The Demokratiefabrik, a digital democratic innovation, was conducted in the municipality of Köniz in Switzerland. With an input from local parties, randomly selected citizens autonomously created a questionnaire that served as a Voting Advice Application for a local election.
The “Demokratiefabrik” is a digital democratic innovation (DDI) developed by researches from the University of Bern. It was designed as part of the project “Digital Democratic Innovations to Empower Citizens in the Digital Age”, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) in the framework of the National Research Programme 77 “Digital Transformation” (NRP 77). The aim of the research project is to find out who actually makes use of DDIs and whether trust in DDIs can be increased by its use, hence establishing a base to develop more user-oriented DDIs in the future.
Context and Purpose
In a first study, citizens of the municipality of Köniz in the canton of Bern (Switzerland) had the chance – from June 14th to July 4th, 2021 – to autonomously design an entire questionnaire that served as the official Voting Advice Application (VAA) for a local election (smartvote). The geographically dispersed municipality of Köniz hosts about 43’00 people and is characterized by both urban and rural parts. Smartvote aids voters during election periods as they can fill out a questionnaire concerning a multitude of topics, while candidates fill out the same questionnaire. Then, users are presented with a voting recommendation based on their political profile. Usually, the questionnaires used for smartvote were created by the owner association Politools itself in cooperation with parties and media professionals. The developed DDI was conducted asynchronously, hence it was not tied to a specific time or place, as users could log onto the platform whenever this suited them. The local political parties were also given the opportunity to submit smartvote questions. 40 of those questions formulated by parties were entered on the platform at the start of the Demokratiefabrik (so-called party proposals). They might also have set a quality standard for the VAA-questions formulated by the citizens.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
In total, 9’000 citizens eligible to vote were randomly selected via Köniz’s electoral register and received a personal invitation letter, issued by the municipality of Köniz, smartvote and the University of Bern. The letter contained the personalized login credentials in order to participate on the platform. In order to enhance the participation, a price draw was organized: 10 participants could obtain a travel voucher by a local travel agency worth 400 Swiss francs each.
How it Worked
When first logging onto the Demokratiefabrik, the users were asked to enter their username and the four-digit pin they had previously received with the invitation letter. Then, they were randomly assigned a pseudonym, which consisted of the name of a Swiss mountain as the pseudonym. Next, participants were shown information about the functioning of the Demokratiefabrik and were asked to accept a code of conduct. Afterwards, they were directed to a questionnaire where they were asked to fill out numerous questions capturing socio-demographic and attitudinal attributes of the respondents (Survey T1). This was done in order to properly investigate who is more likely to make use of DDIs. After filling out the survey, the respondents were asked to rate the importance of the different smartvote topics on a scale from 0 to 100. These topics include: 1) “Environment, Traffic & Energy”, 2) “Welfare state, Family & Health”, 3) “Education”, 4) “Finances & Taxes”, 5) “Development of the Municipality”, 6) “Migration & Integration”, 7) “Society, Culture & Ethics”, 8) “Economy & Labour”, 9) “Security and Police” 10) “Political System & Digitalisation” and 11) “Other Topics”.  After having rated the importance of the different topics, the participants were able to rate the smartvote questions of a randomly assigned smartvote topic. Only after having rated the questions in this topic, they were able to choose a topic themselves. Next, participants had the opportunity to propose their own smartvote questions and/or propose a questions refinement of questions proposed by other users or the local parties. In addition, users were asked to review new questions or question refinements proposed by other participants. You can see the exact functioning of the DDI in the walkthrough linked (see "Links").
Results: Who participated?
1’437 of the selected citizens have logged in at least once on the Demokratiefabrik (16% of the invitees). In addition, 1’180 of the invited citizens also completed the T1 survey, while 1’079 of the invitees rated at least once the themes or VAA-questions presented to them. In what follows, we will refer to the latter as participants. 53.7% of participants (N = 579) actively participated in the review process, while 18.6% (N = 216) contributed at least one comment. A higher share of the participants rated at least one comment on the platform (24.1%, N = 260).
Women were slightly underrepresented on the Demokratiefabrik. On average, participants were also slightly younger than the randomly selected invitees and were less likely to be from rural parts of the municipality. The age group which participated most on the Demokratiefabrik were people aged from 36 to 45 (19.7% of the participants), while only participants over the age of 75 were underrepresented in comparison to the random sample and made up under 5% of total participants. The users on the left side of the political spectrum were overrepresented and users had disproportionally often preferences for the Green Liberal Party, and to a lesser extent also for the Social Democratic Party. In addition, a majority of participants reported being satisfied with democracy and displayed (high) interest in national, cantonal and local politics.
Output: VAA’s questionnaire
In total, the participants of the Demokratiefabrik submitted 219 question proposals, including 54 improvement suggestions and 165 suggestions for new smartvote questions. At the end, 100 questions submitted by users passed the review-process and remained on the platform, alongside the 40 questions that had been submitted by the political parties in Köniz. In order to select the final questions for the smartvote questionnaire, the different topics were weighted accordingly to their perceived importance assigned by the users. Hence, topics which have been rated as more important by the participants also received a bigger portion of the total amount of smartvote questions. Then, the rating of the specific questions was taken into account and questions with higher ratings were included in the final questionnaire. The final version of the smartvote questionnaire encompassed a total of 52 question, 32 of which were submitted by users and 20 by the political parties. The final questionnaire was then published by smartvote on its website. Every citizen of the municipality could then fill out the questionnaire and receive a personal voting recommendation.
Gianola, Giada, Marlène Gerber und Dominik Wyss. 2021. Ergebnisbericht zur Könizer Demokratiefabrik 2021. Bern: Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Bern.