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Amid a general dilution of hierarchies, and a growing tension between the local and the global - as digitalization reshuffles the traditional logic of power. Below are the issues surrounding this.
The New Decision-Maker
Traditionally, governments, corporations, and civil society organizations have been wary of open participatory processes that they do not control. But the game is changing. The average citizen is being given more decision-making power, though that may not always be a good thing.
While there was once widespread distrust of broadly accessible participatory and deliberative tools, decision-makers from the local to the global (and in both the public and private sectors) are becoming more willing to hear the voices of the people. Giving more decision-making power to the average member of the public is sometimes still seen as a less-than-optimal course of action, however.
The opening up of the political sphere remains a sensitive and fraught process, and can be weakened in times of unrest. In some cases, it may actually undermine economic and political stability (one example was support in the US for getting “tough” with China on trade, in the very same areas of the country subsequently burdened by the implementation of tariffs on Chinese goods).
The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom also demonstrated that direct democracy can be misused. Still, as public and private organizations see increased demand for participatory tools, many are starting to understand the related gains these can bring in terms of spreading practical knowledge and earning legitimacy.
While merely informing citizens (or, as citizens, staying informed) may have passed for “participation” in the past, there is now room for more ambitious approaches. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced in her 2019 roadmap that democracy is more than voting in elections every five years, and is instead about having one’s voice heard and being able to participate in the way a society is built.
In democratic countries, for example, the reassertion of power by the executive in the name of stability and for the purposes of taking strong and swift action can be equivalent to backwards steps.
President von der Leyen has described the Conference on the Future of Europe, a citizen-led series of debates and discussions on key challenges related to climate change, economic growth, social justice, and other matters, as evidence of her pledge to give Europeans a greater say on what the EU does and how it works for them.
A Breakdown in Trust
While populists seek to exploit distrust, more people are demanding new forms of democracy
There are many solutions that have been proposed to try to help address these crises. In a growing number of places populist movements have been ascendant, and have positioned themselves as alternatives to what they refer to as the “establishment,” even if in many cases these movements have originated among the economic and social elite within their respective countries.
A less cynical approach to the breakdown of trust involves taking innovative approaches to decision-making, and in many places, people would welcome more direct democracy in the form of initiatives and referendums.
The Guardian reported in 2018 that the number of Europeans ruled by a government with at least one populist in its cabinet had increased from 12.5 million to 170 million during the previous two decades.
Another alternative approach involves focusing on a so-called “deliberative turn” in democracy, where greater participation per se is not viewed as the sole means to solve problems - and instead, an emphasis is placed on authentic deliberation specifically among the people who are most affected by particular political decisions.
The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of credible local authority more proximate to the citizenry. It has also illustrated the potentially deadly impacts of false information, and of misusing civic-participation tools to undercut protective health measures.
Traditional social cohesion has been shattered in many parts of the world, and the classic political model of representative democracy seems to have reached its limits. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, an online survey conducted in dozens of countries, institutions including government, NGOs, businesses, and the media all declined in terms of enjoying public trust - and business had become more trusted than government in 18 of 27 countries.
The major factors driving this breakdown include the handling of the pandemic, related economic crises, and political instability.
Growing inequality around the world and the emergence of a large middle class in the Global South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) with mounting consumer and lifestyle expectations have added further stress on social cohesion. All of this has contributed to a breakdown of trust in political systems and politicians, in Western democracies and authoritarian regimes alike.
21st Century Citizens
The 21st century has in many ways accelerated both the pace of daily life, and inequality - even as many places see important increases in access to education and the internet that have dramatically lowered barriers to entering the digital public sphere.
Technology is accelerating global engagement, often in positive ways. People in general are not only becoming more willing to speak up in public in ways that go well beyond the mere act of voting, but they also now have the capacity to do so through social media channels. They are now committing to mobilize and make their voices heard are increasingly diverse.
It is no surprise that social media played a significant role in the Arab Spring protests that roiled politics across the Middle East more than a decade ago, the massive street protests that blanketed Hong Kong in 2019, and the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) demonstrations that crippled parts of France in 2020. Social media was also crucial to the success of the Fridays for Future school strikes originated by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, which managed to get millions of people out onto the streets in 2019.
Social Media offers a highly effective and relatively easy way to coordinate. However, it has also played a key role in motivating truck drivers to converge on Ottawa by the thousands in early 2022 (meanwhile drawing in many other fellow demonstrators), besieging the Canadian capital in order to protest COVID-19-related measures like vaccine mandates.
While people might have once been satisfied with being represented by elected legislative representatives and administration officials who are (at least theoretically) working on their behalf, they now place more trust in their peers and in themselves, rather than in institutions.
In the economic realm, similar trends have spawned disruptive sectors like peer-to-peer car and vacation-rental sharing. In this way, many have managed to use their economic clout to prompt industry shifts, even as they are increasingly overwhelmed by the complexity of the global economy.
One shared theme underlying all of this active civic participation is the fact that citizens (including those who may be susceptible to online misinformation) expect to be heard by decision-makers - not only on election day but on an ongoing basis. And, they not only expect to be heard by leaders in the public sector but also by the leaders of businesses and civil society organizations.
Technology can increase public engagement, but it has an ugly side. Online interaction may allow for more transparency and accountability, but it can also foster dangerous mobs. “Civictechs,” or technologies that enable constructive political engagement, are maturing.
The COVID-19 crisis has underlined this divide; while some people were able to rely on the internet to stay informed, provide remote schooling for their children, and continue to work while maintaining social distancing, many others were not.
The pandemic has also highlighted the basic human need for in-person meetings and direct social contact. Protests are perhaps the ultimate expression of this need, and though they are potential sources of infection - and were limited or banned in many instances by authorities - people around the world have nonetheless taken to the streets to demonstrate.
Digitalization is enabling new forms of cooperation and communication both among citizens and between citizens and their governments. It is also disrupting deliberative decision-making, while opening new avenues for populism and manipulation.
Even if they do not allow for the same kind of dialogue as at a live assembly, civictechs can harness substantial public input. For example, France’s three-month-long “Great National Debate,” started in 2019 in response to widespread protests, garnered nearly two million online contributions. Online tools are increasingly used by governments to provide public services or engage more efficiently with constituents.
The Multilingual Digital Platform of the Conference on the Future of Europe is a good example - it gathered contributions in 24 languages. Some governments have deemed digital transformation to be an asset as they seek to make society more inclusive; Estonia in particular has distinguished itself in this regard, and is widely seen as the most advanced digital society in the world.
However, a growing reliance on online tools can aggravate inequality between the connected and the non-connected.
Much of this surge in civic participation is due to greater access to information. According to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, an online survey conducted in dozens of countries, 57% of respondents had shared or forwarded news items they found interesting.
At the same time, many people face obstacles on their quest for facts - due to disinformation and algorithms that can reinforce a tendency to embrace only those opinions that align with one’s own.
Shifts in Power
Civic participation generally occurs in an always-moving, ever-changing environment. On one hand, trust in governments and in traditional institutions like political parties, trade unions, and organized religion has been declining in many parts of the world. On the other hand, other entities are filling in the resulting gaps.
Global corporations have gained greater amounts of power and influence, in particular the technology companies that are proactively inserting themselves into policy and political discussions.
The trend of broader corporate participation in public life is becoming increasingly mainstream, as was made clear by a statement issued in 2019 by the Business Roundtable (an organization that includes CEOs of the biggest US companies) - which touted the stakeholder capitalism concept that corporations should not only aim to maximize shareholder value, but should also prioritize the interests of customers, communities, and the natural environment.
One example of this is the series of campaigns and activities launched by Microsoft on the idea of “Digital Peace,” and the notion of a Digital Geneva Convention to help protect people from nation-state threats in cyberspace.Now, only a minimal political apparatus is necessary to win elections - as demonstrated by the populist Five Star Movement in Italy. Spontaneous civic movements have quickly emerged in Algeria, Hong Kong, and France, by syncing online and dispersing decision-making across flat organizational structures.
In a relatively short period of time, social media services have substantially changed the ways we access and share information. Still, despite this increase in connectivity, a large number of people have been left behind by the pace of change, due to a lack of infrastructure enabling them to get online or to having their rights denied - particularly women.
Emerging technologies, like blockchain, are poised to further enable decentralized governance, and potentially eliminate the need for intermediaries - in terms of financial transactions and decision-making.
The high levels of digital illiteracy and still-relatively-low levels of access to the internet in many parts of the world are striking; for example, while 82.5% of people in Europe were online as of late 2019, just 28.2% of Africans were, according to the International Telecommunications Union. As trust in traditional institutions declines, other entities are seeking to take their place.
Inventing New Modes of Governance
Growing inequality, the social and economic fallout from COVID-19, climate change, and migration all present increasingly thorny governance challenges. The climate crisis demands coordinated answers at the local and global level.
The traditional institutions spawned after World War II are increasingly irrelevant. Slowly but increasingly, deliberative democracy is scaling.
However, governance structures largely inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries - like patriarchal institutions, political parties, or intergovernmental negotiations - are being questioned as they reach the limits of their usefulness. Voting, long the preferred mechanism for choosing decision-makers, has been undermined by low turnout and the interference of authoritarians.
The pandemic spurred governments to restrict freedom of movement and pursue vaccination efforts, triggering reactions. Many countries have seen demonstrations against pandemic restrictions and mandates (even as other people have pressed for stronger measures to better help protect populations).
The pandemic has also diverted attention and funding from other public health issues, reduced the capacity of civil society organisations to function, and generated geopolitical tensions. This has only further pressured a multilateral system mostly formed after World War II. The friction between the US and China is a symptom of this deterioration, as is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, new means of global cooperation are emerging.
Efforts formed around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are promising. Multi-stakeholder efforts like the Internet Governance Forum are demonstrating that open platforms for discussion are not only possible, but also useful.
At the national level, the French Citizens’ Convention for the Climate (2019-2020) demonstrated the power of embedding such a deliberative process in traditional decision making, and inspired similar processes in other countries. At the European level, the Conference on the Future of Europe has brought citizens from all EU member states together to discuss topics such as the economy, social justice, climate change, and migration. This marked the first time citizens’ panels discussed and participated in political debate with decision makers in 24 different languages.
At the global level, platforms like Avaaz and Change.org are gaining traction, and initiatives like the Global Citizens’ Dialogues on the future of the Internet are connecting the informed views of citizens with decision-makers.
Many international civic-participation movements are being powered by digital coordination and make decision-making more inclusive.
Civic participation refers to participating in your community to develop it with the help of your knowledge, skills, and values, to make a difference in your society. The goal of civic participation is to raise the standard and quality of life in your community, through commitment and motivation. Young people are considered very important in civic participation because they bring new and innovative ideas!
Encouraging young people to be active in their community is important for promoting life-long civic participation.
Many different strategies can promote civic participation. One study found that high school students involved in community service are more likely to vote and volunteer in adulthood. Initiatives like AmeriCorps, which are designed to help young adults serve their communities, have been shown to increase civic participation later in life as well.
Public health media advocacy campaigns are another strategy; —they promote policy change through media engagement and community action.
Bottom-up civic participation is flourishing, as technology helps bring people together in significant numbers to take direct action and exercise civil disobedience. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube offer a new frontier for civic participation (e.g., It Gets Better Project) and are associated with increased political participation offline as well.
At the same time, top-down forms of civic participation are also gaining traction - as processes like Citizens’ Assemblies, participatory budgeting, and referendums are having a significant impact.