After the Arab Spring, technology became the panacea for democratic development issues. Many programs focus on using technology to engage citizens and to spread information, but how effective are these tools at promoting democracy?
Representatives from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) visited NED headquarters on June 30 to discuss their recent study, Citizen Participation and Technology. The study aims to provide realistic expectations for technology as a democracy-building tool. By examining case studies of several NDI programs, the study assesses the effectiveness of tech tools and how they can enhance development work.
Information and communications technology (ICT) creates more space for citizens to use their voice and provides greater access to information. In closed environments, increased information and communication is vital, but the real challenge is to turn this into meaningful political dialogue. Tech tools may strengthen citizen voices, but often the normative framework that drives political action is not democratic. Technology does not negate the need to develop the non-technological facet of programs. Further political development is needed along with the tech tools to see democratic outcomes. A clear connection between the use of technology and democratic developments is necessary for program planning.
Governments that do make use of these new technologies are able to reach a wider audience. However, they treat the public as consumers of services, not as citizens with agency. The underlying incentives for action haven’t changed. Technology has changed the ability to respond, but actual government responsiveness and public input into decision-making is lacking. Additionally, citizens may become disillusioned when increases in information and communication fail to result in reforms. More transparency doesn’t always translate into greater accountability.
Technology is very effective at building coalitions of citizen groups and contributes to their political organization. These groups can focus attention on particular issues and take advantage of political opportunities, applying external pressure when the political will is there. Crowdsourcing does not create self-organizing, politically-influential groups. Citizen groups that use crowdsourcing for public input must use additional engagement activities to mobilize citizens for collective action.
It is unclear that access to technology increases the political power of marginalized groups, who may not have access to technology in the first place. Those who use these tools are often the same individuals and groups who were already occupying the political sphere. The tools end up adding to the number of voices, without necessarily strengthening democracy.
Many programs attempt to use technology as a shortcut, but you can’t get democracy on the cheap. Aspirations are too high for the democratizing power of technology. We need to understand how technology is integrated into the daily lives of citizens and to figure out how technology can be used to address governance issues. What’s the next step in tech?
For more information on this topic, check out the World Bank’s study, Closing the Feedback Loop: Can Technology Amplify Citizen Voices?, and the report by the Institute of Development Studies, Understanding ‘the users’ in Technology for Transparency and Accountability Initiatives