A wave of innovation has been unfolding over the last 18 months, but many governments are not taking advantage.
- The problem: The pandemic has intensified the challenges that democracies around the world were already facing: how to meet the rapidly changing expectations of citizens.
- Why it matters: Trust between institutions and citizens is essential to managing crises and to the daily functioning of society. Without accessible opportunities to engage with their governments, that trust will continue to erode.
- The solution: These developments are spurring democratic innovations, many of which can be found through Participedia, a global network and crowdsourcing platform for researchers, educators, practitioners, policymakers, activists, and anyone interested in democratic innovations.
First published on Apolitical, this post is written by Matt Leighninger, the former vice president from the research and public engagement organisation Public Agenda.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, democracies around the world were struggling to meet the changing expectations of citizens. People are increasingly frustrated by political systems in which legislatures are stuck in gridlock, public institutions seem unresponsive to community needs, and fundamental priorities (like health, education, and economic opportunity) are not being addressed.
The pandemic has intensified the spotlight on these challenges and created new openings for systemic changes. It has highlighted the mistrust between citizens and institutions, the enduring power of structural racism, the inability of most governments to encourage and structure collaboration with citizens, and the inadequacy of traditional formats for public engagement. The intensity and speed of the crisis combined with the new difficulties of face-to-face interactions have pushed some governments to seek virtual ways of interacting with their citizens.
The Participedia platform
These developments are spurring democratic innovations, many of which can be found through Participedia, a global network and crowdsourcing platform for researchers, educators, practitioners, policymakers, activists, and anyone interested in democratic innovations. Participedia’s open-source platform hosts the largest online collection of examples, methods, and organisations related to public participation.
Like its namesake Wikipedia, the network’s website allows people to contribute write-ups and supporting documents about cases, methods, and organisations related to public participation and democratic innovations. A community of academic researchers and participation practitioners helps to check, edit, and in some cases complete the entries. Starting from its inception as a partnership between the University of British Columbia and Harvard University, continuing now at its new home at McMaster University, Participedia has grown to encompass over 3,000 entries from 135 countries.
“Though democratic innovations have in the past mainly been confined to their own political jurisdictions (cities, states/provinces, nations), the pandemic seems to have inspired a higher degree of cross-jurisdictional collaboration.”
A wave of responses following Covid-19
Participedia has two collections of entries directly related to the pandemic. One collection, ‘Citizens’ Voices and Values on Covid-19’, features over two-dozen entries, focused primarily on the UK, US, and Australia. This collection is organised by each initiative’s intended scope of political and geographic influence, ranging from cities, metropolitan areas and regions, to national and multinational initiatives. The other more extensive collection — ‘Covid-19 Response’ — draws heavily on the work of ‘Innovations for Democracy in Latin America’ (the LATINNO Project), led by Dr Thamy Pogrebinschi of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center.
LATINNO’s research examines only one part of the world, but like the two Participedia collections that focus on responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, it reveals a wave of democratic innovations in response. Among other findings, LATINNO’s final report notes that the “Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on democratic innovation in Latin America”. The researchers count 128 government-led innovations, developed often with the support of civil society groups, and an additional 309 efforts led by civil society organisations, often with the support of governments. All the documented initiatives were designed to gather public input on, generate solutions for, or coordinate citizen energy in response to the pandemic. To date, these initiatives have involved at least 688 organisations.
Though democratic innovations have in the past mainly been confined to their own political jurisdictions (cities, states/provinces, nations), the pandemic seems to have inspired a higher degree of cross-jurisdictional collaboration. In Latin America alone, the LATINNO project mapped 131 cases of democratic innovation that “simultaneously involve several countries in the attempt to address the many problems that have resulted from the pandemic”.
Digital innovations to replace in-person engagement
One of the most obvious effects of the pandemic on democracy is that it has made in-person meetings unwise because of the danger of spreading the coronavirus. At every level of government, all around the world, public officials and staff have had to scramble to find other ways to engage the public and adopt digital tools for engagement.
Many of those tools such as Zoom, Skype, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams are simply virtual facsimiles of in-person engagement. In initiatives such as Community Voices for Health, organisations like the Pennsylvania Health Access Network reached thousands of people through Facebook Live sessions, online town halls, and small-group dialogues on Zoom.
Other democratic innovations used in response to Covid-19 have been virtual versions of existing engagement methods. These include large-scale deliberative processes to better understand citizens’ concerns and to coordinate citizen-government collaboration, like the ‘Covid-19 Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Community Forums’ in South Australia and ‘Community Engagement for Covid-19’ in underserved and marginalised regions of Ethiopia.
Representative deliberative processes (also known as ‘mini-publics’) were also brought entirely online. In these kinds of initiatives, a small group of people is recruited using various methods of random sampling to demographically represent a larger population. These highly structured forums meet to explore citizen attitudes and generate recommendations for public officials. One example is the ‘Citizen Assembly on Restrictions and Recommendations in Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic’ in Finland. There have been similar efforts in the UK, US and France.
Exploring the larger potential of digital tools
Other democratic innovations that have emerged in the pandemic are even more ambitious than attempts to replicate face-to-face engagement in that they explore the larger potential of digital tools to inform, connect, coordinate, and crowdsource democracy.
For example, some initiatives use data gathered by government agencies — in combination with the expertise of ‘civic technology’ innovators working outside government — to provide information in ways that are tailored to citizens’ needs. Building on an existing legacy of democratic innovation going back well before Covid-19, the government of Taiwan worked with the Taiwanese civic tech community to track the number of masks available to citizens, apps to help map geographic areas where disease transmission was highest, and many other tools. Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, calls this data-sharing approach “fast, fair and fun”.
Some of these civic tech efforts have been led by the civic technologists themselves, sometimes with support from governments, and sometimes without. As documented in Participedia and other places, hackathons designed to respond to various problems related to the pandemic have been held in countries throughout the world.
Other digital democratic innovations launched during the pandemic have included programs that inspire and coordinate mutual aid efforts by volunteers to help people in need. One such initiative is AyudaPy (‘HelpPy’). This project’s website was designed by a group of young civil society programmers who integrated georeferencing and crowdsourcing tools into a platform that allows individuals in need throughout Paraguay to make known requests for essential resources (e.g., food, medicine, childcare, and hygiene products) to volunteers who then try to meet those needs.
Unique challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic may produce yet more new waves of democratic innovation as communities and countries address low levels of social trust, misinformation, a lack of resources, and a need to coordinate government programs and volunteer activities. Fortunately, lessons on how to keep citizens engaged in this difficult work can be found across the globe.
This essay was created as part of a partnership with Participedia & Public Agenda. Participedia is a global network and crowdsourcing platform for researchers, educators, practitioners, policymakers, activists, and anyone interested in public participation and democratic innovations. Public Agenda is a nonpartisan research and public engagement organisation dedicated to strengthening democracy and expanding opportunity for all Americans.