In an increasingly digitalized world, democracy has to adapt to a new environment. In order to bridge the gap between citizens and governments, and to promote the citizens’ participation in the democratic process, EU member States have started exploring e-democracy tools to recover citizen trust.
The European Parliament has focused on this field at the request of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) Committee in order to find the best practices and e-democracy tools that could be implemented at the EU level.
Elisa Lironi, the Digital Democracy Manager at European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) answered our questions. ECAS’ missions are to empower citizens to exercise their rights, and to promote open and inclusive decision-making through the provision of high-quality advice, research and advocacy, as well as capacity building for civil society organisations. As the author of the study « Potential and challenges of e-participation in the European Union » she gave us her expert opinion on e-democracy.
Why do some countries across Europe have different approaches regarding e-democracy?
Governments start implementing e-democracy mechanisms for different reasons and each case should be analyzed.
For example, in 2010 Iceland was recovering from a heavy financial crisis and as a result of deep crises in the legitimacy of its political and economic establishment, Iceland’s Parliament and Prime Minister (of the time) proposed a crowdsourcing experience to rewrite the Icelandic Constitution. So e-democracy was implemented as a way to regain trust of citizens in the Icelandic government.
Finland instead, is a very technologically advanced country, where hi-speed Internet access is a legal right so following this background, the government adopted the New Citizens Initiative Act and today there is an e-participation platform for this.
Do you think that cyberattacks are an obstacle for the evolution of e-democracy in some member States?
Yes sure because there are still many people who do not trust online services, tools because they are afraid, for example, that their data can be stolen or information can be held against them. Cyberattacks reinforce this sentiment and slows down the process of widespread e-participation.
What are the measures already in place about e-democracy at the EU level?
On the institutional level, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) has a strong online component, so it can be considered an e-democracy tool at the EU level. Online EU public consultations are also part of these measures taken, but the questions are quite specific so there is mainly participation from experts in the field of the consultation and less from citizens.
As additional e-democracy measures at the EU level, we can include e-participation projects co-funded by the Commission and implemented by organizations (like ECAS), but these projects are usually short-term and rarely sustainable after the end of the project.
Some MEPs have also worked on their own initiatives by creating their own platforms to reach out to their constituents.
Do you think that the first concrete measures in this field must be taken at the national level or at the European level?
I think both. There are already a lot of e-democracy mechanisms being applied at local and national level and the EU level can definitely learn from these experiences. But the EU is also different so it should start experimenting with e-participation tools on its own to assess the potential and challenges of these tools.
Would the national measures be supported by the European Union or would their implementation depend on the Member States will?
I think national measures depend mostly on Member States’ will, although this does not exclude the fact that the EU could support them or be a role model by applying e-democracy mechanisms on its own.
Do you think that e-democracy would facilitate public consultations for citizens? Would it bridge the gap between the EU institutions and the people? Do you think that consultations would be binding?
Online public consultations are already a part of e-democracy. What should be the focus is how inclusive and representative these consultations are. A consultation is a way to consult and they don’t have to be binding but it is important to give feedback, to explain very clearly to participants how their contributions will be taken into consideration and what sort of impact will the consultation have on policy-making. It is extremely important to meet the expectations of the participants.
Do you think it will allow a revival of the citizens’ interests in European policies? In your opinion, can we translate the ideal of e-democracy into useful tools for the EU?
You will always have people who are not interested or disengaged, but the point is to give the right tools to those who do want to participate. I think there is a strong potential for ICT (information and communications technologies) to contribute to a better democracy because e-participation tools could make democracy more efficient and widespread (you would just need the Internet and you could contribute to policy-making). Of course, online tools are always complementary to offline tools and shouldn’t replace them.
The EU should embrace these new online mechanisms to reach out to citizens and allow them to have a say in decision-making processes. Traditional politics, based on elections, is not enough for many people anymore. Many people (i.e. young people) are using technology to voice their opinions on specific issues they care about and prefer having more direct contact with their policy-makers.
The EU should do two things: first, exploit technology better in order to understand what citizens are voicing online and see how this can contribute to better EU policy-making and second, experiment much more with online e-participation platforms to allow citizens to have a say and impact on policy-making.
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