It’s with a heavy heart today that my six-month secondment at Delib has come to an end. It seems like yesterday that I first arrived at the company, with a wide eyed enthusiasm to get stuck in to the work of digital democracy. Unlike in many jobs, that initial enthusiasm hasn’t been worn down – but rather blossomed into a mature appreciation for what Delib, its partners, and its customers are trying to do.
‘Digital democracy’ – two words that are used individually with an abundance that makes their meaning elusive; join to form a term that has the potential to be doubly confounding. The thing is, there’s really not a better phrase to describe Delib, and the concept of digital democracy pervades the company’s ethos, its behaviour and the design of its products. Everything is done with the same vision – of using technology to increase the participation of citizens in public administration.
On a global scale, democracy appears to be contested. In countries like the UK, Ireland, Australia and the US, we worry that the traditions and institutions of public life have become complacent; dominated by elites, by business, or by media-driven populism. In the developing world, the trend of growth in the number of democracies appears to have dropped off; political freedom can no longer be taken for granted as a by-product of economic growth.
There’s also no consensus on whether technology is a blessing or a curse for democracy. In Andrew Keen’s recent book ‘The Internet is Not the Answer‘, he delivers a scathing critique of the techno-utopian idea that the information revolution would usher in a brave new world of empowered citizenry and free exchange of ideas. Instead, Keen argues, technology has helped drive inequality to historic levels, and compounded the power of elites. The public discourse often appears to be captured by the hyperactive immediacy of the hashtag, or the self-regarding mindlessness and aggression of the troll and the flame war.
All of this serves as a reality check for the idea that we are on an unstoppable conveyor belt to greater freedom and more enlightened societies. Technological change happens whether we like it or not. The hard part is making it work, and making it work for everyone. The internet has the potential to improve our society, but it won’t unless there are hard-working people out there making that idea a reality.
That’s where Delib comes in. A small group of dedicated, highly intelligent people, trying to make our little corner of the world a better place. There are no silver bullets, a minimal level of hype and jargon – just three products that offer clear and practical ways for people to get more involved in government. More people responding to consultations, in a more informed way; costs and time saved by councils and departments under severe financial pressure; policy crowdsourcing that goes beyond lip-service, gets people talking, and injects new life into public decision making.
All of Delib’s products are being constantly improved, the customer base is steadily growing, and those customers are surprising us all the time as they get better and better at engaging and involving people online. It’s a process that requires courage and integrity. Delib are a small company providing an excellent service to government, delivering low-cost projects within weeks – a world away from the cynical strategy and practices that have historically categorised some technology suppliers in the public sector. It’s not an easy business to get into and stay in, and it requires deep reserves of commitment.
This goes equally for Delib’s customers. Organisations in the public sector can all too often be very averse to trying new things. Moreover, there is often a nervousness around public participation – that the public won’t get it, or will ignore it, or will fill in the consultation form with vitriol about the state of the bins. However, everything I have seen so far has shown me that if you treat people with respect and frankness, like most of the organisations we work with have learned to do, they will respond in kind.
This is probably the biggest lesson I’ll take back to government, and I think it’s a good one. There’s an exciting future for digital democracy, but it can’t just be expected to come about by itself. It requires constant and careful work from everyone, not just government and developers. Delib can and should be an example to others for how to make it happen, one small step at a time.
From next week I’ll be back in government, at HMRC, spreading the digital democracy good news! You can follow me at @