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How digital engagement could help restore democratic legitimacy


Only 7.8% of the world’s population now lives in a full democracy, according to the Democracy Index 2023. High levels of inequality and unresponsive institutions have led to increasing polarisation and a crisis of democratic legitimacy in countries across the world.

Young people are particularly disillusioned: according to a survey from the Open Societies Foundation, just 57% of 18-35-year-olds think democracy is preferable to any other form of government, compared to 71% of older people. 2024 is a decisive year, with elections in at least seventy countries and over four billion people voting. Urgent action is needed to restore democratic legitimacy and curb the trend of increasing authoritarianism. Accordingly, Wilton Park will be hosting a dialogue series examining how democracy can be improved and defended.

Many governments and civil society organisations (CSOs) are taking action to strengthen democracy, using democratic innovations designed to enhance citizen participation. [1]

Digital engagement is one way in which citizens can deliberate, make demands and decisions, set the policy agenda and evaluate performance through online platforms. Its increasing prevalence in recent years has been facilitated by technological innovation in both the global north and south.

The relationship between technology and democracy is ambiguous at best. Malign actors have used misinformation and synthetic media, otherwise known as deepfakes, to spread false stories and threaten election integrity, while the boom of generative AI has raised questions about inherent biases within these systems. Unelected tech company CEOs play an increasingly large role in shaping the international order, and the ability of both big tech and governments to collect personal data has caused concerns over privacy, surveillance, and limitations to personal freedom.  Amongst the public, social media echo chambers driven by algorithms are fuelling mistrust and polarisation by exposing us to information that conforms to pre-existing views.

Technology can also help to preserve democracy. Digital engagement, according to Pogrebinschi (2023) can include crowdsourced policymaking, online policy discussion platforms, collaborative administration, digital campaigns, and digital oversight.[2] It can help bolster democratic legitimacy by widening participation to improve core tenets of democracy, including responsiveness, accountability, rule of law, social equality and political inclusion. It can also help reduce toxic polarisation which harms democracy by promoting a populist ‘us-versus-them’ mentality and diminishing the space for common ground and mutual understanding.

While not promising to fundamentally change our democratic systems, these technologies can help democracies function better by increasing legitimacy and restoring trust. This is particularly salient considering that young people, democracy’s biggest critics, are also the most active internet users.

One example is Taiwan’s vTaiwan, an online discussion platform where citizens, politicians and CSOs can discuss legislation.  The platform was designed in collaboration with g0v, a civic tech community that played a key role in the 2014 Sunflower Movement. vTaiwan uses software which applies machine learning and advanced statistics to ‘gather, analyse and understand what large groups of people think in their own words.’ Users can submit short comments which others can then vote on by selecting agree, disagree, or pass.

So far, vTaiwan  has enabled consensus building around difficult policy issues such as the regulation of Uber, which subsequently fed into new regulations adopted by the government. The process has improved responsiveness, with participants able to see their recommendations officially adopted, in turn strengthening legitimacy and fostering trust between people and institutions. Unlike technologies which exacerbate polarisation, vTaiwan helped to build consensus among citizens by incentivising more neutral comments in order to win votes.

Digital engagement can also promote greater transparency and accountability. HackCorruption events hosted by Accountability Lab bring together technologists, civil society professionals, activists and students to create tools that fight corruption. One of the winning ideas from a Namibian team is a product that ‘enables a transparent view of the procurement process—allowing both government officials and the public to have a complete overview of the awarding of contracts.’ The team is in discussions with local municipalities looking to implement their tool.

The digital divide still threatens the potential for these democratic innovations to be truly representative and inclusive, especially in the world’s least developed countries where only 27% of their populations are internet users. In this context, relying more heavily on digital engagement for policy decisions will likely cement preexisting inequalities.

Some countries in the Global South, such as Brazil, Mongolia, Indonesia, Kenya and Chile have implemented online citizen engagement platforms with notable successes. In order to be truly democratic however, outputs from digital engagement processes must have a visible impact on policy. A lack of clarity around how to use citizen’s contributions renders digital participation a perfunctory exercise and can actually harm legitimacy, something that many platforms have yet to address.

It’s also important to recognise that digital democracy has limited power to reverse the trend of increasing authoritarianism. While it may help restore legitimacy in already democratic countries, authoritarian governments already resorting to internet shutdowns to thwart protests and delay elections are unlikely to implement digital engagement projects and will crack down on civic tech as much as possible.

Overall, the potential for digital engagement to improve democratic legitimacy is substantial and  likely to expand as technology advances and becomes more widely available. Governments and CSOs that design these platforms must ensure  they are as representative as possible by addressing the digital divide and heightening public awareness. Where possible, governments should cocreate with civil society to counteract the top-down nature of state-mandated democratic innovations and increase the likelihood of success by responding to people’s needs.

Policy makers should also consider the long-term impacts of these technologies on society; although they may strengthen legitimacy among young people, we run the risk of nurturing an exclusively young and urbanised polity if political engagement is increasingly online. Technology’s negative impacts on democracy must be counteracted by enhancing meaningful participation globally. If achieved, it could be a vital tool for creating robust, transparent, inclusive and responsive democracies.

If you are interested in partnering with Wilton Park and Westminster Foundation for Democracy on a series of global dialogues on democracy, please get in touch by emailing

[1] Pogrebinschi, Thamy (2023) Innovating Democracy?
[2] Pogrebinschi

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