Democratic accountability and a thriving civil society are vital to our common welfare. They are two sides of the same coin, and societies can only truly flourish when communities and governments are able to engage with each other effectively.
Technology can play a big part in helping to create and sustain effective connections between citizens and governments – both national and local. These connections can exist without technology, but it is a powerful, flexible and accessible enabler.
It is impossible for governments to know how best to serve people, unless people engage with it and express what they need. Someone sitting in a parliament or administration can easily come up with an idea in isolation and decide to put it into practice. They can take soundings, analyse policy and consider similar programmes. But they can’t really know how their idea will sit on the ground unless they engage with citizens. This is at its most obvious when we look at how governments act to solve problems: unless they interact with people it is difficult to know whether a proposed solution is workable, meaningfully beneficial - or even appropriate in the first place.
Citizens can feel very estranged from the places and people that make decisions on how things are run and manged. In the UK, we have a history of parliament being very removed from citizens; some would perhaps call it historically elitist. That is now changing. The US, Italy and France now have leaders who were political outsiders and anti-establishment candidates. But changing the background of political leaders does not in itself improve democracy. For that to happen, citizens have to be able to play their part in identifying issues and helping with fair decision making.
There have always been grassroots citizens’ movements, where people coalesce around common interests with a greater or lesser degree of desire to lobby nationally or locally for change. Technology helps the people in such movements connect and mobilise more effectively. Just look at the number of community groups that use Facebook or WhatsApp or Instagram to share information with like-minded people and encourage them to act.
It is worth noting, of course, that technology itself is apolitical, though it can be used in a very political way. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a very clear example of digital tools being used to encourage action through highly-targeted communications. The People’s Vote campaign in the UK has used digital tools such as online petitions to mobilise people on a national level. In the UK, mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou allows UK citizens to discover their local MP, view their voting record, see what committees they have attended, discover parliamentary offices they hold, view their speaking record in Parliament, see their expenses declarations and even sign up to receive emails every time they speak (and, indeed, to receive emails whenever any subject that interests them is mentioned in parliament).
In addition, this service provides the MP’s Facebook page, Twitter handle and through a direct link to mySociety’s WriteToThem tool, lets anyone write to their MP. The ability to monitor what parliamentarians are doing - and use that information to hold them to account - is a key tool in supporting healthy and responsive democratic structures.
Technologies which make this information transparent, and which can be used to bring people together easily and at minimal (or better still, at no) cost to them, are needed now more than ever. In the UK, austerity has had an impact on civil society organisations just as it has had elsewhere; yet it is precisely in times of hardship that people need to be able to join together easily and to get involved as active citizens, to help ensure the thing that matter to them get done. Armed with clear and accessible factual information, citizens can more effectively campaign for change.
As local authority budgets become tighter and tighter, there is plenty of evidence that some services are being provided with less alacrity than before; potholes are being filled less often, fly tips cleared less regularly etc. These might sound like small fry cases in comparison to the big political decisions of the day but such things can have a negative effect on citizens’ wellbeing. Who wouldn’t choose to walk through clean streets and cycle on smooth roads? And why shouldn’t residents hold their local authorities to account in fulfilling a legal obligation to maintain good community spaces?
Affordable tools for local councils to manage backend processes - which are also easy for citizens to use for reporting - can go a long way to helping councils make their budgets go further and fulfil local obligations. A service like FixMyStreet allows citizens to report problems online in the knowledge that they will be reported directly to their local authority, for example.
What all of these, and many, many more citizen tech projects have in common is that their roots are in citizen empowerment, promoting active citizenship and fostering participatory democracy so that people can truly influence the activities and decisions which affect their everyday lives.