Digitalisation is a major challenge for politics: Citizens, but also the economy and science expect forward-looking decisions in this regard. Against this background, the Institute Public Sector Transformation (IPST) of the Bern University of Applied Sciences, together with the Universities of Zurich and Geneva, the online election aid “smartvote” and the ICT and online industry association Swico, launched the “Digitalisation Monitor 2019” in the run-up to the federal elections in October 2019. As part of the project, candidates in the National Council and Council of States elections were asked about their positions on digitisation using a thematically broad questionnaire. The BFH has now published an analysis report on the Digitisation Monitor, which provides a targeted evaluation of the data collected with a focus on attitudes towards digitisation in general, on digital democracy and opinion-forming, and on the institutional framework conditions that are essential for the expansion and development of new approaches to digital democracy.
Moderate interest in the topic
A first insight can already be derived from the fact that the 20 questions of the digitisation monitor were only answered by just under a quarter of the total of 4,736 candidates. By way of comparison, the response rate for the online election aid “smartvote”, which comprised 75 questions, was more than three times as high. Despite the high presence in the media coverage, digitalisation in politics seems to have a much lower priority and only arouses moderate interest among the candidates. This also shows, however, that the awareness-raising goal of the Digitisation Monitor is still absolutely urgent. With regard to the present evaluations, it is positive to note that despite the rather low response rate, the data of the Digitisation Monitor are highly informative. A comparative analysis of the responses from the digitisation monitor and the “smartvote” data shows that there are no significant distortions and that the participants in the digitisation monitor have comparable response patterns to those of the “smartvote” participants (for details see BFH analysis report).
Positive basic attitude – Scepticism about individual projects
In general, digitalisation and its effects are largely assessed positively by the candidates of all parties (cf. Figure 1). However, greater differences and also more sceptical positional references emerge when asked specifically about individual areas (for example, whether digitalisation also makes society fairer). Looking at several questions, it becomes apparent that the attitude towards digitalisation also has an ideological character: liberal candidates (especially GLP and FDP candidates) tend towards optimistic-positive assessments, left-green and conservative candidates (especially Greens and SVP candidates) tend towards more sceptical assessments. In addition, it is evident that men and candidates from German-speaking Switzerland have a more positive basic attitude than women or French- and Italian-speaking candidates. It is noteworthy that the age of the candidates plays a lesser role than is generally assumed.
Positions on digital democracy
Even when it comes to digital innovations in the area of democratic opinion-forming and decision-making, the assessment often takes place along ideological lines. In particular, when regulatory issues come into play, the left-right dichotomy that dominates politics also clearly emerges in digitalisation issues (for example, on the topic of regulating social media platforms). The different assessment of e-voting (electronic voting) and e-collecting (collecting online signatures for initiatives and referendums) is interesting: while the e-voting issue tends to divide liberal supporters from conservative opponents, e-collecting divides left-wing supporters and right-wing opponents (cf. Figure 2).
On a whole range of issues, however, the candidates of all parties are in majority agreement. For example, there are majorities in all parties in favour of combating the negative excesses of social media platforms (e.g. in the area of “fake news” dissemination). However, it is disputed whether this should be done by means of state regulation or through self-regulation of the platforms (cf. Figure 3). The topic of “social media” is also one of the few topics where the age of the candidates clearly plays a role: Young candidates are much more critical of the regulation of these platforms than older candidates.
Furthermore, the evaluation points to the dubious reputation that the use of artificial intelligence (AI) enjoys in the context of government decisions (cf. Figure 4). In this area, there is clearly a greater gap between the assessment by politicians and the role that AI already plays in research and industry today.
When it comes to questions about digital infrastructure, e-government and data protection, clear majorities often emerge. In the media, topics such as the 5G mobile network, e-health, e-ID or data protection are often portrayed as fiercely controversial, but within the framework of the evaluations of the Digitialisation Monitor, the candidates and the parties prove to be clearly more consensus-oriented. For example, the expansion of the 5G network is opposed primarily by the Greens, while the SVP is opposed in the areas of e-government and data protection (cf. Figure 5). Positive assessments predominate among all other parties.
For example, all parties are also favourable to the proposal to anchor a fundamental right to digital integrity (e.g. with the right to be forgotten) in the constitution. Overall, the results show that, in principle, majorities for forward-looking solutions can be found among the candidates and parties in all areas of digitalisation policy.
Conclusion and outlook
The findings of the “Digitisation Monitor 2019” are illuminating in many ways for the future shaping of Switzerland’s digitisation policy. It also shows that much remains to be done. On the one hand, the only moderate interest in the project makes it clear that the topic of “digitisation” does not yet have the status in politics that it deserves. It is therefore urgent to raise awareness of the topic – not only among political decision-makers, but also among the general public. On the other hand, it is evident that the Swiss political parties have not yet developed any coherent positions on digitalisation. Admittedly, this is anything but easy with such a broad cross-sectional topic. Nevertheless, it would be important for the public that the parties take up their political role and quickly clarify their digitisation policy goals and positions in order to offer citizens a clear programmatic orientation before elections.