Last Friday I caught an infeasibly early plane to attend a meeting in Brussels run under the auspices of eGovernment Trendswatch – title: “eDemocracy and eParticipation: a research oriented perspective”
My presentation gave a brief overview of ITC‘s projects over the past 10 years, inevitably including more detailed consideration of ePetitioning, as one of the more mature areas of e-participation (Scotland’s version has been around for 10 years now!).
The first general point I tried to get across was that it is still the usual suspects who create petitions. I wondered if there were ways of encouraging of NGOs and communtity groups that would make a bigger impact on community engagement?
Secondly, expectations and perceptions can be as important as actual outcomes: that means that (a) managing inadmissible petitions is part of the process and (b) being taken seriously and having a transparent, fair process can be at least as important to the petitioner as having their council or parliament back the petition.
Thirdly, the importance of designing for evaluation of the system in operation, and then carrying out long term studies of the impact of the e-participation system, looking at it as a policy question as much as a system evaluation one.
Synchronicity: the CLG and Scottish Parliament reports
These are obvious points, though maybe not said often enough, but it turns out the same things were being considered in much more detail. Last week, the English local government ministry (CLG) published a report on “Empowering communties to influence local government” which also concluded that e-participation has a “surpisingly weak” effect on democratic decision making: though happily it was more positive about the impact of petitions when they are integrated into the political process, with guaranteed consideration by elected representatives.
As I noted yesterday, the Scottish Parliament also produced a report on its own petitioning process: a highlight for me is the emphasis on involving community workers, and also using former petitioners as ambassadors for the process. More at a future date, I hope. Meantime you can go and see Scottish blogger DoctorVee having some fun with the Committee’s apparent naivete when it comes to its ideas as to how to use social media and I’m sure he won’t be the last to comment (for my part, I’m quite impressed by the SP’s apparent willingness to learn).
Challenges for e-participation
But back to the point! Since the Brussels meeting was about fact finding and agenda setting, I thought it would be good to conclude my presentation with my thoughts on the matter:
- E-Participation requires working across organisational silos. The citizen doesn’t care (and shouldn’t have to know) which department(s) or level(s) of government is responsible for resolving an issue
- At the EU level, language issues in cross-national projects are generally ignored: No serious consideration is given to how should nation speak unto nation (unless it is in English).
- Case in point: the current project eMPOWER aims at creating cross-border community actions involving citizens from Greece, Italy and Portugal. The language used for deliberation? English!!
- Ensuring (and verifying) ongoing viability: there is very little done by the EU to follow up operation after a project has completed. Meaning there is no real incentive to deliver a genuinely viable product.
- Despite lip-service, little use is made of existing opensource code or shared with other projects. Nor is the use of existing repositories encouraged.
On a positive note, I feel that MOMENTUM and practitioner groups such as PEP–NET have great potential for sharing best practice and acting as contact point for sharing knowledge & experience – particularly in creating and supporting links to the European Parliament, which many projects have found difficult I believe.
MOMENTUM has published its second annual review – available from its Knowledge Base in the folder ‘Momentum/Other Public Material’ – it comes to similar conclusions – have a look at the findings and recommendations around page 58-62. Sadly, there are no responsibilities or timescales set out, so it’s not clear how serious the intention is to act.
It has been suggested to me that perhaps they could organise a Concertation meeting (or a slot at another meeting) of the projects to consider & discuss the report, and work with the projects to agree an Action Plan that is useful to the projects (and not just MOMENTUM!).
 The issue of ensuring admissible petitions particularly applies at the European Union level where the rights of the Commission and Parliament are closely circumscribed, and many topics are the responsibility of national governments. Indeed, PETI has been rejecting 30-40% of petitions in recent years. Environment is within the EU’s remit and is a popular pilot subject for e-participation projects…
 (update) Michael Kaschesky has blogged the bullet points from all the presentations at the meeting over at epractice.eu .