Influencer Post: Which Way To Participatory Democracy?

Influencer Post: Which Way To Participatory Democracy?

Every time an event concerning participatory democracy, eParticipation or just plain citizen engagement takes place in Brussels, it’s worth a bit of reflection.

The European Union has done a lot over the last 10-15 years to address the perceived gap between citizens and political institutions. Progress was made and projects were launched. Some of those projects were more permanent (the European Citizens’ Initiative and the Petitions’ Portal). Other were less so (the Meeting of Minds, European Citizens Consultations and EuroPolis).

Yet, this progress has been slow. Had the economic crisis not intervened to trouble the waters, we clearly would be witnessing a radically different scenario today.

And yet, right when many of use were wondering whether hope was lost, a resurgence in the debate can be clearly be seen on both sides of the Atlantic — and the best may be yet to come.

Meeting in Brussels

It is with these considerations in mind that those who work in civic engagement met recently in Brussels to present, discuss and assess a wide array of pilots, beta-phase programs and tools.

The gathering was part of a joint action by the EU government and Civil Society, spearheaded by the European Citizen Action Service. It was called Joint Citizen Action for a Stronger and Citizen-Friendly Union.

The overarching tone of meetings like these is always a mix of pragmatic despair and endless hope in the face of ambitious plans and projects that, for a number of reasons, fail to take off as they should.

The issues at the heart of these shortcomings are more complex than a blog post can convey. But we can attempt an educated guess.
Leaving aside all socio-political and economic considerations, it could be argued that almost every time central governments have tried their hand at it, on both sides of the Atlantic, they have fallen short of expectations.

Why Governments Fail

The whys and hows have been the center of many a dissertation, but it could be argued that government — any government — by itself is in a dubious position to succeed in any serious, long-term, and large-scale citizen’s engagement.

The reasons are inherent to the very nature of a government or public administration, and may also be traced to one big misunderstanding. The participation of citizens — and therefore a higher level of engagement, empowerment and ownership of the public process — does not entail running everything past them for approval on the Internet.

Last time I checked, much of the western world was still on a parliamentary/presidential form of democratic government. Electronic participation simply means citizens can more easily be heard and officials can better take the pulse of the situation and obtain clear messages about priorities.

Indeed, it is not a mere coincidence that, time and again, smaller countries always inspire the best practices. For example, at the Brussels conference, Estonia was often center stage.

Looking Ahead

Where does that leave us?

Based on personal experience, professional expertise and knowledge of several pilot projects, I personally feel strongly that governments of the world over should overcome any wariness about dealing with corporations and the private sector, and try to strike fruitful collaborations.

Corporations offer “muscles” and widespread reach. Governments could do their part by bringing a sense that balanced, non-partisan and ethical work is being done for the common good (and keeping regulatory functions in an entirely different domain).

By envisioning novel ways to engage with the public, a truly new age of eParticipation is very much within reach. And, in a society that has seen so much paradigm-shifting change, this new approach is not only necessary, but it may also be welcome.

Is this going to be painless? The answer is a big fat NO. Striving for more meaningful eParticipation is like charting new territory. But whomever heads the race will reap the benefits of the pros and learn from the cons.

The hesitation blues should be discarded and an effort made to overcome technical hurdles, scarcity of means and clumsy implementations – three factors that have tarnished many a project thus far – and to replace them with the graceful and pragmatic adoption of new and zeitgeisty tools for the new millennium.

Francesco Calazzo is a European digital advocacy expert based in Brussels.  He led the design of the European Parliament’s Petition System and has advised European governments on digital citizen participation strategies.

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