This year's Digital Democracy Day, initiated by ECAS, focused on the question of how crowdsourcing can improve and simplify citizen participation at both local and EU level.
By Melissa Ihlow
Digital Democracy Day is a day to recognize and applaud the efforts taking place across Europe, from the local to the national to the EU level, to modernize democracy to fit the realities of the 21st century. Organized by our partner ECAS and with over 140 registered for the event in Brussels on February 27th, the digital aspect of the 2018 Digital Democracy Day was also actively applied, with nearly 4000 people reaching the livestream.
The theme this year was crowdsourcing on the EU-level and how to use these methods to ensure that decisions are taken with citizens and not for them. Crowdsourcing is a way of solving problems and producing new ideas by connecting online with people that you otherwise wouldn’t reach. As information is exchanged at lightning speed through the internet, citizens are given the opportunity to learn from others and collaborate. The internet and crowdsourcing can provide citizens with new instruments to organise themselves, to participate in the democratic process and to inform themselves about decision-making processes in their communities. In the political sphere, crowdsourcing can take place at many stages of legislation, whether during processes such as problem identification, collecting arguments, decision making or even implementing solutions.
The main questions asked of the conference featuring two panels were: Could crowdsourcing be the way forward in fostering European citizenship? And can it improve conditions for civic and democratic participation at EU-level to contribute to citizens‘ understanding of EU policy-making processes? To answer these questions, ECAS invited 13 speakers from all corners of Europe.
The first panel focused on the lessons learned from citizens at the national level, where four platforms engaged in strengthening citizens‘ participation on a local level were presented and discussed. Imants Breidaks, CEO of ManaBalss.lv in Latvia, presented a digital democracy infrastructure that allows citizens to change legislation in their country. 70% of Latvians have visited the website, 200.000 people in Latvia have at least voted once on the website and 50% of all the initiatives registered on the platform received the required number of votes to see a legislative act. Not only are the figures impressive, but one of the platform’s guiding principles is that citizens should have access to highest political power without the need to be experts in writing legal articles.
Nicolas Patte from the project ‚Parlement & Citoyens‘ then criticized archaic tools of policy-making in France, pointing out that people today are much more informed, connected and intelligent – which is why nowadays citizens want to be involved in making the decisions which concern them more than ever. The collaborative platform between parliaments and citizens for drafting laws is open to any knowledge or wisdom from people. As Patte said so aptly, “the number of participants does not make the participation a success or failure,“ it’s “the diversity put on the table by collective intelligence“ which is more important. And these two platforms were not the only ones to report good experiences with crowdsourcing on the local level. Other speakers confirmed positive feedback from citizens and their will to participate actively in political decision-making.
The second panel, presenting ideas for a crowdsourcing pilot at the EU level, used these experiences on local level to frame a possible crowdsourcing project transnationally. The overall goal of crowdsourcing at the EU level at this point should be to inform and raise awareness amongst citizens on how they can participate in decision-making, to promote the concept of active European citizenship and to improve the conditions for democratic participation of citizens in general. This will not only strenghtem confidence in the European institutions, but it will also bring citizens closer to supranational policy-making in the EU and give them a voice.
ECAS recommends using crowdsourcing mainly at two phases of the policy cycle: issue identification and policy formulation. Citizens would first identify problems they have in their daily lives and then articulate how they think decision-makers should solve these problems. For the 2019 elections, ECAS‘ goal is to reach out to the Spitzenkandidaten to have them commit to the topic and consider citizen input if they want to get elected. In order to make the pilot successful, civil society actors and NGOs need to be involved as mediators between citizens and political institutions. In this context Elisa Lironi, Digital Democracy Manager of ECAS, suggested an EU level pilot on the topic of air quality. Air, like water, is a basic human right that everyone can support on a personal level and where we can see political willingness being created. Air pollution is responsible for 400.000 premature deaths every year in Europe alone, and its estimated costs in the EU exceed 330 billion Euros.
The second part of the conference, also left room for critical voices regarding the use of crowdsourcing and its limitations. For instance, Stefan Schaefers, who is Head of European Affairs for the King Baudouin Foundation, alerted that an EU level pilot might be a dangerous move now, as there’s a high chance of failure because of the lack of time before the 2019 elections. He stated that there must be an accurate representation of all kinds of citizens, which is difficult to achieve online, especially given that in the past, active interest groups have dominated discussions. For Rasmund Ojvind Nielsen, Researcher for the Danish Board of Technology Foundation, crowdsourcing in digital form is even a gateway for fake participation and a purely online dialogue misses a deliberative opportunity. Following this logic, blended participation is a sine qua non for EU e-democracy, combining traditional face-to-face participation methods such as workshops or citizen forums with E-participation. Besides that the combination of on - and offline methods makes it easier for political elites to recalibrate their political compass with the help of ordinary citizens.
To contrast these doubts, Aline Muylaert of CitizenLab presented a platform that is already being used by 65 governments worldwide. It allows citizens to personalize and filter the platform based on their personal interest and location. With this platform, that could potentially be used for crowdsourcing on the EU level, governments are able to engage citizens on participation projects, manage citizen inputs and understand their needs better based on data insights. Among others, Mrs. Muylaert's recommendation for an EU pilot is to stimulate civic participation by visualising the decision-making process in order to make it more transparent for the people.
What remains as an overall impression of the conference can be summarized with the words used by Gilles Pelayo in his keynote speech: “Crowdsourcing tools can play a very important role in democratic invention. At the same time, one should be aware that at least online-crowdsourcing is a complementary, not a replacing political tool.” Additionally, the majority seemed to be d’accord with what Josien Pieterse of Netwerk Democratie said: “Representative democracy cannot survive without more deliberative democracy.” Therefore, citizens‘ participation on crowdsourcing platforms is a step in the right direction.