Transforming Political Parties: Unlocking Digital to Strengthen Internal Democracy
November 16, 2023
Contributor: Weronika Paszewska
Political parties often find it difficult to implement practices to better engage their supporters and involve members in decision making. In this article, we introduce activities we champion at Tectonica that are connected to organising practices and which can both enhance member engagement and promote greater internal democracy.
At Tectonica, we often find ourselves assisting political parties in identifying and implementing strategies to enhance engagement among party members and supporters, and transform parties’ practices from communication-based into mobilisation and true political organising. One of our primary goals is to empower members by giving them a stronger voice in the decision-making processes. This can be a challenge, as it requires a fine balance between established organisational structures and culture alongside an understanding of the dynamic nature of member involvement.
In conceptualising this work, Tectonica is known among its clients for popularising an approach from our Five-part framework for digital organising that distinguishes between types of activities that organisations and parties conduct with their members and supporters. This framework details the range of activities that can be classified as communication, mobilisation, and organising. In this blogpost I am going to cover some activities of political parties that are connected to organising practices that represent the intention for decentralisation of decisions. Some of these activities will be on the edge between mobilisation and organising as the focus here is to strengthen the internal democracy of political parties and the level of engagement among members and supporters.
At Tectonica, as we begin the journey with clients of enhancing engagement, and distributing and decentralising power and processes, we are always acutely aware of our clients’ surroundings and their expectations towards increasing both perceived and actual power. For political parties (and unions), the size of their membership is probably the most common measurement of strength. It is a frequent KPI that we establish in our work with clients, alongside an electoral win. Membership growth has become especially challenging in recent years as the idea of membership is less and less appealing, particularly for younger generations who are less receptive to the concept of formalising their relationship with institutions.
From our perspective, concentration on growing one’s membership base shouldn’t be abandoned. This is an obvious step in the engagement journey for supporters and despite trends in declining membership, members are and will always be part of political parties’ power.
At the same time, membership numbers should never be the sole or primary focus of engagement efforts coming from formalised institutions like political parties. Furthermore, the simple stock-piling of resources often reflects a concentration on increasing the size of mailing lists, achieving fundraising results, or expanding social media reach, which will lead to short-term impressive numbers but is unlikely to have a long-term effect on an institution’s impact on the outside world. For a political party, the goal should be to have active and dedicated participation combined with alignment on values and strategy. Mutual accountability and strong internal democracy lead to lasting political power, change and external impact. This power can come from either formalised membership or a fluid supporter base, which is increasingly common nowadays as parties are moving toward more diverse engagement models and also lower thresholds for party connection. (The definition of membership models, along with their pros and cons, could be a separate blog post.)
For many parties that are not brand new institutions, this journey of transformation towards more open, transparent, distributed, and decentralised structures serves an important purpose as organisations seek to be more representative and inclusive. This also takes time and has its own learning path as institutions need to transform their internal culture which never is a fast process.
The first step that we often recommend, and believe is a good step towards establishing the groundwork for building stronger relationships and making more informed decisions, is conducting more in-depth surveys among members. Our recent experience from working with political parties in Europe proofed that surveys are a good starting point that do not have many surprises and help institutions to experiment with new forms of engagement safely. Obviously, this is just a first step among many things that could be done in the area of participation.
The advantages of surveys are:
- Increased diversification of engagement opportunities for members.
- Sets the stage for higher engagement.
- Results in having more information and insights about members, and having data that can lead to more informed decisions.
- Establishes two ways communication where members bring input, provide opinions, and offer suggestions.
- Creates trust through respectful relationships (if done properly).
Surveys are just a tiny first step, although an important one if institutions are able to implement them without stepping into some common mistakes. There are some risks and traps in running surveys that from a long-term perspective might diminish this tactic within an institution and among its members:
- An artificial framing of questions that only provides an illusion of meaningful participation and in fact, just confirms the intentions of leadership.
- Overly general questions that have no connection with decisions taken at the party’s headquarters.
- Providing open-ended questions and not dedicating time to analysing responses to them, so input is not seen and taken into account.
- An imbalance between meaningful questions for supporter input and collecting data about them that will be used for segmentation and personalisation of communication (i.e. age, location, household situation, occupation, income etc.).
- Lack of transparency with results - not publishing them at all or hiding results that are against the grain of leadership.
- Lack of feedback loops with supporters and members about how results are used to inform and affect decisions.
Follow-up communication with supporters encourages engagement by providing validation of actions taken, strengthening the relationship, and promoting a feeling of being part of the community. It can also open additional opportunities to take further actions (if reporting back communication mobilises supporters to take further steps).
The next natural step, that our clients often consider after implementing successful surveys, is to introduce and organise digital referendums among their members. Referendums can be made on various topics like making strategic decisions, considerations on forming political coalitions, voting on candidates for local, national, and EU elections, voting on party representatives and members of various bodies, or even expelling party members, among many others.
While referendums are definitely the most popular type of online decision-making process, as they are straightforward to implement and also very easy with regards to participation, they are just one of many other areas that could be supported by digital tools and work towards strengthening the internal democracy of political parties. Other areas are:
Crowdsourcing of policies
- Submission of proposals, discussions on concrete legal solutions.
- Co-creation of legal documents - through collaborative writing and working through comments.
- Decision-making processes that go beyond simple yes or no votes - preferential voting, ranking etc.
- Hybrid processes including in-person meetings with members to allow exchange of perspective and ongoing relationship-building combined together with asynchronous online exchange (through tools like Loomio for example).
Those deliberative processes, which are rooted in discussion and also much more time-consuming (for both preparation and participation), are understandably less popular. At the same time, at Tectonica we believe that they are worth the effort. Treating surveys and referendums as stepping stones towards more deliberative democratic processes is a good direction that we advocate for.
One reason for this approach is highlighted in Paolo Gerbaudo’s book “The Digital Party”, based on his analysis of various case studies. He identifies several pitfalls and shortcomings of referendums, such as:
- Asking participants to express an opinion on something that has already been decided by leadership.
- Strong control over the referendum process from the leadership leads to a majority of members confirming leadership choices.
- There is a significant drop in participation over time.
- Membership engagement is mostly reactive.
- Referendums can be strongly influenced by party leadership of the party through control of communications with members and biassed design.
Increasing distrust in institutions and representative democracy creates a need for opening civic spaces to allow input and participation on a more regular basis. Political parties can choose between various options on the path to decentralising their decision-making processes, expanding the group of people who provide input into decisions, and tapping into the collective wisdom and expertise of their members. This is definitely not an easy task to implement. Luckily, in 2023, we can learn from the experience of a few parties who have already taken some steps, achieved some successes, and also made some mistakes on this path. We recommend reading “The Digital Party” for insightful case studies on this topic.
“If online democracy has to regain some credibility, it is imperative that its process is seriously reformed, introducing a number of guarantee rules, starting from assigning the management of all consultations to a party body independent from the leadership and trusted by the membership.”
- Paolo Gerbaudo, "Digital Party”
Do you have any thoughts or questions regarding running surveys, referendums or other forms of digital-based engagement inside political parties that strengthens internal democracy? We would love to hear from you. Please share it through TON Slack or reach out to [email protected]
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