The Hague Pioneers
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The Hague Pioneers

Digital Participation: Trends and Activities.

In 2019, the global percentage of internet users will rise above 50%. The digital illiterate will become the minority. How can our governments better exploit this opportunity to inform, consult and include civilians in their decision-making processes?

Most institutions have embraced the digital opportunities out there. Social media, online markets and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are ways to include a wider audience. So why is it that my municipality is still physically sending me letters about a neighbourhood information night that requires my presence on a date I have trouble getting in my schedule?

There are more areas where the government institution appears to be lagging behind. For example, it takes 200 or more interactions. mostly with paper verification methods, and 30 different people to send a container on the relatively short route from East Africa to Europe, something that Maersk is not doing voluntarely. Also in elections, most countries are still using paper ballots and intensively apply human capital to manually count the votes. This is also the case my country The Netherlands, which is one the countries with the highest percentages of internet users. Our voting ballot still counts as one of the largest pieces of dead tree material I have dotted with only a single dot.

Political systems have not only largely failed to embrace digital channels, they are nowadays even threatened by it, as large global digital platforms such as Facebook seem to facilitate interference with democratic processes by third parties through their platform. Governments need to rethink how they reach out to their citizens, and simultaneously let their citizens reach out to them.

Still, the first signals of a changing political sphere can be spotted. Innovation in digitalisation is increasing exponentially and changing the way governments interact with societies. New horizons are being sketched and potentially some of them might prove helpful. Digital government services in Estonia, for example, are said to save 2,8 million hours of work, or 2% of GDP.

Within the e-governance domain, digital participation is the topic I chose to evaluate, since it can help build a digital inclusive future, bridging the gap of the digital divide. Thereby, I share with you some of the latest trends and leaders who are designing solutions for the new era. Don’t forget to let your Internet-fearing grandma know!

What is digital participation?

Often also termed e-participation, digital participation refers to, quoting, “the use of information and communication technologies to broaden and deepen political participation by enabling citizens to connect with one another and with their elected representatives”. The term came up to better distinguish online behaviour as citizen or as customer, latter of which developed digital literacy much sooner, due to the quicker developing institution of industry under capitalism. The digital customer explores, orders and sells easily on the worldwide web, but the digital citizen has only just been emerging.

Digital participation goes beyond just asking people to share their views about decisions and services proposed by the government, but it can be used to mobilise and initiate action. It is even argued that without digital inclusion the Sustainable Development Goals cannot be reached.

The UN E-Participation framework, an extension of the UN E-Government Survey, differentiates between three levels in defining e-participation, namely e-information, e-consultation and e-decision-making, which are largely inspired from research by Macintosh. They follow a logical order from the first level of digital information, so that evidence-based and informed choices can be made towards the second level, which is a digital consultation on a specific policy. The third level appears to be the most challenging, where actual input is requested for decision making processes through digital channels. Citizenlab, a participatory platform company, extends this with two levels, namely e-collaboration and e-empowerment, of which the latter means the citizen has the dominant voice above the government, or veto right, and institutes the highest level of participation.

E-participation does not necessarily mean that the voice of people is automatically inserted in policies or that any e-participation project is a success. There exist social complexity barriers, political culture barriers, technological barriers and organisational structure barriers that prevent e-participation activities from being effective and beneficial. Tools like the Inform-Consult-Empower framework aim to improve such effectiveness, covering the full spectrum of the three levels mentioned before. Still, every use case is context specific and different ways of approaching shall be required for every programme.

What are the trends?

The 2016 United Nations E-Government Survey has devoted a complete chapter about e-participation in which some trends are mentioned.

  • A growing positive trend towards more pro-active and people-oriented public administrations and policies.
  • Moving away from a people-centric (assuming or knowing needs) to a more people-driven approach, where people determine their own needs in partnerships with governments.
  • Replacement of the ‘upon request’, where people have to wait for an invite to contribute, with a more ‘on demand’ participation model
  • Going away from a ‘government-to-you’ approach, which sees government as a service provider, towards a ‘government-with-you’ approach, focusing more on collaboration and co-design with governments as solution enablers.

Who are the front runners?

The top 50 countries in e-participation, according to the UN standards, looks as follows:

Top 50 performing countries in e-participation in 2016 (UN, 2016)

I selected 4 countries of my interest to be examined more closely on specific use cases of digital participation, namely: United Kingdom, Spain, The Netherlands and Estonia.

The United Kingdom

Being at the top of the list, and high for many years previous, a strong foundation for e-participation is present in the UK. This can be related back to the Transformational Government Strategy, which set out a six-year improvement journey for public services.

The resulting government portal is praised for being one of the only in the world that combines the three levels of e-participation, but performs especially well in the e-consultation segment. Visitors can see policies, check announcements or publications and engage in consultations. The Government shares its position on the comments received from the UK public and explains any changes, mentions what is considered, what has not been considered and why it hasn’t.

The UK government did not bring the level of national e-participation to record highs, however. More organisations are active in the space, such as Nesta, initiator of the European D-CENT project and a global innovation foundation with the lion share of projects based in the UK. A total of 40 projects on improving public services can be counted, among which digital democratic innovations, a data project and a project focusing on the emergence of collective intelligence, where innovative digital solutions are used to create distributed networks of citizens.

Spain

Spain is now ranking tenth in the world in terms of numbers of immigrants after a large increase in the past decade. It is argued that these are taking an important role in the current discourse in the country and effective inclusion of the population in information sharing is more relevant than ever. One of the first well-researched e-participation projects in Spain was done around migration policies by Puzzled by Policy, a currently inactive organisation that aimed to reduce the complexity of decision making within policy and reconnect citizens and other stakeholders with decision makers and policymaking by introducing new technical applications.

With the earlier mentioned Inform-Consult-Empower framework, several interesting findings were done:

  1. The success of e-participation cannot be only focused on the use of innovative ICTs, but face-to-face interaction remains necessary.
  2. Trust is the key factor in participation.
  3. The role of facilitators of the process is vital
  4. Responsive feedback channels with decision-makers are required.
  5. Effective evaluation methods are essential.

Today, Barcelona has taken a frontrunner position on digital participation within the middle of the Catalonian uprise. Their municipality programme has a wide range of projects on digital transformation, innovation and empowerment. For example, projects to put the internet within everyone’s reach and its own digital participatory democracy platform, which is also connected to the D-CENT project.

The Netherlands

The Dutch are also exploiting the D-Cent initiative, led by the project ‘Netwerk Democratie’. The project ended in 2017, but focused on getting organisations known with the tools within the D-CENT framework.

However, the Dutch do more. The government is introducing a huge new law in 2021 called the ‘Omgevingswet’, translated freely to ‘Surroundings Law’, which will bundle regulations on area management, living, infrastructure, environment, nature and water. Because of the expected impact of the law, a digital platform is introduced, where information is shared for policy workers, plan evaluators, permit operators, civilians, companies, municipalities, project initiators, stakeholders of projects and even judicial system workers. Apart from e-information, there is also a strong e-consultation component, where people can share ideas via the platform and stakeholders of projects can easily file claims if they do not agree with activities. Some e-collaboration can be seen in the ability of the development of third applications on top of the platform, as the District Water Board of Delfland has shown by creating a tool for digital regulation control, with which others can also make use. However, not everyone thinks the new law makes optimal use of the possibilities that participation brings.

Several other applications are available. One is the VerbeterDeBuurt website, where 6000 people have shared 14.000 complaints and ideas for improvement to municipalities. Another is MAEX, a social enterprise calling itself the societal stock exchange, where promising societal initiatives are shown and promoted. Municipalities also have their own platforms, such as Stem van West, for West-Amsterdam, where civilians can share ideas and vote or comment on ideas of others. The highest scoring ideas have to be discussed in the local council.

Estonia

In 2007 the world saw the first act of cyberwar ever. A Russian war monument, by many Estonians viewed as a symbol of Russian oppression, was removed after riots of the population. Presumably the Russians, though no one could prove it, attacked the country’s newspapers and forced them to silence. This was only the beginning. The police, banks and the also the national government were all hit by the cyberattack.

A timeline of e-governance in Estonia (e-estonia.com)

While Estonia was already pioneering e-government in 1997, this act of war drove innovation in cybersecurity to new hights. Today Estonia has become the world’s first country to also function as a digital service and offer e-residency, a transnational digital identity, for which you can apply here. It is also the best performing country in terms of users, where 80% of the population in 2015 was using e-government services. But, what does Estonia do specifically on e-participation.

Osale.ee is a specialised platform for policy debate that coordinates public input. Policy proposals are automatically loaded from another information system and everyone can monitor the progress of the submitted policy. However, it appears that Estonia mainly focuses on e-information and e-consultation.

E-decision-making is not a topic of focus, with 2016 being an absolute low point. Some, for example, argue that e-voting in Estonia has even done very little to improve participation. Also, open government data, often collected through participation of citizens, has only developed moderately compared to the other e-government domains. Still, Estonia remains a country to watch, considering they are now educating and training youth from all over Europe in e-participation principles.

Some remaining questions

As always with innovations, the transition to a digital inclusive society is surrounded by uncertainty and doubt. Is this really a solution we want?

Is more democracy the solution?

Gijs van Oenen, Associate Professor in Practical Philosophy at Erasmus University Rotterdam, thinks that a limit to the number of democratically controlled processes is required and that exceeding this limit leads to ‘democracy fatigue’. He argues that we should let more of these processes be governed by algorithms that can predict our political preferences, to relieve the stress on civilians of constantly being involved. Still, algorithms require a data input and where should that data come from? More digital participation activity can lead to more data for input in such algorithms, creating the best of both worlds.

Global governance

Some institutions have thrived in a global environment. Populations are benefiting, as the world is definitely getting better. Universities enjoy an increasing number of international students, opening up science to the globe. And industries have produced, shipped and sold millions of product in their ever surge of growth. Yet, the influence of industries on the decision-making process is getting larger and larger, showing a gripping control of our governmental institutions on the global ecosystem. Could e-participation on a global scale work too? We do not currently have an institution to guide such a process, so what would be the legitimacy of e-participation on this stage? Perhaps the global stage is just a bridge too far, as knowledge on the subject can be biased by whatever media platform people decide to get their information from and the discussion would turn into rants we see on the Facebooks and Twitters between people with opposing world views who will not be open to opinions of others. Face-to-face contact, as the Spain example gave, remains important. Since flying humans over seas is not desirable, might we rely on Virtual and Augmented Reality technology to facilitate global e-participation?

Fragmentation or Integration?

Both the UK and Barcelona, both mentioned for their strong digital participation, have also experienced much debated breaks with governance on a wider geographic scale. Could these events be connected, or is this farfetched? When participation on a local level exposes that constraining rules from higher up are constraining, relatively distant, hard to influence or preventing bottom-up ideas and comments from being inserted, this could indeed lead to friction with the higher level rule-makers. Since I am in favour of a wider global integration, so that governments can regain some power over the mastodonts of capitalism, such a causal connection of e-participation and separatism would definitely have me change my view on e-participation.

Further innovations

With increasing numbers of datapoints, data breaches become more likely. This point of cybersecurity is of outmost importance, as the Estonia case has shown. Blockchain technology is often mentioned as a solution to the data governance obstacles that exist today and should be researched by governments looking to improve on the security, transparency and efficiency of their e-participation processes, where both data management and identity management can be tackled.

Stuart Kaufmann in his book ‘The Search for the Laws of Self-Organisation and Complexity’, states that democracy takes little account of the unfolding, evolving nature of cultures, economies, and societies. Therefore, innovation of our democratic models might be necessary too. Liquid democracy can be an interesting research topic, for example, in which more emphasis is put on the delegation and distribution of voting power. Other innovations such as participatory budgeting are also proposed.

What Kaufmann also taught me that what the future holds for this world is theoretically unpredictable. We simply do not know what will happen, there are just to many variables that are complexly connected. What is certain, however, is that the digital divide is real. Chaos is awaiting the government’s foundation, but that same chaos brings new opportunities to make the best use of the most important data source of all. Us.

Let me know if there is anything you miss, or I have noted wrongly. I also would like to get in touch with people working on the topic, so be sure to reach out to me by commenting down here and I will be sure to get back at you.

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