FFD (2008)14 E
3 December 2008
Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy
Workshop No 4
The “E-inclusion” workshop was divided into two parts, the first on “Access”, chaired by Christer Hallerby, State Secretary, Sweden, and the second on “Proficiency”, chaired by Reinhild Otte, chair of the Council of Europe’s Ad Hoc Advisory Group on Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights.
The discussion spanned various viewpoints on the subject of e-inclusion and the role of technological means in the inclusion process. It was said that, when important subjects were discussed in the information society, every citizen should have an equal opportunity to take part, in so far as was possible, and to bring his or her influence to bear during decision-making processes of an appropriate nature. In such a situation, citizens were in a position that was stronger than it used to be. A number of contributors gave examples during the workshop of the strengthening of citizens’ positions.
E-inclusion was shown to encompass concern for the positions of several different groups of participants. There were still social differences, of which some examples were given. The gaps between the haves and the have-nots were described.
The role of technology in citizen-oriented processes was noted by a number of contributors. During the workshop, in fact, discussions turned at times to the potential offered by interactive technology. The increasingly widespread availability of the Internet, the role played by blogs and wikis and the increased use of e-mail were mentioned, and it was noted that a significant democratic effect was achieved when these tools became available to an ever-larger number of citizens. However, as this process occurred, its inclusive effects – the focal point of this workshop – obviously needed to be observed. New kinds of technological facilities, including various interactive services that were becoming available in a democratic context, should be made available to the greatest possible numbers of people. It was felt that organising and financing such availability was not without complications. The relevant national policies adopted were of different kinds. Some encompassed positions based on a competitive market in which broadband and participation services were supplied to most citizens, while others emphasised the need for complementary political action with a view to reaching social groups with specific needs, or otherwise at risk of being left out.
Discussions at the workshop did not centre on the details of different kinds of technology. Instead, the focus was on social concerns and on making it possible for large groups to participate. Rather than being regarded as a driving force, it was felt that technology had the capacity to play an important supporting role. The emphasis was on the services made available. Internet access, while described as certainly relevant, was said to be only one component of the necessary technology.
One subject about which several workshop contributors spoke was the different kinds of citizen participation. Some citizens may of course find themselves in a position closer than others to the decision-making process. It was possible in this context to draw up guidelines, covering different degrees of closeness of citizens to decision-making positions. Under such guidelines, citizens may be in different situations: receivers of knowledge and information, takers of initiatives, or originators of e-petitions. Such guidelines could also cover opportunities for citizens to play a part in setting agendas, in deliberations at various stages of the final decision-making process, and in analysing the decisions actually made and judging their effects.
The availability of both access and services was discussed at the workshop, starting from some examples of citizen consultation in Sweden, described by Anders Nordh and Hansi Carlsson, SALAR (Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions), and Ami Netzler and June-Ann Vincent, from Västerås (Sweden). Attention was drawn to SALAR’s focus on dialogue with citizens, and the increased concern shown to involve citizens’ panels was described. Examples were given of the ICT-based tools developed for participation, and the fact was mentioned that evaluation processes relating to these tools had been initiated. One example that was given involved every citizen of the Swedish city of Västerås being invited to take part in an open discussion of what the city would be like in the year 2026. It was generally felt that the dialogue between citizens and elected politicians needed to be more mature than it was today – not all politicians had shown the same amount of interest as the citizens. A challenge was also presented by the wish to initiate dialogue with young people. Representatives of political parties were allowed to visit schools in Sweden, and the results often showed that youngsters did want to participate, but not always through conventional forms of participation. They preferred to devise their own.
The need for universal access to be truly universal and, to the maximum extent possible, to include absolutely everybody, was expressed by Antoni Buel I Carreras, of the Spanish Red Cross. Examples were given of the use of technology to assist vulnerable persons, encompassing voluntary programmes relating to employment, lifelong education and various kinds of social provision. Mr Buel I Carreras described a number of services: certain types of education, independent living assistance and social care, that were available to all. New projects relating to nutrition and measures against social violence were discussed. It was evident that many such steps in combination produced inclusive results. A discussion also took place about how to measure the results of projects of special interest, and how to identify people in real need.
A member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Mr Kent Olsson, listed a number of forms of contact between citizens and parliamentarians, stressing the Web activities of political parties, as well as citizens’ initiatives. Problems could, however, arise if there were too many initiatives, for every action needed a response, and it was not always made clear who was responsible for responding. The use of e-mail could become impersonal and standardised, and did not always equate to access for all. Inclusive educational measures might be needed. However, the use of blogs and wikis reflected a positive expansion of contacts.
The theme of “e-citizens” as the vital missing link within e-government services was taken up by Matt Poelmans, representing Burgerlink, of the Netherlands, who said that e-citizenship would prove satisfying and stimulating. Mr Poelmans listed 10 important requirements for citizen participation, constituting what he called a service code. He also said that an e-citizens’ charter would be useful as a basis for evaluation and for classifying tools, and would also be able to reveal deficiencies. He also mentioned a survey of 100 examples of e-democracy and e-society. This was a matter of great interest to the audience, as so many different kinds of participation projects exist. Assessments of the extent to which politicians lived up to their promises were also noted, and consideration was given to how such information could be made generally available. Mr Poelmans mentioned the possibility of a national ombudsman to rule on citizen participation matters and to rate different applications. Also discussed were different types of citizen participation, a topic that has proved to be of interest in many countries. This was an area where guidelines could prove especially useful.
Prof Monique Leyenaar, from Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, made a plea for citizen involvement, transparency and inclusive politics. No one should be left out. Local government could be responsible for keeping itself informed of which citizens are participating. Government ought to become more efficient overall if large numbers of citizens participate, leading to a higher citizen satisfaction rate and a lower rate of political alienation. Participation often proved important for new contributors, but they were unfortunately few and far between nowadays. It was a real challenge to find ways of encouraging people to start to participate. What moral restrictions were there on the offering of inducements?
Ms Leyenaar discussed the whole information/representation/participation spectrum, and noted that the turnout in referendums was often low. She also mentioned the Dutch government's recent withdrawal of its e-voting system. Deliberative participation through dialogue was preferable, especially if random sampling could be used, avoiding undesirable bias. There was often a risk of bias inherent in the participants themselves, for it was mainly those with an interest who attended. New methods would be welcome in this context, making allowances for people who preferred to use the Internet.
With Dr Reinhild Otte in the chair, the afternoon of Workshop 4 was devoted to topics under the general heading of “proficiency”. Dr Otte made an introductory speech, noting that citizen empowerment clearly depended on education. People needed to be knowledgeable and aware of how they could get their voices heard. She suggested that the workshop address the different supporting roles that technology could play in this context. Every participating citizen of course needed relevant knowledge of the matters under discussion and those that required action, and education could provide different kinds of support in this field. These needed to be made generally available, so that no social groups were isolated and left out.
Mr Miguel Gonzalez-Sancho, from DG Information Society and Media, European Commission, began by discussing digital divides. He pointed to the fact that the influence of digital divides altered as social groups changed in size and form over a period of time. Digital divides were often particularly related to human and social capital. Among the groups in need of specific attention and resources and special policies, Mr Gonzalez-Sancho mentioned the elderly and persons with disabilities. Supporting instruments for such different groups of course differed in nature. Coordination between key players could, however, be valuable for the measurement of efficiency and analysis of impact.
He stressed that information technology was reshaping society as a whole, and that it was difficult to formulate national participation policies, as there were in many cases moving targets. It was mentioned as a central principle that Internet access in each of the environments concerned ought to be regarded as a human right.
Representing UK online centres in Sheffield, United Kingdom, Ms Anne Faulkner spoke of her e-inclusion experience. She preferred to regard inclusion as a social matter, rather than something to be dealt with through technological reform. She quoted as an example the fact that 75% of the UK's socially excluded citizens were also digitally excluded. Consequently, political measures to deal with digital divides ought to be connected with social policy.
Ms Faulkner also regarded proficiency as an intermediate step between access and motivation. She described projects deriving value from informal and voluntary ICT training, organised by online centres. A central digital inclusion plan for the UK was to be made public in the near future.
Ms Jutta Croll said that 9,000 access points had been arranged by her organisation, the Stiftung Digitale Chancen, in Bremen, Germany. These access points had proved to be useful means of improving people´s proficiency to take part in the digital world. Campaigns had been organised to improve access for migrants in rural areas, for the elderly, for young people, and especially for women. There had been discussions about e-voting and about various aspects of participation through certain e-government services. Among the positive effects observed were increased coverage, time savings, decreased costs, increased safety and security, and assistance for persons with certain types of disabilities. Digital literacy could be increased through the provision of service content of a higher quality. However, there could be grounds for a redefinition of the concept of digital literacy.
According to Ms Croll, there was still a need for measures to increase the opportunities for participation, especially for marginalised social groups. If adequate social measures were taken, safer and more secure participatory services would be helpful for larger groups.
Children’s access to participation was discussed by Prof Divina Frau-Meigs, Paris, France. She stated that “children know how to decode, but not how to recode”, in a comment that she made about children’s apparent ability to use new technology in their own ways. Young children did not participate in the ways in which their older sisters and brothers expected them to. She noted that current media education may show a tendency to disconnect from deeper concerns. There was scope for more to be done to ensure that education covered moral aspects and human rights. Taking the broader view, there was scope for changes in teacher training in order to get teachers to “come out of their bunkers”.
Ms Frau-Meigs also discussed the advantages of participation, and noted industry's role and interest in this context. She expressed general support for an increase in education for democratic citizenship, and suggested a European curriculum for educational inclusion.
Summary of the Workshop
Workshop 4, on “e-inclusion”, addressed the subject of increased citizen participation in democratic processes, and especially such participation as can be supported to some extent by technology that is available to greater or lesser numbers of people. Attention was obviously focused on the sensitive positions of certain groups of citizens, on the risk of being left out, and on the problems relating to digital divides. Measures in support of access for specific social groups were discussed, as were concerns relating to educational inclusion.
Both formal and non-formal learning were considered during the workshop, and an emphasis was also placed on the importance of lifelong learning processes as a basis for active democratic participation and for concern about human rights. These processes should start at an early stage of our lives.