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Forum History

 

The Forum was established by the Third Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe  (Warsaw, May 2005), to strengthen democracy, political freedoms and citizens' participation.

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Forum previous sessions

Forum_Democracy2011

(Limassol, Cyprus, October)

Interdependence of democracy and social cohesion.

New: Proceedings

"Radical measures taken in many countries to try to balance public budgets are both necessary and understandable” but  “Countries are running a high risk of seriously undermining the European model of social cohesion.”  declared Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland while opening the Cyprus Forum.

2010

(Yerevan, October)

Perspectives 2020 Democracy in Europe - Principles and Challenges

Proceedings

 

''The Council of Europe has a unique strategic role to play in strengthening good democratic governance at all levels in the European space''. Democracy, or rather good democratic governance, is now not only intrinsically linked to the respect of human rights but is also recognised as the most effective form of governance to ensure stability, sustainability and well-being.

 That was the main message of the 2010 Forum.

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2009

(Kyiv, October)

Electoral systems: strengthening democracy in the 21st century

(Proceedings)

 "In a genuine democracy, the citizen is sovereign and the voter decides" - that was the main message of the 2009 Forum, which highlighted the need for greater public involvement, with a view to increasing voter turnout and ensuring that all stages of public life are democratic..

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2008

(Madrid, October)

"E-democracy: who dares?"

 

The discussions addressed the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on democracy.

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2007

(Stockholm, June)

"Power and empowerment - The interdependence of democracy and human rights"

 

This event addressed issues such as the role and responsibilities of the opposition, representative democracy at the local and regional level, empowerment of the individual and non-discrimination, respect for freedom of expression and association for civil society, and fostering democracy, human rights and social networks.

 (...)

 

2006

(Moscow, October)

"The role of political parties in the building of democracy"

 

The Forum reflected on  the role and responsibilities of political parties in finding democratic solutions to contemporary challenges, the interaction between political parties and with other actors in the democratic process, and the building and strengthening of democratic institutions.

(...)

 

Launch meeting (Warsaw, November 2005)

"Citizens' participation"

 

 

The discussions addressed the state of contemporary democracy in Europe.

(...)

Previous projects

("Making

Democratic institutions work")

 

« e-Democracy: who dares? »
Forum for the Future of Democracy
2008 Session
Madrid, Spain
15-17 October 2008

Lawrence Pratchett
Head of Department of Public Policy, Leicester Business School, De Montfort University, United Kingdom

Thank you.

I want to share with you something that I discovered that was very surprising for me on Monday. Monday last week I discovered for the first time that we are really and truly in the internet age.
Now, I can see from the looks on your faces that you do not think that is anything very surprising but for me it was a big surprise because I was teaching a group of students aged 19-20 and I did the usual thing I do with them and asked them “when did you first send an e-mail?, when did you first look at a website?” and so on. And none of them, not one of them could answer that question because they did not remember. For the first time my students have come right the way through school, their whole lives with the internet as far as they are concerned. They do not remember it as a new technology. It is something that has always been there.

Now, this to me seems to be very, very important for understanding what democracy is about in the electronic age and what we can deliver with e-democracy. We are really in the internet age. If we think about how we use technologies in our day-to-day lives, whether it is Skype or some other technology that we are using, they are very much fundamental to everything we do, they shape how we got here to this conference today, they shape how we are going to communicate with our families later on, how we will communicate with our organisations and so on. So they are fundamental to what we do.
I was also interested to note that the internet has penetrated right across Europe. Some statistics I looked at the other day suggested that 48% of households across Europe - that is greater Europe, the Europe that the Council of Europe is interested in - 48% of households now have some form of internet access available to them either via broadband or via mobile phone technology and so on.
This is a significant step but, having said that, there are also significant problems from the democratic point of view. We know that there is still a significant digital divide in relation to the internet both within countries (some people have access and some people do not) and also between countries. In some countries the penetration is more or less at the full extent that it can be without really extending it beyond those people who have the capacity to use it and in other countries it is very limited still.

Well, I am also aware that there have been very many e-democracy initiatives led by both governments and citizens, some of which have been a success but more of which have been a failure and we are going to talk more about those - both myself and Vasilis I think - in the next few minutes.

There is also, and I think this is fundamental to this whole conference in the next few days, significant uncertainties about what technology should be doing for democracy. Should it be reinforcing existing institutions of democracy by supporting politicians and parliaments in their work and governments more generally by enhancing transparency for example? Should it be engaging citizens more directly in the policy process in decision-making and so on? Should it be seeking to improve the quality of deliberation so that citizens have more information and more knowledge with which to understand the political process? Should it be about building communities - actually helping communities to develop the resources that they have?
I am not going to try and answer those questions for you because, in some respects, I think e-democracy can be about all of those things, but I think that it is important to understand that it can do lots of different things and not all of those are mutually reinforcing.

I am going to deal with three very brief questions in the few minutes that I have available. Like all good academics, I can of course expand on this indefinitely if you really want me to talk forever but I am going to try and keep my comments fairly brief.
I am going to ask first of all: “where are we now in terms of e-democracy?”, particularly focusing on what governments have done and where citizens think they are in relation to that. Secondly, I am going to give a very brief discussion of how we got to here - how did we get to where we are now? I am going to go fairly quickly over that bit because I understand that Vasilis is going to talk more about the background and history of e-democracy. And finally I am going to talk about where we are going, particularly focusing on some of the opportunities that we have, coming out of this conference and out of the work that the Council of Europe more generally has been doing in the area of e-democracy. And I am going to talk also about some of the risks that we might face;we have already picked up on some of these, but I will try and pick up on some of the other risks that I think are there.

So, let me start with our first question: where are we now in relation to e-democracy? And I want us to think about governments versus citizens here. Governments I think are generally, in Europe, on the cusp of e-democracy. That is they are not quite there yet. They have done a lot of experimentation, the Council of Europe as part of its CAHDE work ( Ad Hoc Committee on e-Democracy, sorry, for those of you who do not know about CAHDE), has spent the last two years among other things collecting information on what every country in Europe is doing in relation to e-democracy. And most countries, not all, but most countries can claim to be doing some things in relation to enhancing democracy using new technologies. There have been lots of experiments: for example we can point to the e-voting experiments in Switzerland and Estonia, some would claim they are not experiments but real life, that’s not the debate I want to get into, but they provide us with real life examples of what is happening in relation to e-voting. In other countries developing e-parliament solutions are becoming very important and I see that Gherardo Casini is here from the United Nations talking about that whole project that they’ve developed in relation to that later in the week. In other countries there are whole systems of electronic petitioning taking place: in Scotland, in Germany, and Estonia as well has a version of this, and various other countries as well are doing e-petitioning. Governments are sponsoring a whole range of things that might take place to enhance democracy. There has also been a big explosion in terms of e-consultation and e-forums in different countries.
Now, these are quite interesting, because they do not fit very closely with what Johan was talking about a moment ago. These are top-down initiatives which seem to recreate what we had off-line, in the on-line world. Governments are doing things which are about how governments want to work, how they want to engage with citizens in particular ways.
But let’s think about how citizens are using this technology for a moment, this wonderful internet technology which my students now have grown up with and see as fundamental to their lives. Well, the mainstreaming of the internet in their lives means that they are using exactly the same type of technologies that Johan was talking about and we all are in some respects. I was struck by some figures on Facebook use which said that there were a hundred and thirty two million visitors to Facebook in June alone and a hundred and seventeen million visitors to MySpace in the same month, this is June 2008. . In the UK recent statistics demonstrate that the average Facebook user in the UK spends two and a half hours per month on Facebook. The average Second Life user spends five and a half hours of their life per month on Second Life. Now these are significantly huge amounts of time for people who are active doing other things but they show that they are quite fundamental to the way in which people are operating. Some of the quotes that were given at the start of this session, on the film that you saw, were doing the same sort of thing. There has also being this big growth in citizen journalism blogging and so on - in which citizens are busy using the internet in ways that are developing their own communities, having their own discussions, leading their own process through their political and social life. I think the thing for citizens that has always been true in the off-line world is that they rarely distinguish between what is their social life, what is their economic interest and what are their political interests, so in the on-line world the same is happening. Facebook does not have its own political corner; some of the communities may be inherently political but much of what happens on Facebook and elsewhere (I am using Facebook by the way as an example rather than as the only technology here) what happens on Facebook is a range of discussions, some of which may lead to political engagement, others of which will not; that is the same in the off-line world.
So what I see here, and this is my first real significant point beyond the fact that we live in the internet age, what I see happening is a disjuncture between what governments are doing on the one hand to try and encourage e-democracy and the way in which citizens are using the technology. They have a different repertoire of use and I think we need to think more carefully about that repertoire of use.

The second question that I was going to answer is “how do we get here?” I will do it very quickly; I will allow Vasilis to do the more detailed historical process, but I think the interesting point I would want to draw out is that where governments have got to in relation to e-democracy is to come through e-government. So they started first of all putting services to citizens on-line, providing websites, creating systems in which you could order, pay your taxes, buy products and so on from the government, replicating the business sector, the commercial sector in terms of that model and then they have added on e-democracy. So we see in many countries, and this is particularly true of my own country, the United Kingdom, that governments see e-democracy as another service which it might provide citizens with. It is starting to move away from that now but in the past it was actually described as a service: e-democracy. Citizens do not see e-democracy in that way, they see a whole range of different things which they are using online and they have come to the political process, where they have done so at all, through their social and economic activity on the internet. Again they do not distinguish what is a government website and what is a commercial website in terms of how they might use it. They might complain about the government website which has a hundred and one different things which you can do on it whereas if you go to your travel agent website, Expedia, or if you go to a book website, wherever, you can only do one real thing on it, making it much easier to use. But they do not really distinguish them in terms of how they would want to use these websites, how they would want to use these technologies. So, what we have is governments expecting citizens to use their technologies in a whole range of different ways which do not reflect the repertoires of action and the approach to using the technologies which citizens have. This is very much true of my students, but also true I think of the wider communities in which we live.
Which begs another question really: do we expect too much of citizens on-line?, Do we expect that if we provide them with a forum, if we provide them with an opportunity to participate that they will participate,. I think the answer to that is yes ! Governments have to think much more carefully about how they engage citizens with these technologies. Now, that is very easy for me to say because of course I am an academic, not in government. I do not actually have to find a solution, but I think that is the next step.

Which leads me to the third question I have got, which is: “where are we going ?” And again I am going to be fairly brief here so there is time for questions but the real thing about where are we going I think is this challenge: to create democratic institutions that people want to access and know how to access when they want to without having to jump through lots of hoops, lots of leaps. So when I want to buy a book, I do not have to go through lots of steps; I have got a preferred supplier that I use to buy a book. When I want to book an airline ticket, I go to a particular travel agent and do that. I do not have to do lots and lots of searching around websites trying to find it. Now, if I want to save lots of money I might do, but this is the sort of repertoires of actions that citizens have and we have to find ways of supporting citizens in that process.

I want to finish by talking therefore about both the potential and the risks of e-democracy. The potential for e-democracy is great. If we can seize this moment - and I think this is the moment: we have arrived at the internet age at last - if we seize this moment, then we can actually make democracy more efficient in terms of how it works for citizens, more effective therefore in terms of the way in which it approaches citizens, and more effective in terms of the way in which it builds consensus, provides opportunities, for transparency, in short: makes democracy work better.

But there are significant risks for governments in going down this route. And I am going to finish on a negative note by just highlighting a few of the risks which I think governments face. One is the privacy risk. That is that governments who use these technologies for a whole range of things, from countering terrorism through to promoting democracy, run the risk of undermining their good democratic works by using the technology in anti or non democratic ways in which citizens feel that they are being watched. And you are not going to participate in a potentially “dangerous” discussion if you feel the government is watching you and trying to catch you out. So I think in certain established democracies this is less of a problem but in less established democracies the issue of privacy is a significant issue which governments need to tackle.
The second, and there are only four of these risks by the way, before you think I am going to list a hundred and one different risks, the second one is one of individuation, that is the idea that one of the dangers with technologies as we see them now is that instead of coming to public meetings, instead of shaking hands with politicians, instead of meeting in your community, these technologies encourage you to engage late at night in your bedroom in a one-to-one relationship Not even in a one-to-one relationship, sometimes simply putting information out there which other people may or may not access, it creates an idea of an individual relationship with the State rather than a community relationship with the State. We need to guard against that process and my answer to that problem is that e-democracy should not be the only solution to offer in engagement but should be one of many ways in which we engage with citizens, so that we do not create this process of individuation.
The third one is a risk which Johan referred to earlier and which I call confusion. He sort of referred to it almost as information overload but what I do not think governments should be doing is offering so many different ways of engaging with citizens that they do not know which one is going to have the most impact, how they are going to make it work, and so on. I think limited experiments are better than lots and lots of experiments and again talking about my own country, the UK, we have learned the hard way there that doing fewer things is probably better than having many different things.

Finally, and I think this is a positive risk so I am going to end in a positive note, is that failure is inevitable if we go down the e-democracy route. If we are going to be bold, and take risks there will be failures, there have already been failures and there will be more but we can learn from these failures and in that way e-democracy will build slowly into something which becomes part of the mainstream activity of those very young people that I was referring to at the start of my presentation.

Thank you very much for listening to me.