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Digital Platforms Transforming Local Democracies
A rapid increase in the use of digital platforms has been shifting paradigms in all aspects of the society, changing the traditional roles of public institutions, and bringing the debate on the future of democracy. Academics, citizens, and decision-makers from different levels of government have a surging interest in knowing how to properly frame and adapt the transforming demands, opportunities, and social patterns brought by technologies that allow to share data and processes, expanding digital capabilities, and combining services and governance models (Malomo & Sena, 2017). In parallel, considering everything we have observed about the impacts of commercial digital platforms on society over the past decade, concerns over accountability, access and security take up more space in the debate around digitalisation of governments (Poell et al., 2019; Van Djick et al., 2018). Digital innovation experimented by public administration, increasingly relying on ICT to provide citizens with information and services, have been creating new forms of interaction between (democratic) actors (Budding et al., 2018; Dias, 2020). Mobile applications (apps) and web-based platforms allow governments to gather huge amounts of information, as well as to crowdsource ideas and test community engagement algorithms in day-to-day administration, paving the way for the implementation of 'smart' environments (Albino et al., 2015; Caragliu et al., 2011; Mechant & Walravens, 2018). Despite being a centralized country, compared to most European counterparts (Silva et al., 2018), Portugal is no exception to the debate on the emerging influence of technological solutions on democracy (Dias, 2013, 2019; Fedotova et al., 2012; Fernandes & Barbosa, 2016; de Lemos Santos et al., 2019), particularly at the local level (Dias, 2019, 2020; Moreno Pires et al., 2017; Neves, 2009). Although, the crucial question is whether technology breakthrough will bring only improvements to governance systems without creating a disruption between democratic values (Van Djick et al., 2018). On the one hand, technology can be used to legitimise the public sector, bringing citizens closer to politics, and reducing civic apathy (Silva et al., 2019; Tavares & da Cruz, 2020). Yet, on the other hand, if this digitalisation process is left unquestioned, the foundations of democracy as we know it will be eroded (Pettit, 2008; Poell et al., 2019). This PhD research plan seeks to map the level of penetration (i.e., use, adoption) of digital platforms in Portuguese municipalities and assessing their impacts in public scrutiny and democratic control of institutions, posing the following research question: How are digital platforms impacting public scrutiny and democratic control at the local level? Therefore, this research will seek to identify the ‘platformization’ level of Portuguese municipalities (mainland), by building an index that combines both qualitative and quantitative data, through an exploratory sequential mixed approach. Additionally, an in-depth analysis will be conducted using comparative methods, in order to capture distinctive patterns within actors of different levels and typologies, between selected municipalities. The outputs of this PhD research will contribute not only for mapping Portuguese municipalities’ penetration of digital platforms, but also for broadening the evidence on the impacts of these technologies on public scrutiny, citizen participation and legitimacy in the context of local democracies.