Citizens expect administrations to take their contributions into account and, if not, to explain why. When the feedback is inadequate or nonexistent, the trust relationship between the citizens and the administration can be damaged. Progress has been made in 'user-centricity' (i.e. availability, usability and mobile friendliness). Yet online participatory procedures are still, for the most part, time-consuming and rather disappointing for citizens. Hence, the paradox: in a time of unprecedented opportunities offered by technology, growing numbers of citizens are disengaging from public institutions. The question is how to re-design existing participatory procedures with captivating, attractive, formats. Public administrations worldwide are trying to rise to this challenge by experimenting with nudges and game design (e.g. badges, points, levels, rankings and challenges) in decision-making. For the first time in history, public regulators are looking at how to harness the motivational potential of game design to counter disenchantment with politics, and foster civic engagement. The final goal would be to re-align democracy with citizens' expectations, making participation more playful and rewarding.

Game-design and EU democracy

The EU is at the forefront of experimenting with innovative approaches to enhance the quality of interactions with citizens, making EU policies more inclusive, user-centric and participatory. The importance of design-thinking was mentioned in the 2016-2020 EU eGovernment action plan and commented upon by EU bodies such as the European Political Strategy Centre in 2018 and the Joint Research Centre in 2019. Moreover, a new push for democracy is one of the six headline ambitions of the political guidelines for the von der Leyen Commission. This point was further stressed in the mission letter from the Commission President to Vera Jourova, Vice-President for Values and Transparency. Jourova reiterated the importance of digital tools for engaging citizens (and specifically the 'Have your say' web portal) during her parliamentary hearing. The EU is testing game design in three key areas: participatory platforms, informative websites and prize challenges. Futurium exemplifies the first area. This online platform has been designed to facilitate the joint forging of ideas to help design future policies. The platform incorporates different variables, reflecting both emotional and rational mindsets (i.e. front-end participatory tools, knowledge-harvesting tools, data-crawling tools and data-gathering tools). Users can express their preferences on future scenarios according to their desirability (how much they want a future scenario to become reality) or, alternatively, to their likelihood (the probability that a future scenario will materialise or will continue if it is already an established trend). Equally, however, users can like or dislike a policy's impact and plausibility (i.e. the overall assessment of the possibility to implement the policy). Examples of game design in the second area (informative websites) are numerous. Learning Corner, for instance, encourages young citizens to learn about the EU through educational games. Players are challenged with trivia and action games focused on historical, social, legal, and political aspects of European integration. In Economia, sponsored by the European Central Bank, young Europeans are informed about basic principles of economic policy through games. The EU digital scoreboard measures the performance of the EU and its Member States in implementing the digital agenda. Users have access to data and can compare the digital performance of EU countries and explore the digital dimensions of connectivity, human capital, the digitalisation of business, and research. Prize challenges provide an example of the third area. Every year, the Social Innovation Competition, for instance, rewards the best new social innovations from all over Europe. In the EU contest for young scientists, contests are first held at national level, and then winners can apply to take part in the Europe-wide contest. Projects are given a display stand in the Science Exhibition Hall (in the host country for that year) and contestants are required to answer questions from members of the scientific jury, and encouraged to explain their projects to a public audience.

Beyond playfulness – the future of Europe Design thinking will be key to the success or failure of the new opportunities that will be offered to European citizens to interact with EU legislators. The Future of Europe debates, held by the European Parliament from early 2018 to April 2019, stressed the need for innovative approaches to democratic engagement at EU level. In her July 2019 statement to the Parliament, the then Commission President-elect committed to holding a conference on the Future of Europe, to start in 2020 and run for two years. The conference, she explained, would offer a platform where citizens would be able to express their main concerns. Following on from that, the EU institutions and civil society representatives would work together to identify the best responses to these concerns. In 2020 and beyond, the use of appropriate nudges and game elements may play a decisive role in revitalising democracy, engaging a broader audience, especially of young citizens, and harnessing their views and creativity so as to improve the design of future EU policies. This approach will, however, present EU legislators with legal and ethical concerns. Legal challenges will demand appropriate measures to protect citizens' privacy and guarantee inclusiveness. Ethically speaking, it could be argued that incentivising participation via game design might implicitly suggest that weaker or simpler forms of participation exist next to stronger more complex forms of civic engagement – thus acknowledging that game design nurtures a second-class civic spirit at best.

Add new comment