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Welcome Address of the Portuguese Speaker, Augusto Santos Silva, to the Conference “Digital literacy: why it matters for representative democracy”

Lisbon, 16, June 2023


First and foremost, welcome to Portugal and to the Portuguese Parliament, the Assembleia da República. It is an honour to host this Conference, on the opportunities and challenges faced by Parliaments in this new Digital Era.

Not only because Parliaments are homes of representative democracy, but also because, despite being ancient, they have been at the forefront, all around the world, in opening politics to citizens, pushing for reforms, and democratizing decision-making processes.

This is not by chance. Contemporary representative democracies are now more than ever being questioned by citizens, which reflects, not only some discontentment, but, and above all, their incentive for a better performance of members of Parliament (MPs).

In this context, Parliaments have been undertaking many initiatives to come closer to citizens, by improving inclusiveness, publicity, transparency, and accountability. One can even argue that this engagement with citizens has gradually become one of the most relevant roles played by 21st-century Parliaments, in addition to their traditional functions of legislation and oversight.

In this path, there has been a clear focus on information and communication technologies (ICT), which, as societies become more digitized, enable reaching more easily "citizens where they are".


There are two fundamental goals of this digitization process: more information, and more participation. Let me consider each of them.

First, on information.

Over the last three decades, Parliaments have started to put available all relevant information about their activities through their websites.

This extensive information repository enables both the media and citizens to directly access all relevant information regarding parliamentary activities. Consequently, it empowers them to engage in more informed monitoring and scrutiny of the work MPs are doing.

This is a very positive development. But it poses at least two important challenges that we must face, collectively.

First, the issue of literacy: that immense quantity of information requires to be framed and organized in order to be understood and even found. So, Parliaments have also to engage in digital literacy as a critical dimension of mass education for democratic citizenship.

Second, the parliamentary institution now offers unparalleled levels of transparency, surpassing most public entities, including other branches of Government. This is particularly relevant to counter a false, yet common, populist argument on the "uselessness" of Parliaments: as a matter of fact, MPs have never worked harder. This is evident from the significant increase in the number of bills considered, laws passed, resolutions adopted, votes approved, debates held, as well as the time spent in plenary sessions and committees.

But, on the other hand, publicity is not an indisputable value in itself. For instance, it has been noted that the broadcasting of committee meetings has introduced an incentive for political groups to engage in more confrontational interventions, thereby limiting the potential for mutual understanding and concessions: drama tends to prevail on rational debate and deliberation. So, we need to reflect on how we can balance, in this new digital society, the two attitudes that we need: accountability and sense of compromise.

Let us move to the other main goal: fostering more participation.

Even if they have clearly prioritized the information dimension, Parliaments also invested in some forms of participation, such as citizen legislative initiatives and, above all, petitions, whose modernizing drive has relied to a great extent on their association with ICT.

This is really a crucial point: digital literacy plays a vital role in ensuring that the opportunity to participate is a reality for all citizens. Therefore, it is important to gather data on who is actually participating, as the digital opportunities are still unequal, along the lines of education, occupation or generation. Thus, the "digital divide" would still be a major concern.

Meanwhile – second concern – participation being just a click away does not mean that citizens will automatically start engaging and interacting with Parliaments. Parliaments need to stimulate civic participation, giving it room and visibility, demonstrating that they value the demands and proposals of citizens, and they take them into consideration in the political agenda and decision-making. Civic participation cannot be the instrument of those that are already integrated in the political system, or the privilege of the more educated, affluent, or familiar with digital technologies.


Like many others, the Portuguese Parliament has developed a pathway towards digitization. Here are some milestones: the creation of an official website in 1995; the implementation of significant digital tools, such as the early introduction of streaming of plenary sessions; the modernization of working conditions in the plenary in 2007, granting each MP his or her own computer terminal and digital devices; the early implementation of an electronic petition system in 2005, facilitating the use of this right and enabling broad public dissemination.

In 2016, a Working Group for the Digital Parliament was established, with the aim of harnessing the potential of new technologies to strengthen the relationship between citizens and the Assembleia da República. Its report paved the way for a significant qualitative leap in this area, including the following measures: a deep renewal of the website, which is nowadays the main tool through which Parliament disseminates its activities and provides public access to its data; the launching of an open access methodology, presenting the Parliament's work in Open Data, that is, in a completely open and structured format, thus allowing for downloading and automatic processing of data, as well as its reuse by other institutions, researchers, and the general public; the creation of digital platforms for submission of petitions, legislative or referendum initiatives and the collection of the necessary signatures – thus, ensuring greater security guarantees and enabling petitioners to have feedback (by email) of the different stages of the parliamentary processing of their initiatives; the improvement of the Parliament's public communication through its own TV channel and the presence on social media platforms; and the forthcoming "System of alerts for law regulation and fulfilment of legislative duties", that will provide information on the compliance by the Government of the tasks prescribed by laws approved in the Parliament.


Digital transition is a huge opportunity to bring Parliaments closer to citizens, and to foster multiple ways of public participation in the political process.

This brings new responsibilities for our democratic institutions. I will focus on two of them, which I consider especially relevant.

The first one deals with the effectiveness and impact of citizens' initiatives (petitions, auditions, or legislative initiatives) on the parliamentary work.

One of the problems that has been observed in many Parliaments that have invested in participatory instances is the lack of clear information on how citizens' inputs are subsequently taken into consideration, or how they are potentially integrated into the decision-making process.

This explains a certain precaution we can observe here and there, in what regards the multiplication of means through which citizens can communicate directly with the Parliament (avoiding the mediation of political parties and MPs); and in what regards the expectations such a direct interaction can generate among citizens, concerning their real influence on parliamentary outcomes. I would say that is essential to be candid: participation does not necessarily mean deliberation. The right to provide inputs must be distinguished from the power to force outputs. Still, participation increases the possibility to influence democratic politics and, even if the power to decide is granted to those who were elected –the MPs – the participatory instruments Parliaments put in place improve the political awareness and practice of citizens and bring them closer to their representatives. For that, it is very important to establish clear rules and procedures, treating citizens fairly in this experience of direct interaction with the Parliament, that, for many, is a one in a lifetime experience.

My second point relates to the full understanding of what digital literacy means. It is not exclusively a technological training. Not at all. Its most decisive feature has to do with critical thought. The ICT are formidable means of recording, spreading, and receiving information, and social media and digital platforms multiply almost ad infinitum the ability to voice and communicate. They can be used to empower people, to modernize institutions and to foster the democratic participation and scrutiny; but they can also be misused to manipulate public opinion, to convey disinformation, to disseminate prejudice, and to disrupt the common ground of liberal democracies.

The same goes for artificial intelligence. It poses a significant challenge to democracy, requiring our ability to keep up with the state of art, which is evolving at a rapid pace, and to assess the need for regulation. Human dignity, human agency, public debate, common goods, the distinction between logos and pathos, the distinction between truth and falsehood and ethical standards are at the heart of democracy; and artificial intelligence must be used to foster them, not to put them in peril.

Therefore, it is crucial to keep in mind that we cannot see in the digital transition only a huge opportunity. Digital transition is also a process to question from the point of view of democratic values and principles.

That is the real meaning of digital literacy and that is why it is so needed.

I wish to all of you a nice stay in Portugal and a fruitful Conference.