todayIvote is a start-up which describes itself as a ‘civic engagement platform about laws in the making’. According to Erik de Boisgrollier, the company’s founder, todayIvote is about improving citizens' trust in democracy by using modern information technologies to bring citizens closer to the law-making process. The mobile platform for democratic engagement currently being developed by todayIvote will allow citizens to be aware, to be informed and to voice their opinions on bills being debated in their country’s legislative institutions.
todayIvote is part of a recent development in which web-based applications are increasingly used to engage citizens in democratic decision-making processes. These include the German voting advice application Wahl-O-Mat, which in the 2019 general election provided information about the positioning of parties, candidates and platforms on key issues to more than 13 million voters, and Vote Smart in the United States, which provides extensive information on the voting record, on the electoral financial support and on politicians’ speeches.
Andreas Albertsen (University of Aarhus) from the REDEM project talks with Erik de Boisgrollier about the plans for the todayIvote project.
Albertsen: Why is there a need for todayIvote?
De Boisgrollier: There is a growing disconnect between the pace of our daily lives and the pace of political life. Today people express their opinions all the time and more than ever, using ratings, comments, and likes. But when it comes to the new laws which shape the direction their country is taking, there are few means to have a direct say. As a citizen I will vote for my country's lawmakers between 15 to 20 times in my life. If I am not satisfied with my choice, I will have to wait for the next election. In between all I can do is protest. With a population far more educated than 75 years ago and far more connected, this seems outdated and it leads to frustration and dissatisfaction with democracy. People have access to all sorts of information, all the time, everywhere. But when we ask them what laws are being decided upon right now in their country, they cannot really tell. todayIvote is looking to address this by allowing citizen to get informed and have a say on laws in the making.
Albertsen: What is todayIvote trying to achieve?
De Boisgrollier: We want to bring the information about laws in the making to citizens using their favourite device: the mobile phone.
We also want them to have a say with the same mechanism they use for “liking” online content, without a need to be experts. I could “like” online the picture of a dish that looks good, even without being a professional cook, why should I just not simply ”like” or ”dislike” a bill the same way?
Finally, as there is no progress without measure, we will measure the alignment or gap between citizens and their representatives in terms of their support for bills. If a population mistrusts its representatives, is that driven by a lack of good representation, by a lack of common understanding, or by unawareness? Understanding this is key to taking the right actions, both by voters and politicians.
Albertsen: You plan to start out in France. How will you provide people with the relevant information?
De Boisgrollier: To stay as impartial as possible, we will use official content. Most bills come with a summary that is used to present the laws to other representatives. This is a useful starting point. We will learn over time whether more or less information is needed.
As bills can be complex and a summary might not be enough for one to forge an opinion, we would like lawmakers to leave comments on bills and to explain where they stand and why. Comments of this nature would help citizens to make up their mind.
Albertsen: What are your expectations regarding citizen engagement? Apart from increasing participation in shaping emerging legislation, is one of your long-range objectives to actually sensitize citizen to political life and thus to have a more politically pro-active population?
De Boisgrollier: Yes. I believe that if we manage to increase the scale and frequency at which people can speak up and are involved, this should relieve some of the “anger” towards politics and help fight the “protest vote” that often goes against everybody’s best interests. In the past years, we have seen steps back driven by protest votes in many countries.
Albertsen: What are your expectations regarding politicians’ and lawmakers’ reactions and responses? To what extent do you expect them to be concerned about citizen opinions and demands on legislation being prepared?
De Boisgrollier: We will have to give lawmakers more information than just the “likes” and “do not likes” of a population about a bill summary.
Firstly, a lot of bills (if not all) are presented for the “good of the citizens” and they often receive good support. But the reality is that not all bills are feasible, acceptable or desirable in the form in which they are proposed. Having citizens express their opinions on a bill would be a first step to assess its priority.
Secondly, when a bill is before parliament, representatives amend it to best reflect the interest of their constituents. At that time, they need citizens' input. We want to give them a panel of citizens, representative for their location, age or occupation, which they can reach on a regular basis to ask simple questions that would help shape amendments. Finally, the meaning of “like” vs “dislike” could be far richer than it looks when broken down by the postcode, the age, and the occupation of the respondents, and by measuring how respondents' opinions evolve from one bill to the other.
Albertsen: Given the possible impact of your initiative on citizen and politicians alike, what changes do you expect in political life, from the point where legislation is formulated, debated, amended all the way to its adoption?
De Boisgrollier: People disengaged with politics are mostly disengaged with the form, but not so much with the content. If we offer a new form, I should hope that citizens will consume more information about legislation than they do today and that this will foster additional engagement. It would be a huge change in society, as representatives alone cannot make steps towards all citizens, but each citizen can make a step towards their representative.
Albertsen: How does todayIvote’s approach build on and differ from other organizations aiming to achieve civic engagement by helping citizens become aware and understand the latest legislation proposed and debated by lawmakers?
De Boisgrollier: Getting people to know about laws in the making and “react” to them might seem simplistic, but I see it as the first stage of engaging citizens in providing feedback on bills. Deeper forms of feedback, via elaborated citizens comments on bills or face to face meetings between representatives and citizens, are efficient ways of shaping the content of a bill. But they do not compensate for the need to engage with a broader audience to increase collective trust in democracy.
Few existing solutions offer a say during the law-making process and most require going through detailed information on websites, best viewed on a computer as opposed to a phone. Even when citizens have the option of leaving comments, the sheer size of the effort required from lawmakers to process, synthesize and react to them is overwhelming. That is why we want to start with a “low-effort” citizens contribution, such as “liking”, based on summarized information and annotations from representatives accessible from mobile devices.
Albertsen: We know that the uses of technologies are often, at least initially, unequally distributed across the population. Do you see this as representing a risk towards a biased input into the electoral process?
De Boisgrollier: I see this risk in a completely different way. Over the course of the last 15 years, billions of people adopted the use of the same devices, the same tools and now communicate the same way. And that trend keeps going year after year. The risk is that of neglecting this trending and of failing to leverage it.
Albertsen: Assuming that the technology you propose would be adopted by a statistically representative distribution within a population, is there a chance that vested interests will still play a disproportionate role? Let’s say that 10% of the population is strongly opposed to a particular law, while the rest of the population supports the law but does not consider the issue important. Would you be concerned that those with a strong interest in the bill would primarily try to shape the vote via the technology you are developing, thus leading to a biased result?
De Boisgrollier: The same challenge occurs in traditional voting. Simplifying the process needed for participation could help rally people with a lesser interest, which could help achieve a realistic opinion representation. With targeted mobile notifications we could let people know that “something is happening”, thus increasing the urgency to take part or be part of a broader opinion expression movement.
Albertsen: Is there a risk for interest groups hijacking the app? Consider, for example, the case of a union nudging all of their members to support/oppose a law?
De Boisgrollier: This is already happening through protests and demonstrations which are often triggered by organised sub-groups. The message is then picked up by a larger group. A significant segment of the population remains “silent”, and their individual voice is not heard.
Our platform will not prevent groups from taking organised action, and no system should prevent it. However, it will ensure that the voice of people who would not necessarily engage in any form of union is also heard. Collectively these voices would be the union of those having no union.
Albertsen: One stated purpose of the app is to provide politicians with a valuable overview of the public opinion. I suppose though that timing is of essence for that information to be useful. Before something is proposed as law, there are political negotiations to produce a draft. After the parties agree, the law is moving on to the legislative chamber. At what point in this process do you believe that citizens will be able to express their opinion? Might this opinion arrive too late?
De Boisgrollier: Our recent discussions with representatives and their staff highlighted the need for politicians to collect citizens' feedback starting with the ideation of a bill, continuing to its draft, throughout the debate and voting and all the way to its implementation in real life. Through the app we want representatives to trigger questions from citizens, at any time. These questions may complement existing consultation processes used by representatives and give them a far greater reach than what they used to be able to achieve. We will also send notifications to citizens, to prime them to provide timely input, and we plan to encourage users to express their position on past bills, as this will help assess where they position themselves in relation to their representative.
Albertsen: Is there a risk that the agenda-setting will remain in the hands of politicians? There are issues relevant and important to citizens which, however, are not picked up by legislators despite the desire of a majority of the population to have them considered.
De Boisgrollier: Representatives are supposed to drive the agenda and it is up to them to make it relevant for citizens. As mentioned, the app will allow representatives to reach out to users at any time with short polls that would help shape ideas. More complex interactions with citizens, such as in-depth workshops intended to ‘build’ a bill in collaboration with citizens, would have to be conducted outside of the application, and many solutions to support such interactions exist today.
Albertsen: Erik, thank you so much for sharing your views with us and good luck in bringing the app into real life action.
De Boisgrollier: Thank you for inviting me.