By Hendrik Nahr and Elisa Lironi*
“Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.” This quote, attributed to Otto von Bismarck, appears to be slightly outdated nowadays since democratic decision making has gotten more transparent since the late 1800s. Yet, there is still a mismatch between administrations, legislators, and citizens when it comes to communication and representation.
To see why, not only political scientific research (e.g. Reiser 2016) but also public debates about it consider the missing links between politicians and citizens (as covered for example by The Independent 2015).
Fortunately, several strategies and wide-ranging opportunities aim to address this problem: from interactions between politicians and citizens on social media to citizens’ dialogues and public consultations. The surge of digital innovation opened up new possibilities for governments to (re)connect citizens with public decision making (Grazian & Nahr 2020). One of these tools being Crowdsourcing, which allows for policy co-creation and is one of the most promising examples in this trend.
Crowdsourcing is “an online, distributed, problem-solving and production model that leverages the collective intelligence of online communities to serve specific organisational goals” (Brabham 2008).
At European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), a member of the DEMOS project, we have spearheaded experimental research in this area. Beyond existing consultation processes, ECAS has been striving to bring forward crowdsourcing legislation at the beginning of policy cycles. In such cases, citizens can directly contribute to setting policy agendas before these turn into law.
ECAS is conducting research, carrying out pilot projects for DEMOS and other Europe-wide projects (such as CODE Europe - a transnational crowdsourcing pilot project on air quality in Europe) using Crowdsourcing applications. Most of our studies in the field focus on the potential of (digital) participatory mechanisms in Europe.
Our experience has shown that Crowdsourcing brings several benefits to democracy. By participating more in policy processes, citizens contribute to boosting representativeness, political legitimacy and trust – and not only do they learn how policymaking works, but also feed an innovative loop of ideas to tackle societal problems.
Most notably, crowdsourcing can help protect liberal democracies against populist actions that are built “on a single cleavage, adversarial politics and majoritarianism” (Pappas, 2014)”; liberal democracies are based on “multiple cleavages, an overlapping consensus and constitutionalism” (Pappas, 2014). It does so by:
- Favouring multiple cleavages: people do not have to position themselves on one single bipolar range of opinions.
- Establishing overlapping consensus: when joining the platform, all citizens agree on the underlying rules.
- Giving participants a voice: crowdsourcing is non-majoritarian by default and does not build on clear majoritarian rules of 50% or more but on the exchange of ideas.
The DEMOS consortium carried out many research activities to better understand populism. At DEMOS, we want to go a step further and provide evidence-based solutions that policymakers can consider in order to safeguard liberal democracy. It is crucial that these solutions consider what citizens think. Crowdsourcing is an excellent tool to help strengthen research findings and connect academic scholars with citizens.
With the results of the DEMOS Crowdsourcing exercise, we combine academic expertise with citizens’ views to formulate policy ideas that ensure sustainable democratic societies. The platform collects citizen’s views on three topics that were identified as particularly relevant when researching populism:
- Participation: Populist politicians often criticise governments for not representing the true interests of the people. New ways of participation, such as participatory budgeting, could strengthen ties between citizens and decision-makers.
- Minorities: Many populist politicians use hostile language towards minority groups. Mechanism to protect minorities could prevent them from being marginalised.
- Media: In the last few years, the relationship between politics, journalism and citizens is constantly adapting to technological innovation. This has led to an increasing number of news channels for information, but also fragmentation and rising distrust of professional media outlets.
The Crowdsourcing consists of three steps: (1) Carrying out research to understand what topics are particularly impacted by populism on the one hand and proposing solutions on the other hand. This step has already been carried out by the DEMOS academics. (2) Collecting citizens' views and opinions about the suggested solutions. This step is currently put in action. (3) Formulating recommendations and policy proposals based on the research and citizens’ feedback. This step will be implemented after the closure of the Crowdsourcing platform.
The final step distinguishes our Crowdsourcing initiative from other tools like surveys or polling exercises: we provide citizens with the power to actively shape and influence the final recommendations. Based on that, we invite you to join the crowdsourcing exercise.
Ultimately, tools and ideas to better engage citizens in public policy making will contribute to more inclusive and more transparent societies. At DEMOS, we are looking forward to keeping working on these matters and to analyse the related outcomes.
In the best of cases, eventually, those efforts could make Bismarck’s claim completely obsolete: whilst the production of sausages might remain a mystery to many – laws can be done publicly and in a cooperative manner. Crowdsourcing is definitely one of the future mechanisms that should be systematically implemented in policymaking. However, opening legislative processes and increasing collaboration with citizens needs a political buy-in.
Read more about ECAS's work on Crowdsourcing
- “Crowdsourcing EU Legislation: Harnessing the Power of Digital Democracy“ (Lironi 2021),
- “Towards a Crowdsourcing Pilot at the EU level: Taking Decisions with Citizens and Not for Them” (Kavrakova & Lironi 2018),
- “Harnessing Digital Tools to Revitalize European Democracy” (Lironi 2018),
- “EU public consultations in the digital age: Enhancing the role of the EESC and civil society organisations” (Lironi & Peta 2017),
- “Potential and Challenges of E-Participation in the European Union” (Lironi 2017).
About the Authors
* Hendrik Nahr is the European Democracy Outreach Coordinator at the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS). He supports the implementation of diverse projects, ranging from research to the practical application of citizen engagement tools. Hendrik is also responsible for the outreach and dissemination strategy of the European Democracy focus area. ECAS is a project partner in DEMOS.
* Elisa Lironi is the Senior Manager European Democracy, working at the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) since 2015. She develops and leads ECAS’ European Democracy focus area by implementing EU projects and research studies related to Digital Democracy, Civic Engagement and Populism. ECAS is a project partner in DEMOS.