by Julia Keutgen, WFD’s Senior Transparency Advisor
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel presented the country’s new confinement measures to contain coronavirus (COVID-19) a few days ago, she stressed that “open democracy is about explaining our political decisions and make them transparent. That we do all we can to justify and communicate our actions, so they are understandable.”
Her words raise the question: what do we mean by open democracy and a transparent and reliable government in times of crisis and how can we make it a reality? Participatory democracy and civic tech could be part of the answer.
Governments as well as parliaments need to pay particular attention to citizens’ needs as their fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of movement, are curtailed around the world in response to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).
Now more than ever, citizens need to be able to understand government decisions. Communication and participation are limited to online channels as social distancing hampers the use of regular communication tools, such as press conferences or access to parliamentary estates for example.
Now more than ever, citizens want to be able to participate in decision-making because many of the decisions that have been made by their governments and parliaments now affect them very concretely and personally.
Participatory decision-making has gained in importance in the past couple of years. The rise of citizen assemblies in the UK and participatory budgeting initiatives in cities like Paris or Madrid, are testaments to this new wave of direct citizen participation in democracy. Some of these initiatives are driven by parliaments and governments, especially at local level, and have helped them to crowdsource ideas and build consensus around particular issues. The rehabilitation and restoration of green spaces and parks, for instance, has been an issue of concern in many communities. Nowadays, as people are confined to built-up and crowded cities, we see the importance of the need to prioritize these spaces in today’s crisis and the need for local governments to enable communities to voice these opinions before reaching a crisis.
Much of the civic participation we have seen recently, has been facilitated by the use of online technology. Some countries, such as Taiwan, which has heavily invested in a ‘tech-enabled civic culture’ distinguished by “bottom-up information sharing, public-private partnerships, hacktivism (activism through the building of quick-and-dirty but effective proofs of concept for online public services), and participatory collective action” (as Foreign Affairs puts it), have been more successful in ensuring a democratic response which rests on transparency and a general consensus within society.
Many solutions that enable citizens to participate online have been developed by civic tech organisations that now have a unique opportunity to showcase how technology can bridge the gap between decision makers and citizens.
These civic tech organisations have been quick to respond to the current crisis. Some have provided support to governments by virtue of access to information on their platform: such as Civic Hall with its Coronavirus Civic Tech Guide, which maps how citizens have been engaging the public and private sectors to help contribute to a collective response to the pandemic, or the Coronavirus Tech Handbook which collects official country-by-country information on government responses to the crisis.
In addition, civic tech organisations can contribute their tech capacity, such as for example the Covid19 Action Tracker, which collects all decisions taken by the local leaders in the US in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In many countries, such as Germany and Norway, massive online hackathons have been held to tackle specific challenges that the government is facing, such as the development of symptom trackers. Businesses, such as Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Giphy, TikTok, Pinterest, Slack, and WeChat are supporting developers willing to participate in a giant hackathon organised by the WHO entitled #BuildforCOVID19 with the aim of crowdsourcing ideas on topics such as social isolation, health, and support to vulnerable populations and online businesses. Particularly, civic tech organisations have been crucial in assisting governments in their prioritization of assistance to vulnerable communities. Every day, new platforms are launched, and tools developed, which is a testament to the desire of citizens to be engaged: the Open Government Partnership has collected over 100 examples of COVID-19-related government and civil society initiatives.
As the COVID-19 crisis persists, it has become clear that governments and parliaments will need to harness technological tools and solutions to engage citizens and imagine new ones to further enhance ‘democratic creativity’. Civic tech will most certainly be key in ensuring that democracy stays alive in this period of confinement and physical distancing. The solutions we find in times of COVID-19 will open up possibilities for stronger and more inclusive democracies when the pandemic is over.