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Digital democracy could engage citizens in Europe

Digital technology has become a part of daily life for shopping, work and media consumption – and it is rapidly advancing into the physical world with the development of the Internet of Things. Less well-known are digital initiatives in democracy

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, October 05, 2017

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Digital innovations have not been used sufficiently at European level either. The European Commission has funded some pilot projects targeting youth e-participation. Some MEPs communicate digitally with their constituencies. However digital democracy agenda is largely missing from both strategic policy documents, such as the Commission’s Digital Agenda for Europe, and practical measures.
Digital innovations have not been used sufficiently at European level either. The European Commission has funded some pilot projects targeting youth e-participation. Some MEPs communicate digitally with their constituencies. However digital democracy agenda is largely missing from both strategic policy documents, such as the Commission’s Digital Agenda for Europe, and practical measures.

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by Assya Kavrakova*

Latvia has set up an on-line platform – ManaBalss – for crowdsourcing legislation. It was visited by over 70 per cent of Latvian citizens last year, helping to shape the agenda of the country’s parliament. The city of Paris is using crowdsourcing to decide the use of 5 per cent of its investment budget: Mayor Anne Hidalgo said she was “handing the keys of the budget to the citizens”. Iceland decided to crowdsource a new constitution after its 2008 financial crisis and the protests that followed. Work on the constitution would be carried out by a national assembly of 1500 people – of which 1200 were randomly selected from the national registry.

The experiments so far have had mixed results. Parisians chose to invest in a variety of projects, in particular related to the environment. These included vegetation walls to improve biodiversity and the introduction of learning gardens in primary schools.

However, Iceland is not yet using its crowdsourced constitution. It was put to a national referendum, in which it won the support of 67 per cent of voters, but the parliament has not adopted it. Still, the experience paved the way for numerous practices of co-decision with citizens that are taking place in the country today. 

Backing up these examples, an assessment by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) of 27 national case studies shows that crowdsourcing tools can be an important component of democratic innovation. They can enhance participation by involving citizens and civil society beyond the typical stakeholders and by engaging young people. 

These digital methods can also provide a learning process for both citizens and decision-makers by encouraging a real-time exchange of views on the content and process of policies and policy-making. Fresh and innovative ideas for shaping policy based on the wisdom of the crowd can emerge, allowing hidden expertise into the debate. Finally, digital participation increases the legitimacy of policymaking, which is necessary in the EU more than ever.

Further efforts are needed, however, to maximise the benefits of digitally-enabled participatory democracy.

Digital democracy methods alone cannot ensure representativeness, so they need to be applied in a way that complements traditional democratic processes. Digital innovations should also be accompanied by sound policies to ensure privacy, promote new media and combine on- and off-line activities. Digital media literacy also needs to be raised. The younger generation, on the one hand, spend a lot of time on-line and are not interested in traditional forms of political participation. Older people, in contrast, are sometimes misinformed, something that can have a detrimental impact on important votes, as has been seen recently. 

Without advances in these areas, any framework for digital democracy is at risk of backfiring – a serious problem for the functioning of democracy as a whole. At present most EU member states lack well-developed policies in media literacy – though there are exceptions such as Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden. Pan-European approach to media literacy is a must. 

Digital innovations have not been used sufficiently at European level either. The European Commission has funded some pilot projects targeting youth e-participation. Some MEPs communicate digitally with their constituencies. However digital democracy agenda is largely missing from both strategic policy documents, such as the Commission’s Digital Agenda for Europe, and practical measures. 

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which was established in 2012 to allow citizens to propose subjects and topics for legislation to the European Commission, was this year declared unfit for purpose. Now he Commission has vowed to revamp it. Although Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty provides a legal basis for the Commission to engage citizens in parallel to its consultations with organised interests, the Commission’s on-line consultations fail to differentiate between or to accommodate their different kinds of need. This prevents citizens from contributing to the legislative process, as most consultations are highly technical and available only in a limited number of languages.

To reduce the gap between themselves and citizens and transform the relationship into a partnership, EU decision-makers should embrace democratic innovation. They can do this by developing digital democracy policies for citizen engagement as an integral part of the Digital Single Market. Moreover, they should use digital tools to interact with young people where they naturally are – in the digital space – instead of waiting for young people to engage in politics as currently practised. 

Digital democracy has the potential to contribute to the rejuvenation of the European project and to the creation of an engaged citizenship. This can happen only if both decision-makers and citizens grasp the opportunities of the digital transformation.

*Assya Kavrakova is the Director of the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS)
**First published in friendsofeurope.org

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