For more than 200 years, waves of new information technologies have been accompanied by claims that these same technologies will have a significant influence on who controls political power within states.
An article published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1919 praised the potential of the telephone to return society to Athenian democratic conditions in which “every citizen could take part and be represented.” In the 1980s, information technology scholars and enthusiasts saw in the emergence of cable television an opportunity to invent a “teledemocracy” of direct and continuous public participation. In 1994, U.S. Vice President Al Gore foresaw a “new Athenian Age of democracy” emerging from the traffic on the Information Superhighway. More recently, an article in the Harvard International Review asks whether citizenship can be redefined in the internet age with “the widespread democratic governance of ancient Greece” (Edick 2015).
This pattern of innovation followed by prediction did not go unnoticed. Sociologist Armand Mattelart (1999) observed these cyclical manifestations of optimism and labeled them as a “strange alchemy of cynicism, naïveté, and amnesia.” Mattelart was quite right that a simple, causal connection between “better information technology” and “better citizen control over government” was always too simple.1 Society must not, however, make the opposite mistake and blithely assert that governments and decision makers are impervious to radical changes to the information technology milieu in which a society operates. Information technology clearly has influenced changes in the way citizens and leaders obtain, use, and compete for power in the last two centuries. From the use of a stone-built kleroterion device in ancient Athens to randomly select legislators2to today’s regular online elections in Estonia using mobile phones, every generation of information technology has some kind of impact on the ways citizens engage with governments and political leaders, even if the nature of those impacts is often highly contentious and hard to disentangle.
As an institution that attaches great value to citizen’s involvement in government decision making, the World Bank has an obligation to pay attention to all the factors that influence the operation of citizen engagement. Modern digital technology is only one of these factors. However, it warrants particular attention because of the sheer amount of claims that have been circulating about the connection between the internet and the health of key governance systems upon which nations are founded.
Purpose of this study
The recent rapid evolution of digital technologies has been changing behaviors and expectations in countries around the world. These shifts make it the right time to pose the key question this study explores:
Will digital technologies, both those that are already widespread and those that are still emerging, have substantial impacts on the way citizens engage and the ways through which power is sought, used, or contested?
There are three specific reasons why this question was chosen.
First, the World Bank works in a network of other national, local, and transnational organizations many of which work on and think about citizen engagement on an ongoing basis. This is a contribution to the ongoing debate that exists within that network.
Second, the World Bank already researches and endorses certain approaches to citizen engagement. This advice may have to change if technologically driven developments change norms and practices.
Finally, the World Bank makes risk assessments as part of all its work, and these risk assessments may have to change if the way citizens and states interact change.
This study explores what technology might mean for citizen engagement, whether for good or for bad. It makes a range of predictions and offers measures for governments to consider.
Unlike other studies in the series, this work goes beyond the World Bank’s standard definition of citizen engagement, which is “the two-way interaction between citizens and governments or the private sector within the scope of the World Bank Group’s interventions” (World Bank 2014). A broader definition encompasses a range of activities widely understood in the literature as political and public participation, which includes both electoral and nonelectoral types of participation. This approach is aligned with recent World Bank research that highlights the interplay between electoral and nonelectoral types of participation and their role in promoting accountability and development outcomes (World Bank 2016a,b, 2017).
For clarity, the authors focus primarily on the interaction between citizens and state actors, and they do not consider interaction between citizens and other powerful actors, such as businesses.
The very nature of emerging technologies is track records too short and distribution too narrow to allow for meaningful statistical or economic modeling (unlike, for example, trade data). As a consequence, the authors use an inductive and aspirational approach. Being inductive, this work does not test hypotheses after the fact. Instead the authors’ insights — and those of interviewees — are meant to be no more than general propositions based on available observations of how technologies affect, or fail to affect, citizen engagement in both distant and recent history.
This study is aspirational because it summarizes a search for ways in which emerging technologies might plausibly promote more effective citizen engagement. It also conveys concerns about the negative effects modern digital technologies can have on the governance of nations.3 Despite many new challenges created, new and better citizen engagement approaches might be possible. Focusing solely on threats would add little new to a public discourse already saturated with worries. What is missing from public discourse is a wide range of options that citizens or decision makers could call on to make their interactions more successful.
To help the authors with this effort, leading researchers and practitioners in the field kindly offered interviews and comments. Where appropriate, they are quoted directly: Ben Berkowitz (SeeClickFix); Emiliana de Blasio (Center for Media and Democratic Innovations); Marco Deseriis (Northeastern University); Jonathan Fox (Accountability Research Center at American University); Erhardt Graeff (MIT Center for Civic Media); Craig Hammer, Zahid Hasnain, and Kaushal Jhalla (World Bank); Justin Herman (U.S. General Services Administration); Cesar Hidalgo (MIT Media Lab); Alexander Howard (writer and open government advocate); Luke Jordan (Grassroot); Ronaldo Lemos (Institute for Technology and Society — ITS Rio); Flavia Marzano (Rome Municipality); Rafael Morado (Dapper Labs); Leonardo Moreno (AES Corporation); Alessandra Orofino (Nossas); Tapan Parikh (Cornell Tech); Ben Rattray (Change. org); David Robinson (Upturn); Hollie Russon-Gilman (Columbia University); Antonio Saraiva (Gojira.tv); David Sasaki (Hewlett Foundation); Beth Simone Noveck and Gianluca Sgueo (New York University); Michele Sorice (LUISS); Christopher Wilson (Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation); Harry Wilson (Social Coin); and Anthony Zacharzewski (The Democratic Society).
A Note on Context
Despite the lower technology penetration levels in developing countries, their more malleable governance contexts may be more influenced by the effects of emerging technologies than older, ‘higher-tech’ states with greater rigidity. Digitally influenced citizen engagement is, in short, one of those “leapfrog” areas in which developing nations may exploit technologies before the wealthier parts of the world. But countries can leapfrog to worse futures, not just better ones.
1: For a more recent discussion of the hopes and disappointments regarding digital technologies and democracy, see Kornbluh (2018). ↩
2: The kleroterion was a device used by the Athenians to randomly select citizens to occupy important civic positions such as the Council of 500, which represented the full-time government of Athens. In 2018, researchers built a fully functioning stone replica of the kleroterion. ↩
3: The authors are cognizant of the potential exclusionary effects of digitally enabled citizen engagement, particularly in developing contexts. However, this issue falls outside the scope of this study and is extensively addressed in other World Bank publications (e.g., Peixoto and Fox 2016; Spada et al. 2016; Mellon, Peixoto, and Sjoberg 2017; Mellon et al. 2017; Peixoto and Sifry 2017). The authors also recognize that their efforts are not immune to Amara’s law, where predictions about the effects of digital technologies are overestimated in the short run and underestimated in the long run. ↩