From Every Four Years to Every Day: Time to Upgrade Democracy

In the European Union, trust in public institutions is at a low, and attractive answers to political challenges have become scarce. Many fear that political leaders with false promises, right wing radicals, or simple political adventures can further spread anti-democratic governance and hijack countries with fragile institutions. There are already many patterns for them to follow: my country, Hungary, is just one of them.

However, the real threat to democracy is not these politicians - they are just indicators of our problems. We have reached a point in history again, where those who are in possession of wealth, technology, and power have become disconnected from those who are the essence of every system: the citizens. While technologies have completely reshaped the way our societies work, how we process information, and how we interact with each other, democracies have not managed to keep up with this change in extending our rights, improving governance, and increasing participation.

Especially now, good governments are needed more than ever. Not everybody benefits from economic openness, the achievements of digitalization, and new technologies in the same way. Inequality around the globe and within societies is extreme and causes extreme tensions. Citizens are lost in the tsunami of information that they have to digest on a daily basis, and public institutions barely serve as a beacon for them.

We can order an Uber, hire a new maid, or rent a flat for the weekend anywhere in the world in twenty seconds, but we have no similarly-developed tools to protect the rights of drivers or cleaning personnel, or assist those who cannot rent a flat at affordable prices. Where is the e-labor union app that would connect us with others facing the same issues?

Let’s take a look at how elections in our countries work. Still the old story, paper ballots with unfamiliar candidates and only being asked about our opinions every four or five years. It is ridiculous that governments have drones that can find and eliminate a person on another continent, or that manufacturers can now build self-driving cars that will make moral decisions (instead of us), while citizens are left behind with the rights and political processes that were established fifty years ago.

Citizens need to gain greater ownership over public institutions, and should have more rights and possibilities to participate in decisions that affect their lives. This won’t happen from one day to the other, but responsive public services, accessible and understandable spending data, and participatory local governance are all steps in the right direction. Once we get used to having a say and participating, we could hardly give up these rights. Once democracy is not only something we learn about in school and then practice every four years, but is part of our everyday lives, it will become deeply integrated in our societies. We now see that this fundamental belief is missing from many countries in Central Eastern Europe, and how certain political forces benefit from that.

Closed societies based on authoritarian rule, fear, corruption, and unequal access to common resources cannot compete in the long run with champions of transparent and efficient public spending, well-functioning public administration, and vivid civic participation.

OGP is the best possible organization to foster these processes. At its core is the principle of co-creation between governments and civil society, allowing progress tailored to its participants. Despite ups and downs in cooperation and enforcement, civil society’s strong role allows for many commitments to be pushed to their boundaries, and that implementation of those commitments is thoroughly monitored. While we often focus on the direct impact of commitments, there is also something else we should value about them: every implemented commitment will become a little anchor of openness and democracy.

Authors: Sandor Lederer