The Discretisation of Politics (Part 2)
Does the binary representation of digital data with zeros and ones lead to less compromise and more black-or-white politics? In Part1, I described how the digitalisation of counter-intuitive and promotes the blurred, diffuse, non-resolvable mixed. In Part 2, I discuss options for how digital tools can be used in and change politics. Perhaps the most fundamental idea is the automation of party work. It leads to the opening up of policy-making to outsiders. Digitalisation can be used to make politically relevant information accessible to committed individuals on the one hand and to support them in campaigning on the other. It replaces the think tank work and persuasion work of political parties. In this way, the parties lose some of their gatekeeper functions. Individuals can push through ideas politically and be elected to high government offices without party support. This changes possible political career paths.
Digital replacement of party work
The digital replacement of party work has its limits where it is a matter of valorising political engagement. This still requires resilient institutional networks. There are some individuals who earn their living with individual digital political engagement and some parties also try to engage influencers. But the Trumpisation of society – through radical self-interest bias – blocks indirect rewards through positive evaluation of engagement in other contexts. It even encourages swinging to the opposite, i.e. the more or less indirect punishment of community engagement through excessive attacks on the person, morality and context of the engaged. This greatly increases the opportunity costs of community engagement for the individual. This in turn promotes the economisation of community engagement and attracts all kinds of strange characters who have not succeeded in institutions. Politically correct formulation: Thanks to digitalisation, it is easier for idealists to successfully engage in the common good, but they are only appreciated if they are supported by the power of institutional networks. Accordingly, digitalisation will not lead to a greater number of creative thinkers in politics, but will above all promote unconventional paths into government offices, in which one either earns above average or can enjoy the exercise of power: In the future, lateral entrants could make it into all those government offices that are directly filled by the people, even without party support. Trump docet, exempla obscurant.
Promotion of low-threshold political engagement
All attempts to promote low-threshold political participation through digital innovations have failed so far. If you want to make a difference digitally, you have to invest a lot of energy. For years, I evaluated international project ideas and assessed ongoing development, innovation and pilot projects that sought to promote low-threshold access. In the process, I observed not only the failure of creative engagements, but also an increasing decline in objectivity: political tactics entered the selection processes. My experiences are not representative and the principle applies: the very next innovation and pilot project can bring the very big breakthrough. Just because it didn’t work in the past doesn’t mean it’s impossible. For example, interesting projects are currently underway in the area of co-creation. Nevertheless, there are two big elephants in the room: e-democracy research celebrated many things that most people consider anti-democratic, and the promises of future-oriented e-democracy research and development have only marginally come true. Take Twitter, for example: it used to be often celebrated in the community of researchers – rightly so as far as non-democratic regimes are concerned and mostly wrongly so as far as democracies are concerned. For the male citizens of Saudi Arabia, Twitter used to be a wonderful participatory tool (and probably still is today, but my experience in this regard was ten years ago). In democracies, on the other hand, Twitter has shown its potential to erode democratic institutions because it short-circuits the powerful with the people.
Tools for political practice
Digital tools for the level of political decision-makers are conceivable, which promote compromise practices that have become precarious in some cases. They could be used to structure discussion processes and eliminate obstacles to compromise. For example, discussions can be anonymised, intentionally and unintentionally aggressive statements can be filtered out (of course “transparently”, i.e. with the knowledge of those involved), or decision elements that can be compromised can be prioritised. This would encourage compromise and discourage destructive tactics. At a high level, it is unlikely to be accepted for various reasons. But at lower institutional levels with many young people, it could find supporters and thus change the system in the medium term.
Tools for legislative work
Besides the political aspects, legislation also has craft aspects. In recent years, the first tools have been developed to support the writing of laws for these craft aspects. Comprehensive digitisation of the legislature has been standard practice in some countries for ten to fifteen years. What is new, however, are tools that support the formulation of laws at the content level. What is currently still lacking is digital support for international comparison, for example in the implementation or voluntary autonomous follow-up of EU directives. How do the implementations differ? Where do the others stand? How far does implementation penetrate the federal level? In addition, it would be interesting to be able to measure the impact of legislation – at the operational level, rather than at the level of economic milkmaid estimates, as has been the case so far.
The vision of bringing political decisions closer to the sovereign (the people) by simulating their consequences has existed for a long time. This works well at the level of “what does it mean for me” (e.g. a tax increase), but so far hardly at the level of the consequences for society as a whole. On the one hand, economists keep their tools with them and do not work on the user experience (UX) to enable policymakers to use these tools. On the other hand, mapping complex consequences is usually very difficult or impossible. It would be fascinating to build a plug-and-play simulation environment that allows the combination of simulations. The prerequisite for this would be a profoundly thought-out design concept that is both technically meaningful and easy for users to grasp. A completely different simulation topic is the simulation of political participation. There have been pedagogically valuable, but very boring, serious games for a long time. Collectively usable simulation environments in which we can play parliament, for example, and design political solutions experimentally would be exciting. If good and acceptable solutions were to emerge in the process, there would be a chance that high politics would take them up out of self-interest and then actually adopt them in real life – with politically professional adaptations, of course :-).
There are many more ideas with great potential. Most of them have failed so far because they were not thought through enough and/or not seriously wanted. Without bringing together political science, legal, technical and, in the specific case, other issue-related perspectives, they will remain unrealistic ideas. A major meta-theme, for example, is the digital linking to participation traditions that vary from region to region – from consultation to the instrumentalisation of the association concept in the political context to horizontal subsidiarity. Such a link requires a lot of contextual knowledge, but has the advantage of existing practical experience. Out of enthusiasm for the digital, we should therefore not forget the well-functioning pre-digital. Last but not least, I would also like to refer to Prof. Johannes Pichler’s idea of creating a parliament of topics in order to short-circuit the population with decisions on content. I was involved in some of the implementation attempts. In the end, we failed because of the contradiction between the fundamental rights perspective and pragmatism. My colleague Pichler took Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty too seriously and I wanted to achieve too much in concrete terms.
- Leonhard Hennen, Ira van Keulen, Iris Korthagen, Georg Aichholzer, Ralf Lindner, Rasmus Øjvind Nielsen (editors): European E-Policy in Practice, Springer 2019
- Austrian Institute for European Law and Policy (founded by Johannes W. Pichler)
- Co-Creation of Service Innovation in Europe (project website)
- CoVal – Understanding Value Creation in Public Services (project website)
- eParticipation.eu (manual)
- Scaling up Co-Creation (project website)
- SoCaTel – CoCreating for a better life (project website)
- Using technology to co-create EU policies (EU Parliament briefing, 2020)
- Lisbon Treaty on European Union (2012)