Suddenly, my work project became more interesting :-)

…or embedded into current politics. It often does, being related to new technology, media and political decision making etc. 🙂 I was transcribing qualitative interviews for a university project on electronic participation last night. When I finished the last one at about 7am, the subject suddenly became more significant for current politics due to the EU referendum results. One of the project goals is to evaluate tools for direct democracy, and to find out which democratic processes (from the Austrian referendum/Volksbegehren to other forms of decision-making, co-decision or participation) would be suitable for an electronic or online version – including assessing the user perspective.

Yes or no?

When I finished the last transcript, my social media timeline suddenly seemed to agree that some democratic methods (in particular the referendum in the UK) don’t neccessarily fit “yes or no”-questions (albeit I live a bit in an anti-Brexit filter bubble, having studied in London and such), in other words: That this referendum would have been the wrong political instrument for such a complex question. Others say that participation tools should be open for everyone and no question too big for elements of direct democracy.

In our current project, we are also looking at different levels of democratic engagement online and whether (and how) they could be put into practice in an “e”-version. The Austrian referendum is different to the British one, and not a binding referendum. However, during the last weeks I talked to experts and participation stakeholders about their views on offering more elements of direct democracy in Austria on the Internet, and the opinion seemed prevalent that that “yes or no”-questions (or referendums) could possibly be done via electronic means in the future. While it is great that we are thinking about such options, it should also be noted that the chances to really strenghten democracy by using the Internet in a modern and interactive way have not been fully utilized on the whole EU level. Not to mention the question of power of the people, something that is constituted by more than just elections.

Legitimize now?

Thinking about it all, it seems that we still lack the proper mechanisms to legitimize our political decisions, even though that has been the focus of e-participation research during the last decade. Very likely, just having more referendums might not be the way forward – and citizens do not always feel more heard or confident after such a process.

What we will be able to take from the evaluation of the project though is that a lot of citizens want to participate more. However, often lacking the means and tools to do so, they don’t really know much about online participation in practice (and where to go). Plus, the Austrian referendum in its current form cannot be transferred to an electronic version, due to the different kind of regulations this would require. It also would be tied to an old, but very relevant fear: that pressure groups and populists would dominate the discussion in new tools – a fear that sometimes is seen as bigger in the online than in the offline realm. All this raises a few questions:

  • How do we make sure that we have the neccessary qualitative discussion in addition to online decision-making tools? Currently, those discussions revolve around either our own filter bubbles, the semi-public sphere of social media or much criticised commentary functions of online newspapers. Or, commentary and longer text is not preferred at all: users seem to prefer to click “like” or “dislike”, if they have the option.
  • But do people want to be in their filter bubble anyways? (Personally, I miss a good talk with “the other side” these days…). Can we create a platform where we can do this withouth the hate speech that usually pops up in such discussions, and how could such spaces be structured in practice? Should they be offered by official institutions? Or is this just wasted money anyways? Can it change the way we think about issues, or is online engagement just not that powerful?
  • Most importantly: How can we as citizens find ways of having meaningful communication outside our own filter bubbles? Maybe we need a sort of human online library, get connected to the unknown and those outside our bubble, and force ourselves to talk to “the other side” of political polarisation?
  • And is putting more power into the hands of people suitable for every subject? How is our democratic system changing, and will we have more automatized, data-based or longer election processes in the future, where people can take back their votes, change it later on (like in liquid democracy sort of way), or even let them be changed?
  • To what extent can technology help politicians in foreseeing the outcome of referendums or elections (not only thinking about Google Analytics here)? And if we would develop a culture of more direct democratic elements and more suitable tools for complex questions, can we expect more from it as well? 🙂

(This post is a private reflection, and as such no direct outcome of the project referred to).


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