Democracy as technology: digitally amplifying citizens' voices in policy making

26 February 2021


Reported by Samuel Ward, CSaP Policy Intern

How have citizen science platforms enabled Taiwan to limit Covid-19 deaths to single digits – without any national lockdowns? Are these collective intelligence systems suited to tackling the climate problem? To shed light on some answers, Audrey Tang, Professor Sir Geoff Mulgan and Professor Frank Kelly gathered for the second seminar of the 2021 Christ's College Climate Series to analyse how digitising democracy might empower citizens to steer policy to tackle global problems – from disease to disinformation.

You can listen to a recording of the event here:

If a politician in Taiwan makes a questionable statement, there’s a chance it may make its way to Cofacts, a website where users can report fake news and rumours. The statement in question, Audrey Tang explained, will have travelled through a fact-checking network to a dedicated fact-checking centre, before a rebuttal is posted online within a few hours. The likely person who initiated this process? A Taiwanese school child. In Taiwan, misinformation and the “infodemic” are part of the national curriculum, which is designed around creating “digitally competent” citizens – a recognition that all users of the internet are themselves responsible creators of information. This is just one way, Minister Tang described, that the government actively invites individual citizens to impart meaningful impacts to policy and the democratic process – even before voting age.

Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, Taiwan's citizen-led initatives have helped to contribute to Taiwan's management of the pandemic. For example, civic hackers were able to rapidly build and deploy a digital “mask map” to track available stocks of medical masks at local vendors in real time. Crucially, exploiting data of this high a quality is only possible, Minister Tang emphasised, when mutual trust exists between the government, who were convinced to release mask-related data, and the public, who responded by using it effectively. The result has been very successful in tackling mask misinformation and shortages, and it has even been hacked further to feature additional functionality, from chat bots to voice assistants.

But how does a nation reach a point where its values are digitally integrated across society and government? Whilst Taiwan has experimented with forms of democracy since its creation, it’s also looked outward for inspiration from open-source projects such as Better Reykjavík, and Finland’s school curriculum. Today, Taiwan directly taps into the collective intelligence of more than half the country’s citizens through the digital g0v platform. Notably, these platforms, and the trust surrounding them, are in place before they are challenged, which is crucial for allowing such rapid scaling in response to sudden stresses – something that the UK is currently missing, warned Sir Geoff.

This disconnect in the UK today, Sir Geoff suggested, has meant young people’s confidence in democracy has experienced a sharp decline in the last 20 years, as those people largely don’t want issues they care about left solely to government. It also means expertise is wasted. He asked: would the key decisions made by the UK government in response to the pandemic have faired better if there had been increased public engagement surrounding decision-making? He suggests we must understand that democracy is a conscious design not consisting of a single vote – instead a social technology that we deploy efficiently to create a smarter, more open and inclusive system at scale. The challenge, Minister Tang suggested, is creating a design which is “divergent but not polarising, convergent but not uniform.” For example, carefully designed digital discourse platforms, which avoid amplification of only the loudest voices, can show that the public are often naturally cohesive.

Citizen’s assemblies, juries and the opening of digital tools by The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology may signal movements toward a more digitised democracy in the UK. The scope is wide: GM crops, AI ethics and civil rights, as some examples. But the ultimate question, as raised by the audience, is climate change. Will these systems enable more coordinated responses across generational timescales? Though Sir Geoff proposed limits to the scope of such platforms, for example in technical monetary policy, Minister Tang expressed optimism. School pupils in Taiwan learn about climate change by directly contributing to science, through taking atmospheric CO2 measurements and publishing the dataset publicly for analysis. These same students are responsible for roughly a quarter of Taiwan’s online petitions, where issues are often global in scope. This may be proof that adopting democracy as a technology would bring opportunities for informed, collective action. But first, Minister Tang proposed, citizens’ voices must first be liberated beyond only “uploading 3 bits every 4 years.”

The 2021 Christ’s College Climate Seminar Series focuses on achieving change for population and planetary health post pandemic. This year's series is hosted in partnership with Christ's College and the Lancet-Chatham House Commission on Improving Population Health Post COVID-19. Throughout the series, we will be exploring how three major threats to population and planetary health— infectious diseases, non-communicable disease, and climate and environmental emergencies are intimately intertwined, and how synergistic actions across these areas have the potential to promote transformative change. You can learn more and register to attend upcoming seminars in this series here.

Professor Frank Kelly

Statistical Laboratory, University of Cambridge

Samuel Ward

University of York