Digital Transformation

5 min

Harnessing Technology for Democratic Participation: A Case Study of Brazil's Public Engagement Initiative

Senado Federal do Brasil

Strategic Partners



The advent of technology has dramatically transformed the landscape of civic participation and democratic processes worldwide. In particular, digital tools have been increasingly harnessed to facilitate a more direct form of democracy, allowing citizens to voice their opinions, suggest new laws, and actively participate in the legislative process. One of the most notable instances of this trend is a project that was launched in Brazil in 2012, which aimed at enhancing public participation in the legislative process. This essay delves into the development, functionality, and impact of this landmark initiative.


The Genesis of the Project and its Evolution


The genesis of this ambitious project can be traced back to 2012, when a group of dedicated civil servants, backed by the President and the Clerk, aspired to construct a platform that would bridge the gap between the government and the citizens. They launched a website furnished with various tools designed to facilitate public engagement in the legislative process.


However, while the initiative was promising, the team quickly realised that the complexity of the website made it difficult for the average citizen to comprehend and utilise. When a new member joined the team in 2014, they embarked on a journey to simplify the website and streamline the process. The six original tools, each serving a different function, were consolidated into three multifunctional tools. This strategic decision not only made the website easier to navigate, but it also simplified the process of explaining the tools to users, thereby enhancing overall user experience and encouraging wider participation.


Legislative Idea and its Impact


The first tool, dubbed the ‘legislative idea’, empowers citizens to propose ideas for new laws. This tool has been an integral part of the website since its inception in 2012 and has undergone minimal changes. The primary objective of this tool is to tap into the collective intelligence of the citizenry, allowing them to submit ideas for new laws directly through the website. In a bid to foster inclusivity and make the platform more accessible, the team introduced an additional feature in 2019, allowing deaf citizens to submit ideas through videos in Brazilian sign language. These submissions are translated into text and posted on the website. In addition, the tool provides the option for citizens to submit their ideas by making a phone call. These collective efforts have served to make the platform more accessible to a broader demographic of the Brazilian population.

Once an idea is submitted, it is evaluated to ensure that it adheres to unchangeable constitutional clauses. If it passes this test, the idea is published on the website and made available to receive support signatures online, similar to a petition. If an idea garners over 20,000 signatures, it is presented to the Committee on Human Rights and Participative Legislation for further discussion and evaluation. The senators then decide whether or not to transform the idea into a bill.


Despite initial hiccups, this tool has proven to be effective. As of the time of the transcript, the platform had received more than 90,000 ideas, which collectively attracted over 9 million signatures. Most importantly, 94 ideas were debated by the senators, and 27 were transformed into bills. Although the first public idea didn’t materialise into a bill until 2017, five years after the launch of the website, the process has since become much more streamlined. Senators have grown accustomed to the process, and transforming popular ideas into bills has become common practice.


Expansion of the Project: Legislative Workshop


In an attempt to involve younger demographics in the legislative process, the team introduced a new project called ‘Legislative Workshop’ in the recent past. This Expansion of the Project: Legislative Workshop


In an attempt to involve younger demographics in the legislative process, the team introduced a new project called ‘Legislative Workshop’ in the recent past. This project aims to stimulate student participation by providing educational materials for teachers to conduct classroom activities related to legislative processes. The students are encouraged to engage in discussions about the issues their country faces and to brainstorm solutions. These ideas are then submitted to the website and follow the same process as any other legislative idea. The essential aspect of this project is that it is not tokenistic – the students’ participation is real, and their ideas are submitted to the Senators and could potentially influence legislation.


An impactful example of this process involved a student from Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, who submitted an idea in Brazilian sign language. Despite receiving only 24 signatures, a senator from the Northeast of Brazil adopted the idea and transformed it into a bill, demonstrating that the number of signatures is not the sole determinant of an idea’s potential.


Interactive Events: An Evolution of Public Participation


The second tool, known as ‘Interactive Events,’ was designed to allow public participation in public hearings. Initially, only a few public hearings were open to public participation online. It required a deliberate request to the Senators or the secretariats to open a public hearing for online participation. However, in 2015, with the support of the directors, all public hearings were opened to online public participation.


Interactive events also cover confirmation hearings in the Senate, which, as per the standing rule, must be open for public participation. People can participate online by writing questions and comments or by making a toll-free call. All questions are reviewed, and the best ones are selected and delivered to the Senators. Sometimes, Senators themselves prefer to select the questions. In an effort to make the process more interactive, questions answered during the event are time stamped with the video of the event, providing a feedback mechanism for the participants.


Public Consultations: A Mandatory Exercise


The third and final tool, ‘Public Consultation,’ allows citizens to express their approval or disapproval of any bill in the Senate. This tool has become the most popular among the three, serving as the first point of contact for most citizens with public participation. A regulation mandates that every bill in the Senate must be open to public voting online from the beginning until the end of the process. The number of votes is displayed on the page of the bill, allowing Senators, citizens, and media to gauge the ‘temperature’ of public opinion on the bill.


Impact and Conclusion


The impact of these tools is palpable. The ‘Public Consultation’ tool alone has received over 26 million votes from 11 million voters. By facilitating direct public participation, the initiative has played a crucial role in fostering a culture of active civic engagement in Brazil. It is a testament to the power of technology in bridging the gap between citizens and their government, making democracy more interactive, participatory, and inclusive.


Despite the challenges faced in the initial stages, the project has evolved over the years, becoming more user-friendly, inclusive, and impactful. It has succeeded in its mission to ensure that the voices of the Brazilian citizens are heard, promoting a more participatory form of democracy. The success of this initiative underscores the potential of technology as a tool for democratic participation, setting a benchmark for other countries to follow.

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