The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Enrico Bosio, Tiziana Girardi, Daniela Stefanescu, Vincenzo D'Andrea, Maurizio Teli: Understanding online deliberation: the dis-alignment between designers and users

Enrico Bosio, Ahref Foundation

Tiziana Girardi, Daniela Stefanescu, Vincenzo D'Andrea, Maurizio Teli


In one of the most important Italian regional elections in 2013, Umberto Ambrosoli was one of the candidates running for president of the Lombardy region. In order to engage potential supporters and voters in proposing policies to be implemented once in office he adopted a technological platform (called "Proposte Ambrosoli") oriented towards collaborative deliberation. This initiative was sided by several other similar ones, for instance, both the Italian government and one of the major Italian political parties (Five-Stars Movement) tried to activate technological solutions to involve citizens in policy consultations. In this paper, we draw upon one of the basic contribution of science and technology studies, the fact that technology designers inscribe socio-political visions in the technology they develop and that such visions aren't necessarily aligned with the context of use by ordinary people.

We will describe four main perspectives on democracy that are traceable in the literature on politics and technology, then we engage in the analysis of the “Proposte Ambrosoli” case, both describing the designers political perspective and the users experiences. We discuss our results showing how the user narrative for the use of the technology is more individualistic and liberal-democratic than the one of designers, oriented towards forms of deliberative democracies.

In the spring of 2013, the Association for Computing Machinery magazine Interactions published a cover story entitled “Creating the World Citizen Parliament” by Douglas Schuler (2013)⁠. The article was promoting a view of digital technologies designers as participating to the construction of a better world, through the construction of a deliberative technological space defined as “the World Citizen Parliament", with a focus on citizen deliberation. Although Schuler takes as central the concept of deliberation, the way the relationship between digital technologies and democracy has been scholarly interpreted is not homogeneous neither undisputed. For example, Dahlberg (2011)⁠ has outlined four main positions in the academic debate on the relationship between democracy and the internet. We will draw upon his contribution in order to understand what an actual case of implementation of part of the Schuler's proposal reveals about the theory of digital democracy embraced by two of the main stakeholders: the developers and the users of digital technologies for democracy.

Dahlberg lists four main positions, intended as different understanding of the democratic form promoted by digital technologies: liberal-individualist, deliberative, counter-publics, and autonomist Marxist. Such positions differ among each other in relation to the democratic subject, the concept of democracy, and the associated technological affordances. We claim that there is a growing bandwagon of scholars, designers, practitioners, and politicians, that are promoting the adoption of digital technologies to change the institutionalized decision-making processes through the enlargement of the number of people involved and that who is part of the bandwagon adopt a deliberative theory of democracy. There is a missing part in this bandwagon, a crucial one, that is the actual people who are going to use and leverage the technologies part of the “World Citizen Parliament”. In our empirical case, we directly address this aspect, questioning one of the key tenets of the bandwagon itself: the grounding of its design into the theoretical framework of deliberative democracy. In particular, drawing upon the understanding that any techno-scientific program needs to be aligned to the interests of the stakeholders in order to be successful, we ask a very simple question: is the political theory of deliberative democracy aligned with the interests and political theories of actual users? As we will show, in the case we studied, our answer is negative.

The goal of “programma partecipato Ambrosoli 2013”, our case study, was to create an online participatory environment, based on the well-known German technology Liquidfeedback, in which users could evaluate campaign contributions, make consultation and exchange ideas and opinions about bottom-up political proposals.  We undertook an inductive approach in order to achieve the study goals. The data were collected through a satisfaction questionnaire (administered between the elections and the official results) and eleven in-depth interviews with participants (conducted three months after the elections). We triangulated the data, looking for recurring trends in the quantitative data and approaching the interviews through grounded theory, producing 72 codes and 16 concepts. 

The empirical data shows how Dahlberg models are mixed in the interviewee narrative, although the users political theory can be interpreted more as a liberal-consumer one, diverging from the developers orientation toward a deliberative-consensual perspective. The first aspect suggesting it is the interpretation of the platform as a communication channel toward the candidate, prominent in respect to social ties with other users, emerging only in relation to pre-existing offline relations. The second aspect is the user stressing the fact that the platform user base is not representative, recurring to a mirroring of the elections dynamics, an approach based on calculating and aggregating, therefore individualistic. Finally, the users stress the possibility of accomodating political participation in their own life balance, with a nuanced perspective: if it is read as allowing individuals to express themselves, it is also considered as a possibility to enlarge the number of people participating.

This conclusion could be an interesting challenge: the next step would be to understand how to design a political participation platform in which designers’ and users’ political participation theory are aligned. From our research experience we suggest that before implementing a political participation platform the designers should investigate more on the users’ conception of online political participation, its use and personal approach to the utility of these tools in today’s democracy. Moreover, new research dimensions can emerge focusing on the digitally enabled process able to transform liberal approaches in new ones. If the new ones are going to be deliberative, counter-publics, or oriented to the common is a question engaging researchers not only as scholar but as political subjects.


Dahlberg, L. (2011). Re-constructing digital democracy: An outline of four “positions.” New Media & Society, 13(6), 855–872. doi:10.1177/1461444810389569

Schuler, D. (2001). CULTIVATING SOCIETY’S CIVIC INTELLIGENCE: PATTERNS FOR A NEW “WORLD BRAIN.” Information, Communication & Society, 4(2), 157–181


Enrico Bosio, Tiziana Girardi, Daniela Stefanescu, Vincenzo D'Andrea, Maurizio Teli