OECD Forum 2019 Session: Reviving Democracy

May 20, 2019
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This OECD Forum 2019 background note will be used to prepare speakers on the panel Reviving Democracy, taking place at the OECD headquarters from 16:45-18:15 on Monday, 20 May. Join the Forum Network to comment and help inform the upcoming debate and, whether you're with us in Paris or watching online, let us know what you think of the session!


“Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation”.

- Atifete Jahjaga, Former President, Kosovo

Citizens’ trust in their governments is declining, with growing sentiment that the system is failing them. This is an issue of crucial importance, as trust is the foundation upon which the legitimacy and sustainability of political systems is built. The effects of globalisation, fast-paced technological change, growing inequalities and migratory flows have resulted in high levels of anxiety and fear for the future. In some countries, public concerns have a reached the point where citizens are questioning if democracy is really helping them attain a good quality of life. 

These far-reaching societal changes and the public disaffection they generate have been harnessed by populist leaders – using “negative emotions” as a lever for their success. The question today is: how can we revive public trust in democratic systems and ease growing polarisation? 

One answer might be found in Da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian man: putting people back at the centre: citizens are often closest to, and most knowledgeable of the problems they face. 

The increasing use of digital technologies has transformed the ways in which we interact with others, and how we produce and consume information. They have also shown an immense potential to revitalise a “citizen-powered” democracy, providing spaces to facilitate citizen interaction with decision-making processes and for their representatives to be more responsive to their needs. In this context, the term civic technology has rapidly gained traction and refers to technologies that are deployed to stimulate citizen engagement and enhance the provision of services. There are inspiring ways in which individuals are using technology to solve problems and drive societal change. The latter ranges from mapping public transport routes and reporting issues related to water and waste management in cities to crowdsourcing ideas for participatory budgeting and co-creating laws. Another approach to revitalise our democracies are citizens’ assemblies, a representative sample of randomly selected citizens that meet to learn about, deliberate on and make recommendations on a major policy question affecting their lives. 

Of course, we need to bear in mind that the questions of equality and human emotion hold an important place in discussions about reviving democracy. 

Digital divides are still a reality in many countries, hindering greater social inclusion and leaving behind those who do not have access to technology or the skills to use it. In addition, we need to be conscious that bringing together people from all “walks of life” is a big responsibility. Processes of deliberative democracy need to take place in informed and respectful environments where citizens have the time and the means to adequately express their opinion – moving from a vision of the citizen as a passive spectator of institutional responsibility to a citizen that feels part of the challenging project that is a healthy democracy. Finally, yet importantly, we should get better at integrating public emotion when we communicate comprehensive facts on the importance of well-functioning democratic systems. 

  • How can we ensure that individuals have the right opportunities, space and support to engage in the civic life of their communities?
  •  What type of initiatives can governments/IOs/businesses support to promote meaningful citizen participation? (Crowdsourcing of data, participatory budgeting, citizen assemblies etc.)
  •  How can we foster public ownership of civic technologies so they become representative tools to revive democracy?
  •  In a context of political polarisation and the weaponisation of information, do you think that digital literacy is a necessary pre-condition for a healthy democracy?
  •  How can we encourage people to reflect on the responsibilities and opportunities of being an “e-citizen”, considering the impact of their online and offline actions beyond the self on the larger collective?
  • How can we monitor whether online activism brings positive societal change in the offline world? Are we guilty of wanting to fix democracy in a quick, digital way?
  • Can we use positive emotions to strengthen democratic values, winning citizens’ “hearts and minds”?  

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OECD Forum 2019

Find out more about OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

OECD Forum 2019: World in EMotion

Banner image: Alison Donovan-Rouse on Unsplash

Nuria Villanova

Communication Campaigns Coordinator, OECD

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