What do we mean when we talk about "The citizen at the center"?
By Lucas Jolías, Ana Castro y Jesús Cepeda
A little bit of context
The history of democracy is the history of how to combine ideals and values into concrete institutions, rules, and practices. The tensions that have arisen over centuries have not only to do with theoretical discussions and agreeing on what democracy means for each person, but also with how we transform those values into rules and processes of everyday political life. One may agree that democracy involves citizen participation in government decisions and yet not agree on whether that participation will be through rules of absolute or simple majority, whether it will be imperative or consultative, or whether that participation will be mandatory or voluntary. Furthermore, the main conflict is how we transform those ideals into concrete practices and not so much the ideals themselves. For a quality democracy, both practices and institutions as well as the values and mechanisms that democracy represents are important; one cannot exist without the other.
In that long history of discussions about values and practices, democracy has been constantly transforming. Regardless of whether we are satisfied or not with its results, democracy is never a stagnant process but evolves and changes along with other social processes. Just looking at the idea and practice of democracy in the early 20th century shows how much things have changed in 100 years. The central question today is how the internet and new technologies impact current democratic systems and the crisis of current democratic systems. Some events of the last few years give us a clue.
The social movements and global protests of the last two decades not only show us the power that new technologies have given people to organize without formal organizations, but also point to a change in legitimacy regarding democratic exercise. In a comparative analysis of student protests in Chile and the Spanish Indignados, Javier Sajuria (2013) shows us how there is an adaptation between the ideal that protesters have about democracy and their vision of how the internet works. If his hypothesis is correct, then we are witnessing a new change in the legitimacy of what democracy should be. This change is again influenced (among many others) by innovations in communication technologies, by new tools. The ideal of understanding the internet as a decentralized network, where each individual has the possibility of expressing themselves outside of large media or organizations, merges with an ideal of democracy in which every citizen can express their preferences without intermediaries.
Although we all know that in reality, the internet is not so decentralized or "democratic," what matters are the social imaginaries about this phenomenon. If Sajuria's work is correct, then there is a family resemblance between the democratic ideal that protesters possess and their imaginary about the "network of networks." Making a simplification, we could say that protesters demand that democracy resemble a little more the imaginary of how the internet works (open, decentralized, without intermediaries, in real-time, etc.). Another cause of citizen dissatisfaction with democracy (and governments in general) has to do with expectations regarding the delivery of services.
"The citizen at the center"
While the private sector has sophisticated its services to the point where we can buy an item from the other side of the world and have it at our doorstep in just a few hours or days, the public sector has not advanced at the same speed. Citizens expect services to be real-time, customized, and personalized, but when interacting with the public sector, this is not the case, which has generated a deep dissatisfaction with the public sector and its ability to resolve or arbitrate social problems (Berggruen Institute 2020). Obviously, this also affects our perception of democracy: casting a vote and then giving our evaluation again 4 years later does not match the real-time, personalized experience we have in other aspects of our lives. In the words of Audrey Tang, Taiwan's Digital Minister, we need to increase the "democratic bit rate", that is, our governments need to adapt to citizens' expectations and not the other way around. To do this, we need to change the paradigm of data governance, from centralization, or rather, notarization of trust, and, above all, what it means to be a citizen and have ownership of assets and documents. We need to evolve the citizen-government relationship and move towards a state that has citizens at the center of its operations.
Moving towards a citizen-centered government means changing the current governance of digital identity. Identity models fall into the golden rule of bureaucracy: silos of information. Each organization issues a digital identity credential to a citizen to allow them to access their services. Each user needs a new digital identity credential for each new organization they engage with. Generally, this provides a poor user experience. Just remember all the public organization portals that we have had to register for (municipalities, federal and national governments, universities, tax authorities, etc.) and create new usernames and passwords. Anyone familiar with the public function will say that this is because it is very difficult for different organizations, federal and with similar legitimacy, to cooperate with each other. The interoperability problem is not technical but political-administrative. However, this is true in part because there is a prior cause that runs through the entire global public administration, which James C. Scott (1998) analyzes well in his book "Seeing like the State": for a large-scale project (such as identity) to work, the state needs to translate it into an administrative problem. This translates into the public administration seeing identity as a problem of the state, of public bureaucracy, and not as an attribute of citizenship. The identity problem is not solved with the ideal model of "getting all public institutions to agree to share information"; at most, this is possible in small, underdeveloped states like Estonia or Uruguay. For Mexico, that means getting 2,469 municipalities, 32 states, hundreds of decentralized public organizations, and a national state composed of hundreds of bodies and multiple partisan visions, all with equal origin legitimacy and relative autonomy, to agree. The solution to this is to stop "seeing like the state" and start "seeing like the citizen." Put the citizen at the center of identity and return sovereignty over their information. If in the world of open data we repeat that the state does not own the information but simply stores and manages data that belongs to citizenship, why not apply this same model to people's digital identity? This is what the Decentralized Identity movement refers to, to return the power and management of a person's own information to the citizen, but also to be a response to the problem of stagnant information silos and lack of interoperability of the state. This is the real paradigm shift that blockchain makes possible.
We are facing a technological revolution that directly affects organizational, economic, and political changes. While other ICT revolutions such as the Internet or the web directly impacted the state and coined concepts such as Digital Government or Open Government, we are convinced that this new era of blockchain and Web 3 implies a great challenge of adaptation and a great opportunity towards the digital, economic, social, and political transition of our governments. Citizens today have tools that allow them to self-organize like never before and express themselves without the need for intermediaries, while traditional institutions lose the trust of their citizens day by day. Empowering citizens must be the premise of 21st-century governments, and for this, it is necessary to "return" their identity and sovereignty to them. Decentralized Identity can mean a paradigm shift in the relationship between citizen and government, both in bureaucratic aspects and in the improvement of our democracies because it simplifies the handling of my own credentials as an individual, accelerates procedures, and lowers transaction costs with the State and with third-party validators of my information. This is a great advance in the delivery of public services and can open a path in the reconstruction of trust in our institutions, but it also has strong implications for the improvement of our democratic regimes: that the citizen owns their own digital identity is a key element to resignify democracy in current times.
Lucas jolías, Director of OS City for Latin America