for the better in Britain — but it’s up to us to create the conditions that mean politicians are forced to embrace it.

This article is a response to the topic idea; Creating the web we want.

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