Digitalising Democracy: e-Democracy and e-Participation in Europe

28. Nov 2017
Brussels, Belgium
The technologically most advanced continent in the world, Europe, is still lagging behind in the introduction ICTs in decision-making and the achievement of all inclusive democracies through 21st century technologies and communication tools. Whereas, best practices in the area of e-democracy are observed in all European regions, they are spread unevenly, still remain restricted within country borders, and are often vibrant on local level only. What are the perspectives before an all-embracing eDemocracy across Europe and what are the reasons behind the modest progress so far? Are the technological and political concerns prevailing to date, or the positives of the online tools that enable wider and broader citizen’s participation in governance are not convincing enough to policy-makers and experts? Now is the right time to admit that digitalisation of all areas of public life happens, whether we like or not. What the future look of European democracies will be and will we, as liberals, use the technological momentum to reshape the traditional governance model to the next step of representative liberal democracy? These topics we will debate during the event Digital Democracy and e-Participation in Europe. The event will include a presentation of the ELF publication eDemocracy and eParticipation, and a topical discussion, with the participation of EP and EC representatives, contributors to the publication, representatives of ELF member organisations, and experts.

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  • Short view

    Digitalisation of the democratic process is happening, whether we plan it or not. Best practices from across Europe and the world evidence that technologies can supplement traditional democracies and ensure more open, transparent, and inclusive politics. 

    To present the different national realities and trends in the area of eDemocracy and eParticipation, the European Liberal Forum, supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Southeast Europe, has just published the publication “eDemocracy and eParticipation: The precious first steps and the way forward”, which includes contributions from altogether eighteen authors from Northern, Central, and Southeast Europe. The e-book was presented at the European Parliament on 28 November before European Commission and European Parliament representatives and a large number of ELF member organisations, as a part of a rountable discussion about the future shape of eParticipation and its further promotion in the EU. 

    We were hosted by ALDE Party Vice-President, Ilhan Kyuckyuk MEP, who delivered a welcome address and encouraged Liberals to seize the technological momentum to reshape the traditional governance model to the next step of representative liberal democracy.

  • Report

    “Digitalising Democracy: eParticipation”

     

    Full Report

     

    The Digital revolution changed the human way of life and interaction with the world so rapidly that the analogue generations are still struggling to grasp the scope and fundamentality of the process. The business world, driven by the necessity of free-market capital, has taken these developments in their stride, perpetually developing newer and better eProducts and eServices. Governments, however, have taken radically different approaches across Europe, by either facilitating or hindering this process. Whilst eGovernment reform for the provision of timely, reliable, and cheap state services is an established general priority across the EU, governments at-large are still careful, if not reluctant, about the adoption of digital tools for a wider citizen’s participation.

    Meanwhile, citizens question top-down approaches of governance and demand more inclusion in the process of modern democracies. With technologies affecting every aspect of public action, there are good reasons to believe that e-solutions will impact this process and their potential should be explored. Technologies narrow the gap between citizens and administrations and increase public participation and engagement – ultimately resulting in better democracy. Active public inclusion through the variety of forms of eConsultations, eReferenda, and ePetitions, combined with eCollaboration initiatives, involves people and representative institutions in  collaborative democracy-making. The concept of the ‘informed citizen’ gradually evolves into the ‘engaged and participating citizen’.

    Inspired by the new opportunities in today’s digital era, the European Liberal Forum, with the support of the Project Office for Southeast Europe of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, implemented an annual project, ‘Digitalising democracy: eParticipation’. This initiative involved a large number of ELF member organisations, as well as ICT and democracy experts from South-eastern, Central, and Northern Europe in a joint collaboration. Being regionally focused, rather than limited to separate nation states, the project assessed the best practices of how the countries and citizens from these different parts of Europe reinvent their democracy under the influence of the unprecedented speed, quantity, and accessibility of information in today’s digital world.

    To accomplish this, the project’s first stage was founded on a series of fact-finding workshops held in Sofia, Ljubljana, and Tallinn. These events focused on the exchange of know-how and best practices for an enhanced political participation through digital tools within the regions of South-eastern, Central, and Northern Europe. Along with the on-the-filed organisers, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Southeast Europe (Sofia), the NOVUM Institute (Slovenia), and the Academy of Liberalism (Estonia), the three workshops attracted liberal organisations and experts from over ten countries. In this way, it contributed to the formulation and consolidation of liberal views and policy approaches for civic participation through digital means.

    The difference in the various levels of introduction of political participation mechanisms, in general, and those of eDemocracy, in particular, across Europe is outstanding. Comparison between the Southeastern, Central, and Northern Europe shows that the regions are not uniform, but comprised of very different national country cases. When comparing the countries analysed, it becomes evident that each one is marked by specific differences in their democratic development and attitude towards innovations. Despite all this, some general trends can be drawn: the levels of political culture and the related level of political participation drastically increase from the European South to the North, and so do the forms and impact of eDemocracy tools.

    What became evident in the workshops was that political culture and the state of democracy are quite diverse across Europe. This reflects the different forms and levels, as well as the impact of political participation, being provided by the state or self-initiated by civic groups and organisations. The advanced democracies have found a good balance between the representative system and the role of the different instruments for political participation. The latter, being  incorporated by evolution into the overall system of governance, allows citizens to be directly involved in decision-making.

    By contrast, fragile or not fully consolidated democracies have still not conceptually adopted the idea of political participation by citizens and the tools that could facilitate such a process. This explains the differences in, and the legal provisions for, eDemocracy among the European Union’s member states.

    It is sticking to compare the introduction of eDemocracy amongst Southeastern, Central, and Northern Europe, although all the presentations and country cases analysed during the field workshops showed a common trend – a general dissatisfaction of each nation’s progress so far. Yet, the reasons for this differ fundamentally. The extremely high trust in governance and public politics in Northern Europe, with Norway and Finland as examples, result in a very low interest in well-established and widely available political participation initiatives. Despite the massive introduction of digital tools for citizen participation, making people’s involvement easy, not bounded by time nor limited by territory, participation remains very low, preventing eDemocracy from taking real shape. The most rapidly implemented tools are for eCollaboration, predominantly on a local level, whereas consultative mechanisms assist otherwise trusted representative institutions.

    In Southeastern Europe, however, exactly due to massive dissatisfaction of political decision-making and the state of democracy, people mobilise and demand for an open, accountable, and inclusive governance. This process is increasingly facilitated and propelled precisely by the broader usage of ICT in different forms, not the least social media, providing for grass-root conception of eDemocracy. The individual projects, however, remain limited in number, and with a very narrow scope. The worth-mentioning projects for monitoring public procurements in Romania and the eReferendum project in Bulgaria display the citizenry’s new expectation from politicians as collaborators and not sole executors of policies and politics.

    Not only geographically but also in terms of progress, Central Europe stays on the crossroad between the north and the south. The greatly developed eGovernment is carefully but surely taking shape in eDemocracy with a variety of tools, again predominantly citizen-led, but not facing the greater institutional resistance found in the South.

    While the expansion of public participation is eminent in modern democracies, the limitations of the broad immediate introduction of e-tools often raise concerns among politicians and the public.

    Access to the internet is a prerequisite for the use of digital tools. The internet is, however, neither equally available nor uniformly used across the EU and within the Member States. Such a territorial division applies to the ability of citizens to use e-tools as well. Hence, the views of not only the more motivated to participate, but also of those possessing the required digital skills to use the specific technologies will be predominantly represented, if eParticipation tools are introduced overnight.

    The increased usage of ICTs for public participation creates a challenge for all the institutions that need to safeguard the security of its application, but also the personal data protection. On the other hand, overcoming the contradiction between data protection and the secure identification of citizens is an important, trust-building issue: decision-makers and the public at large must rest assured that the opinions voiced, or the vote given, definitely comes from a person who is entitled to participate, and at the same time anonymity is granted, in the cases where this applies (like e-voting).

    On the other hand, today’s information society relies increasingly on mass media and social media to form its political attitudes. In that sense, we have already witnessed how massive influxes of false and biased information can easily reshape opinions and determine political actions, which in the context of the concerns mentioned above, could, with little resistance, have a strong impact.

    All the trends and different national perspectives for digitalisation of politics have been well-described in the publication ‘eDemocracy and eParticipation. The Precious First Steps and the Way Forward’, published at the project’s conclusion in November 2017. Built from 14 national country cases from Southeastern, Central, and Northern Europe, by 22 authors and a large number of organisations from the ELF network, this publication presents the various national and regional experiences of digital participation. A focus is given to the perspectives and challenges that come along with eDemocracy. The publication was presented in the European Parliament during the round-table ‘eDemocracy and eParticipation. The Way Forward’, hosted by ALDE’s Vice-President, Ilhan Kyuchyuk, and organised by ELF and FNF Southeast Europe. This occasion brought together experts and organisations involved in the project, among them the Academy of Liberalism Estonia, Novum Institute, Projekt Polska, and Liberty Forum Greece, in order to raise a thematic discussion at EU level.

    A key takeaway from the project is, indeed, the lack of a conceptual, straightforward approach at EU level for utilising the full potential of ICTs for improving democracy. This contrasts with the designation of the development of the European Digital Single Market for goods and services as Union’s key priority.

    Yet again, although eDemocracy is not part of the European Single Digital Market, its further strategic development and the components that are to be broadly introduced, such as eID, data protection security regulations, open data exchange, broadband fast internet coverage and, not the least, digital literacy, will give a great push to eDemocracy as well. However, the ‘e’ part, being the technological aspect, is just a supportive element in the concept of eDemocracy, while ‘democracy’ stands for good, inclusive governance and enhanced citizen participation. Along these lines, if DSM is developed one-sidedly and focusing predominantly on technicalities, the countries where the political culture and the state of democracy fall short will face a lengthy process of introduction of e-tools for greater participation.

    Despite the unprecedented scope of digitalisation of practically every aspect of life, the working best practices so far suggest that eDemocracy cannot be seen as a replacement for the traditional representative democratic system. Rather, it is a key supportive element of the evolutionary development of modern democracies and open digital societies. As we aspire to move towards a society with universal, inclusive, transparent, and fair governance, e-Tools could be our best of friends.

     

     

    By: Ivaylo Tsonev

    Project Coordinator for Bulgaria and Macedonia

    Project Office for Southeast Europe of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

     

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