Most citizen engagement processes, from participatory budgets to general elections, depend on reliable recordkeeping. If the votes in an election are not recorded correctly, that election will generally be thought to be illegitimate. If written feedback from citizens is doctored so that criticism is recorded as praise, trust between citizens and governments will never rise.
Unfortunately, fears about this kind of abusive misreporting of data are real and widespread.
Consider, for example, the idea of online voting — the idea that citizens should be able to vote from their own devices over the internet. Despite being debated in many countries for at least two decades, electoral voting online has thus far only been rolled out in a small number of jurisdictions. This low level of global adoption is due primarily to strong and persistent concerns that the data about votes will be manipulated by malicious actors, and elections will be stolen. This is just one particularly high profile example of how a fear of unreliable digital recordkeeping has had major impacts on the level of ease for citizen engagement. While a steadily increasing proportion of global citizens access a huge array of goods and services through phones and computers, voters largely must physically visit polling stations or post paper ballots.
Elections aren’t the only area in which a lack of trust in digital recordkeeping has real impacts. Professor Marco Deseriis of Northeastern University shared the impact that unreliable data storage has on modern European political parties. Some of these parties, especially newer ones, use online platforms to allow their supporters to discuss and propose policies as well as discuss and vote on prospective candidates who might stand for election. Deseriis said that accusations about the malicious manipulation of data within these systems were now widespread. Similar stories seem likely to suppress the willingness of more citizens to get involved in these kinds of services. They will have reason to doubt that their ideas and wishes will be faithfully conveyed to their peers and to party decision makers.
Finally, doubts about robust recordkeeping have a negative impact on the effectiveness of petitions and their close cousins, citizen initiatives. Research for this study uncovered evidence that unreliable recordkeeping of signatures on petitions has a long and problematic history.18Time after time, doubts about the veracity of petition signatures have been used by politicians to delegitimize demands from citizens and resist calls for action and change.
In summary, a lack of faith in the reliability of civic recordkeeping is an active suppressor of many kinds of citizen engagement activities, both old and new.
Enter Blockchain Technologies
Into this doubt-riddled scene, a new technology has appeared; a technology that can, in the eye of its proponents, eliminate some of the mistrust of data. This new technology has various names, but in this study it’s called “blockchain” to reflect its most popular moniker.19 A blockchain is a special and relatively new kind of database engineered to make it very difficult to alter historic records. For more detailed explanations of what blockchains are and how they work, see Skella (2018) and Crosby et al. (2015).
The claim that blockchain makes data resilient against tampering makes these databases attractive in situations where people want to exchange things of value. For example, a person who is about to hand over money to acquire land has a huge interest in ensuring the land ownership records clearly state he or she is now the new owner. If those records are subsequently changed to deny that the buyer owns the land, the harm to the victim would be great.
A wave of blockchain-based projects claim they can prevent records from being changed. Most are not in the citizen engagement landscape (most are types of financial instruments), but a few are in the civic space. One interesting example operates in Brazil.
The Brazilian constitution gives citizen initiatives, signed by large numbers of people, a certain statutory power. However, in practice it has been impossible to verify that signatures are genuine. In several cases, this obstacle has been used to deny citizens their chance at influence, by rejecting citizens initiatives as bogus.20 In reaction, a new project called Mudamos has been established to help citizens create and sign initiatives to the Brazilian parliament that are less likely to be decried as fake. Part of the claim that signatures made through the Mudamos app are more trustworthy is the use of a popular form of blockchain to store data. Ronaldo Lemos, a cofounder of ITS Rio, explains the rationale of the initiative: “When the framers of the Brazilian constitution created the possibility of citizens to propose laws directly, their goal was precisely to make people independent from congressional structures, delivering that power to civil society.”
And, according to Lemos, blockchain allows precisely that. “The blockchain is perfect for this purpose. It creates an immutable and auditable record of signatures, attached directly to the identity of the voter. Because of the blockchain and other certification mechanisms we are adopting, the possibility of fraud will be much lower than when paper signatures are used.”
This project is not the only citizen engagement project that claims to be using blockchain to make citizen feedback more reliable and believable. Several startups are working on the problem of trustworthy digital voting, including Horizon State and Votem.
It is worth noting that numerous authoritative voices in the digital security world doubt that blockchain does bring adequate certainty to online voting (Laurie 2018). Ultimately, it is not the security or quality of either blockchain or identity technologies that will determine whether or not this mix of technologies influence citizen engagement, or the governments that respond to it. Rather it will be a matter of perception. Do policy makers and citizens come to believe that a certain kind of online interaction (whether a vote, petition, comment, or a suggested amendment to a bill) is truly trustworthy, or truly hard to ignore? New technologies might actually offer little advancement in genuine security, but they might cause people to believe an advancement has been made. Conversely, new technologies could easily undermine faith and leave decision makers less confident that messages from the public have been faithfully conveyed. The battle for perceptions is only in its middle stage, and the only thing known for sure is that blockchain advocates will push hard to persuade decision makers that their solution is the way to acquire legitimacy.
18: As early as 1916, an article in the American Political Science Review ardently criticizes how “unfair and impossible formalities” to verify the authenticity of signatures constrained participation and restricted the full use of petitions as a democratic instrument (Schnader 1916). ↩
19: Technically, Blockchain is a specific brand name for the distributed ledger technology used by the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. The term has rapidly become generic and is frequently used to refer to non-Bitcoin-based data stores. While the term is technically inaccurate in most common usage, it has caught on because more accurate terms, such as distributed ledger technology, are more effortful to write and say. ↩
20: To date, the few citizen initiatives that have been approved in Brazil at the national level, after meeting the threshold of signatures required, had to be adopted by a member of parliament who was supportive of the issue and presented the project as his or her own. This is a workaround solution necessary because of the impossibility of verifying the authenticity of signatures. More recently, at the subnational level in the Brazilian municipality of Passo Fundo, a citizen’s initiative requesting the salaries of councilman be reduced — considered abusive by citizens — was denied on the basis that some of the signatures’ authenticity could not be verified. ↩