Democracy is not easy to define. That’s because democracy is a cluster of practices, structures, institutions and movements. It’s an assembly of many different elements – and it’s the combination or totality of those elements that we understand to mean democracy. In this context, it’s not surprising that there are numerous definitions of digital democracy. For some it refers to the use of digital tools to provide information and promote transparency, for others it describes the ways in which information and communications technologies (ICTs) can broaden and deepen participation, while others talk of promoting empowerment by enabling citizens to make decisions directly through online tools. We simply define the term as “the practice of democracy using digital tools and technologies”. Within the literature, there aren’t any agreed definitions of digital democracy. In part this is because the term overlaps with notions of citizenship, participation, transparency, accountability, governance, e-government, civil society and the public sphere. However, we can draw a distinction between ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ definitions of digital democracy. The former focuses on giving citizens access to governmental information and enabling them to interact with government through, for example, online consultations and transactional services online. The latter envisages a more participatory role for citizens, enabling them to collaborate with government officials as well as make their own decisions about how they and their local communities are governed.11 Also, when people do use the term, they’re often doing so in different ways, referring to different models of democracy – such as representative, participatory (deliberative or collaborative) or direct democracy. For example, part of the rationale behind ‘open government’ was that democratic structures and processes, and trust in those structures, could be improved through the provision of information and greater transparency. These discussions relate most closely to discourses about representative forms of democracy. More recently, the term ‘open government’ has come to include a range of initiatives and policies, from improving internet connectivity, transparency and access to institutional data, to novel ways for citizens and governments to interact for achieving better outcomes.12 Democratic innovations in this space have included the involvement of citizens in solving specific challenges (e.g. challenge.gov in the USA), creating petitions (e.g. We The People in the USA), making proposals (e.g. Your Priorities in Reykjavik), collaborating with public officials to draft policy (e.g. the Estonian Citizens’ Assembly) or carrying out tasks that had hitherto been the preserve of public employees (e.g. Peer to Patent). These examples speak to participatory forms of democracy – or what some have most recently described as collaborative democracy.
There are then numerous discussions about how ICTs could enable direct forms of democracy – through for example, referendums and participatory budgeting, where local residents vote directly on how local resources are spent. In more recent decades, political discourses have focused on deliberative democracy. This is known as the ‘deliberative turn’ in political philosophy, and is best exemplified in the work of Habermas, Rawls and Fishkin.14 For these and other theorists, true democracy entails participation, and specifically, discussion and debate among citizens. The assumption that deliberation is a good thing is pervasive in the field of democratic theory and practice. Discussions about how ICTs can democratise the public sphere, enabling citizens to deliberate amongst themselves and with public officials, link most clearly to these discourses. At Nesta, we don’t favour any particular model of democracy. We’re interested in how digital tools can be used to support representative, participatory and direct forms of democracy. Since democracy comes in so many guises, we’re also interested in how these tools can be used outside the formal structures of governance and politics. Many of these tools could be used in the workplace or by civil society organisations – such as membership organisations or community groups – to support deliberation and collective decision-making