Oct. 1, 2020
This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, capped by the March on Washington on Aug. 28, have inspired a massive shift in public opinion. Support for the movement has increased over 30 percent since 2017, now shared by as much as two-thirds of the American public. But heightened national sympathy and scrutiny have not protected unarmed Black people from police shootings—just last month, a policeman fired seven shots into Jacob Blake’s back. In order to reduce systemic inequalities and racially biased police violence, protesters must not only shift attitudes on race but also spur substantive policy change.
Despite the movement’s early policy victories, such as the D.C. City Council’s passage of emergency policing reform and $100 million budget cuts to the L.A. Police Department announced by Mayor Eric Garcetti, proposals to bring more accountability to policing and redirect resources to community-based social programs have stalled—both in the U.S. Senate and in progressive strongholds like California. The disconnect between shifting opinions and rigid legislatures highlights an opportunity for progressives to demand new governing systems that are more responsive to citizens. Digital tools can help citizens organize online and pressure politicians to negotiate and break gridlock on important issues. These civic participation platforms could empower citizens with greater agency in the policymaking process and enhance traditional forms of civic activism.
Taiwan’s grassroots Sunflower Movement provides a useful example of how civic movements can champion digital technology to accomplish their objectives. In 2014, Taiwanese students occupied the national legislature to protest a lack of government accountability that resulted in an unpopular free trade deal with Beijing. Activists argued that the allotted seven-day public comment period left no time for substantive public debate on such an important topic, and public frustration catalyzed a reform movement that advocated for greater transparency and citizen agency in the policymaking process. Near-constant livestreaming of the protests earned broad popular support for the movement, and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party incorporated government transparency and the use of digital civic participation tools into its campaign platform. After the DPP won elections in 2016, the party enacted a slew of initiatives and created Cabinet ministry positions to mandate online civic participation as a phase of the policymaking process.
One community of civic-oriented programmers active in the Sunflower Movement named g0v (pronounced “gov-zero”) assembled a collection of open source programs to build vTaiwan, a hybrid online and in-person deliberation process. VTaiwan has a broad set of features that help citizens, government agencies, and civil society reach agreements on contentious issues. The process allows users to transparently propose policies and crowdsource facts, facilitate public discussion, deliberate with key stakeholders, and draft suggested changes.
Digital tools can help citizens organize online and pressure politicians to negotiate and break gridlock on important issues.
VTaiwan’s public discussion phase uses a program called Pol.is to accelerate negotiation and consensus-building between disparate factions. Pol.is enables users to comment on posted topics and either upvote or downvote other comments while preventing replies to existing comments. These features disincentivize trolling on the platform and encourage participants to find consensus viewpoints that earn the highest number of upvotes. Pol.is also uses machine learning and statistical inferences to map how comments appeal to distinct clusters of users. Data visualizations can identify areas of agreement to help participants make progress on seemingly intractable differences.
Digital civic participation has increased Taiwanese political engagement and facilitated rational online debate on divisive policy issues. Pol.is allowed local taxi drivers, UberX drivers, and the broader public to overcome a contentious dispute about Uber’s entry into Taiwan’s taxi industry. The platform uncovered common ground between these opposing camps and led to the ratification of the Diversified Taxi Plan in 2016. A similar process brokered a solution to a six-year debate about online liquor sales in less than six months. Just five years since its inception, vTaiwan has helped negotiate a total of 26 legislative proposals, and has since become an indispensable tool for integrating citizens directly into the policymaking process.
Inspired by the success of vTaiwan, public officials created a government-managed platform called Join, which hosts debates from nearly 5 million Taiwanese on a range of critical issues crowdsourced by citizens. One of the most consequential aspects of Join is its institutional mandate. Join requires public officials from relevant ministries to deliver on-record, public responses to proposals that receive 5,000 signatures. By ensuring that popular petitions receive a documented response, Join’s mandate bridges the gap between civil society and the legislative process. Join gives citizens an opportunity to translate good ideas into real policy proposals and transforms what might otherwise be a civic-oriented discussion board into a vehicle for direct democracy.
In 2011, the Obama administration implemented a similar petition-response system with a minimum threshold of 100,000 signatures. The system, WeThePeople, pressured the Obama White House to clarify its stance on police body cameras and a range of other issues.
WeThePeople also drove legislation to alleviate copyright restrictions that prevented individuals from accessing their phone’s firmware. However, because the Obama administration created WeThePeople as a discretionary policy, successive administrations are not required to maintain the platform. The Trump administration provided only seven halfhearted petition responses before it stopped engaging with the public through WeThePeople altogether.
Today, in Taiwan, both political parties support Join and vTaiwan as valued democratic institutions. The Black Lives Matter Movement shares a host of similarities with the Sunflower Movement, including grassroots youth leadership, broad popular support, and a focus on forging new roles for marginalized voices in the policymaking process. Black Lives Matter activists now have an opportunity to create comparable momentum for online civic participation by using their platforms to broadcast the importance of citizen-led governance and the promise of civic participation software.
Absent a landslide victory for the Democratic Party in 2020, civic participation platforms may not soon be feasible at the federal level, but Black Lives Matter organizers should consider pushing cities and states to institute these systems. There are a number of advantages to this approach. Police budgets are largely determined at the local level, making them critical targets for activists seeking to reallocate policing resources toward more inclusive, productive programs. Many municipal governments are also progressive strongholds composed of politicians seeking to rebuild trust with Black communities that have been historically excluded from the policymaking process. These politicians could champion accountable governance as a key tenet of a new political agenda and leverage public pressure generated by online civic engagement to drive overhauls to policing. Beginning at the local level would also allow laboratories of democracy to demonstrate the organizing power that civic participation platforms provide and generate a broad-based coalition of citizens that demands more responsive institutions at all levels of government.
Though civic participation platforms are not new innovations, the current swell of activism in the U.S. makes the current moment opportune for online civic engagement. If leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement seize this opportunity successfully, protesters may have a better chance of seeing the policies they are demanding on the street enacted into law. In the long run, digital civic participation could underpin a new relationship between citizens and their elected representatives and establish a new, accountable democratic process fit for the 21st century.