E-Democracy: A Challenging Journey Towards the Digital Agora

Weather it’s seen as an essential tool of democratic participation, a mean of political pressure or an instrument that is complementary to representative democracy, in Italy, popoluar referendum has a long and sometimes tumultuous tradition. The most recent example in a long line is the CGIL’s proposal for a referendum to reintroduce Article 18. The union’s proposal/provocation was merely the latest to reignite the debate, not only on the policy issue itself but also on the “practices and customs” of referendums in Italy and their role within decision-making processes.

Although as old as the Constitution, the referendum tool has never seemed so relevant. The crisis of the representative system, linked to the dramatic abstentionism characterizing recent elections, has led many to wonder if the fresh vitality our democracies need might be found in a new and more extensive use of direct democracy tools.

This leads to another consideration: if we are to look to new forms of direct participation, we must consider the technological transformations that have changed everyone’s social and political lives. One can’t help but wonder if the future of democracy depends on its ability to adapt to evolving times.

Technological Development and Democratic Processes

We are certainly not the only ones asking these questions. Institutions themselves are questioning this topic. In recent months, there have been numerous parliamentary inquiries in both the Chamber and Senate, requesting clarifications from the Government on the ongoing delay in establishing a platform for collecting digital signatures for referendums and popular initiatives.

The platform’s journey and its implementation reflect a certain institutional distrust in using technology for public management. This is a crucial path to equip Italy with e-democracy tools that, when used appropriately, can strengthen mechanisms for public consultation.

The “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” of the United Nations, also signed by Italy, guarantees citizens the right to participate directly, through referendums and popular initiative laws, in the democratic and legislative process. Three years ago, in 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee condemned Italy (Comm.2656/2015) for the “unreasonable restrictions” that the regulatory framework on the referendum procedure, approved over 50 years ago (law 352/1970), places on the “right to participate” inherent in every democratic State.

With their decision, the United Nations officially highlighted Italy’s delay in implementing digital strategies and the persistence of concrete obstacles to activating an effective referendum institution. These include bureaucratic practices, high costs borne by initiative promoters, and an outdated system for signature authentication. All these factors slow down the modern use of the popular referendum and partially neutralize its effectiveness. The UN’s warning is reflected in the 2021 Budget Law, where the Italian Parliament adopted new rules on the referendum institution, aiming to make it more transparent, faster, and efficient through the establishment of a digital platform for signature collection.

This path aligns with the need to boost active civic participation and bridge the gap between citizens and decision-makers, strengthening democratic play. The introduction of the new digital tool was intended by legislators to bring a youthful renewal to the state and bridge the gap between Italy and more advanced countries. As indicated by the United Nations, it aims to provide “paths for referendum initiative promoters to authenticate signatures, collect signatures in spaces where citizens can be reached, and ensure that the population is adequately informed” about constitutional participation processes and rights/duties.

Despite the urgency to innovate an outdated legislative framework, the platform is not yet operational. The last two governments in office have not taken on the responsibility of unlocking the situation, effectively maintaining a status quo that delays the implementation of a rule closely tied to democratic affirmation.

The Debate: Technology as a Stimulus for Representative Democracies

Beyond the specific case, the attempt to address the deficit of participatory democracy through innovative technological tools falls within the widespread belief (and practice) that the crisis of modern democracies must be tackled by placing the individual citizen at the center of decisions, whether directly involved or represented by decision-makers. The Digital Administration Code itself states that the Italian State must promote the use of new technologies to “encourage greater citizen participation… in the democratic process and facilitate the exercise of both individual and collective political and civil rights.”

The debate on the potential role of technology in democratic practice has become predominant in recent years. Today, there is speculation about the form and value that democratic systems will take in the coming decades, especially considering their crisis. This trend cannot ignore how technological development will impact the institutional life of future democracies.

The introduction of the internet and networks has pervasively changed almost all aspects of our social interactions. The advent of platforms, social media, and the increasing accessibility to technological tools have forcefully raised the issue of e-democracy, a historical form of democracy in which “citizen participation in the activities of local public administrations and their decision-making processes” is guaranteed and stimulated “through the use of new communication technologies“.

At its core is the use of ICT technologies to open new dialogue spaces between citizens and political representatives, thereby strengthening or, in specific cases, replacing more traditional forms of participation.

The debate on the role of technology within the democratic process has been ongoing for decades, and e-democracy experiments are numerous and varied. Consider, for example, the emerging potential of Blockchain technology, which some believe could promote greater transparency and civic participation in the institutional and political life of modern democracies. The discussion is open, but the perspective that new forms of “technologically integrated democracy” are the future path for reviving faltering democratic mechanisms has been widely established, well beyond theoretical-philosophical debate.

Although the goal of e-democracy, whether participatory or direct, is to strengthen democratic principles, the increasing use of technology in decision-making processes is not without criticism and concerns.

The Danger of Hyper-Democratization

Some commentators believe that excessive use of ICT technologies in legislative processes would lead to the polarization of positions without the possibility of compromise, effectively stifling dialogue and blocking decision-making processes. Others see technology use as encouraging anti-politics and “hyper-democracy” marking the beginning of a “plebiscitary drift” that would hinder the proper functioning of institutions. As philosopher Alberto Burgio explained, history does not provide any examples of an entire population exercising sovereignty. A potential manifestation of this problem concerns the minimum threshold of signatures required to activate the abrogative referendum. The currently required 500,000 would, according to some, be proportionate only for “analog” collection. If transposed into the digital dimension, it would represent a small number of adherents, easily achievable, as happened with recent referendums on cannabis and end-of-life issues. This could lead to a sort of multiplication of referendum requests, favoring the “hyper-democratization” and legislative inefficiency that many fear when discussing digital democracy.

If managed inappropriately, technological development and its integration with democratic systems could lead to a sort of dominance by the demos, ultimately incapable of making considered and compromising decisions, both in the context of direct democracy, where the risk would be greater, and in the context of participatory democracy.

Stefano Rodotà, as early as 2009, in his famous article “Tecnopolitica”, lucidly illustrated the potential effects of technological development on public management. The jurist observed how information and communication technologies had the potential to give new forms to politics, but also to generate new risks. The challenge, therefore, is to ensure that the use of technology in the democratic process is not an end in itself but a means to achieve a more participatory and inclusive democracy.

Rodotà, however, noted that once the potential of integrating ICT into democratic processes was established, focus should be on the effects induced by the phenomenon of electronic democracy and on a possible dual outcome: on one hand, integration equates to more participation, but on the other, massive recourse to new digital tools could lead to the establishment of a “separate political sphere, which would assume mainly representative functions that traditional institutions would have lost, thus depriving them of strong legitimacy and emptying them of their historical role”.

The dichotomy is always lurking, and the issue remains unresolved. The opportunity to revive participatory democracy and the risk of citizens turning to new spaces for deliberation and new means of democratic organization, which isn’t necessarily a positive development, are the two sides of a double-edged phenomenon.

Despite doubts and criticisms, it’s undeniable that a measured use of technology within democratic mechanisms can stimulate political and civic participation. Successful cases, such as those in the municipalities of Barcelona and Reykjavik, where citizens are extensively involved in decision-making processes, prove this.

Participation and Representation: Two Sides of the Same Coin

The space created by the network, defined by Rodotà as “the largest public space humanity has ever known“, has triggered the involvement of peripheral or marginalized realities from public life, and political movements born in the internet era have strengthened the position of citizens vis-à-vis decision-makers (Castells, 2015).

If viewed from a participatory perspective, the network can improve modern democracies. The decision to establish a digital platform for managing popular referendums goes in this direction, giving back to an often silent majority the right to intervene in political life, opening new dialogue spaces. 

Just as happened with the Public Debate tool, introduced into the Italian legal system with reference to major infrastructure works, it is now the duty of the state apparatus to respond to the increasing participatory needs that are emerging. Inspired by the French Débat Public model, the tool, as the name suggests, promotes a real public debate, made up of information and discussion meetings, to gather the positions of civil society in the context of the realization of particularly impactful infrastructure works. The principle, therefore, that greater accessibility to decision-making processes corresponds to stronger democracies has already been attested to at the regulatory level several times, and today, the continuation of the debate in this direction cannot ignore the new possibilities also offered by technological development.

From this perspective, activating a platform for referendums for citizens should be a goal of the institutions themselves and all the protagonists of the country’s political life. A common interest goal to stimulate new forms of participation based also on web democracy which, if used well, can become a guarantee of inclusion in decision-making processes.