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Can digital platforms create more democratic parliaments?

Whether digital technologies could make the legislative process more democratic is a question that deserves attention. While commercial social media platform dynamics increasingly challenge the quality of public debate, when it comes to enacting laws – before the COVID19 crisis – parliaments worldwide continued to rely almost exclusively on traditional face-to-face interactions for law-making.

In our recent article, published in Politics, we examined the democratic potential of Senador Virtual, a web platform that for more than 16 years had been hosted inside the Chilean Senate official website. On this site, people can vote and give comments on selected bills under discussion at different Senate commissions.

It is hard to evaluate how democratic an online platform can be, which is why we analyzed the potential of a technology to produce a democratic outcome or to be perceived to produce it. According to the definition of democratic affordance, we understand an outcome to be democratic when the platform favors participation and deliberation among participants in the discussion of the laws.

Our research shows that the platform gave rise to five latent democratic affordances which are not always fully leveraged because of the existence of organizational constrains or the lack of human competences for systematizing individuals’ contributions. Among these democratic affordances, three had already been discussed within the CrowdLaw literature: 1) capture a variety of viewpoints; 2) generate insights that illuminate the lawmaking process; and 3) serve as a device for communication between citizens and senators. Notwithstanding, we also found two additional affordances not normally attributed to crowdsourcing: 4) create a civilized public forum; and 5) foster civility among the users that engage with it.

It is important to mention that the Crowdlaw is a type of crowdsourcing in which individuals are required to take part in any of the phases of the lawmaking process. But unlike other crowdsourcing initiatives, it is a tech-based experience that works inside an institution of government or parliament.

Based on our research of this Crowdlaw platform, we suggest that in order for these affordances to be fully leveraged, the CrowdLaw process must be designed to complement traditional law-making processes, which means to institutionalize the participation in the platform, incorporating it into the lawmaking process and adding a reliable methodology for processing citizen input. Only when the above is accomplished will this technological facilitator produce actual democratic outcomes. These initiatives are urgent to foster healthy public debates and the smart uses of technologies that can help institutionalize participation to counteract the risky trends we perceive nowadays.

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