Past, Present and Future of Digital Participation: Are we heading towards a Metaverse for Democracy?
On 21 October, experts Alejandro Moledo, Wietse Van Ransbeeck, and Oliver Mauco convened to discuss the past, present, and future of digital participation in democracy. This workshop was held during the 4th Public Participation and Deliberative Democracy Festival and was co-organised and moderated by Elisa Lironi, Programme Director – European Democracy of ECAS and Antoine Vergne, Co-director of Missions Publiques.
Ms. Lironi opened the workshop with the discussion on the past and present of digital participation in democracy. She highlighted that digital participation has truly evolved over the past decade. There have been many digital participation experiments happening throughout Europe, at the local, national and EU level, such as the European Citizens’ Initiative. This leads to the question, what are the lessons learnt from these digital participation experiments and what needs to be improved?
Wietse Van Ransbeeck, Co-Founder and CEO of CitizenLab, shared five takeaways or lessons learnt over the past decade in digital participation. The first is institutionalising participation in the heart of decision-making. There is still more capacity building to be done in this framework, however it is no longer necessary to explain why there is a need for digital participation and how it can reinforce representative democracy. The second is that we are still climbing up the participation ladder, as there is still more to be done. For example, the pioneers of digital participation are doing participatory budgeting and agenda setting but the majority are still using one-off surveys. The third lesson learnt is that inclusion is still a field on which there is potential for improvement in order to make participation more inclusive. Digital participation has allowed for mass engagement, but now we need to work towards a more equitable participation. The fourth is process transparency and feedback which is often forgotten about. It is important to close the feedback loop and show citizens the impact of their participation. Finally, the fifth is how do we make the inputs of digital participation scalable for all levels of government and provide for easy reporting. Mr. Van Ransbeeck emphasised that online participation is not just about collecting inputs or giving citizens a say, it is about giving citizens an influence on the decisions being made at the local, national and EU level.
Alejandro Moledo, Coordinator at the European Disability Forum, provided constructive insights on digital participation and the ways in which it can improve in terms of inclusivity and accessibility. The European Disability Forum provided a thorough audit on the accessibility of the Conference on the Future of Europe as there are 100 million citizens in the EU with disabilities. These citizens need to be included in the discussions and the creation of digital tools for democratic participation. Mr. Moledo shared three key shortcomings of digital participation. The first shortcoming is that digital tools do not acknowledge human diversity, meaning that they are not accessible to all users. The second shortcoming is that some digital tools follow what is trending without taking into account whether this digital trend fits the purpose for which the digital tool has been created for. The third shortcoming is that digital tools only fit the purpose of the owners of those tools. For example, the Have Your Say platform used for public consultations by the European Commission. Mr. Moledo emphasised that one of the ways we can overcome these shortcomings is by ensuring digital tools follow the Web Accessibility Directive of the EU.
Antoine Vergne, Co-director of Missions Publiques, moderated the discussion on the future of digital participation and came with 3 questions for the audience and the panel:
- There is lot of discussion on the metaverse: But what it is?
- Once we have defined it with a bit more clarity: How can we leverage its potential for high quality citizen participation and what are its limits?
If we look at the “meta” level (pun intended), how can we/should we govern the metaverse? Which rules should it follow and who should make those rules?
Oliver Mauco took the floor to give a short definition of the metaverse as a fusion of the digital and non-digital worlds in a single space, the “meta” verse encompassing synthetic and physical elements. He stressed the fact that in the metaverse, many questions raised by the learnings on digital democracy are solved: The ladder of participation is actually reversed as in games and gaming communities the first step is the one of “empowerment” as players have a direct and lasting influence on the world they are in.
Antoine Vergne then put forward the reasons why Missions Publiques is interested in launching the conversation and the experimentation of pilots around deliberation and the metaverse:
- The metaverse is more than an engagement, its an experience: Participants are much more engaged and immersed when interacting with elements of Augmented or Virtual reality. This makes it possible to roll out highly qualitative online formats of higher quality than 2D processes.
- Adding elements of metaverse into a process allows to unlock new avenues for the understanding of key challenges in deliberative processes: Want to work on city planning? Build a digital twin and explore it? Deliberating on autonomous mobility? Let participants experience it.
- Virtual and augmented reality higher the level of empathy and emotional involvement of participants, which gives it a better fit for discussions on the common ground and collective decision making.
- Through the leverage of the metaverse, it is possible to deploy global and/regional processes without having to move hundreds of citizens, experts, observers, etc. It can make transnational deliberation cheaper.
Elisa Lironi concluded that technology is no longer an issue in order to build good online platforms for citizen participation in policy-making processes. However, there are still two important elements that need to be addressed: first, a real culture of participation in democracy, beyond just voting in elections, is still missing and it will take more time to build this culture where citizens working constantly together with their representatives is “normalised”; second, there is still no consistent research proving that participation truly enhances the quality of democracy so now the focus instead of being ‘why’ and ‘how’ should be on ‘when’ participation plays a meaningful role.