Concluding remarks by Alan Lloyd, Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This Forum reaffirmed once again that e-democracy is a tool not only to increase the democratic participation of our citizens, but to go beyond the consultation process in creating a “citizen culture” of informed involvement and virtual presence in the decision-making, leading to a new environment – a “citizen environment”.
The themes of this Forum – e-participation, including at local level, e-voting, e-inclusion and e-democracy from the grass roots – are of high relevance to the work of the Congress as it is at local and regional level where democracy and participation begin.
Ten years ago, the term e-democracy was not in our vocabulary. Today, it is a hot topic. I see two developments behind this interest. First, the continuing political disenchantment which is manifest through low voter turnout in national, regional and local elections and the disenchantment of citizens with public services and political actors. Second, the explosion and increasing uptake of new technologies like internet, mobile phones and digital TV.
Information and communication technologies and e-democracy are changing the relationships between elected representatives and their constituents, changing the relationships between governments and citizens, and creating new forms of participation for civil society in the decision-making and policy-shaping processes.
It is clear, that, for the citizen, for the woman and man in the street, the issues that grip them in their day-to-day lives are very often local ones: local services, transport, dustbins, feeling safe to walk out in the evening - these are issues which we all have something to say about.
No surprise then that, when we come to examine the exciting developments in political behaviour that technology is making possible, we discover that a large proportion of them are local initiatives. I'm delighted that some excellent samples of these developments have been discussed at this Forum. I trust that this will stimulate our reflection and debate on the issues involved, to capitalise on the huge potential of e-democracy for reinvigorating our political life at all levels.
E-participation initiatives can make representative democracy stronger by harnessing the power of new technology to encourage citizen participation, to deepen democratic interaction and to encourage transparent decision-making.
Another term that we are hearing more and more is "e-Engagement". e-Engagement involves using ICT for access to information, public consultation, or active participation. Information is a one-way relationship with local authorities producing information for use by citizens, enabling them to participate further in the democratic process. Consultation, on the other hand, is a two-way relationship: citizens take part in consultations initiated by the local authority, with the aim of enhancing the community involvement in democratic processes. Active participation is a relationship based on partnership with local authorities, in which citizens actively engage in the policy-making process. It acknowledges the role for citizens in shaping policy.
An important question for e-democracy projects is "what barriers are we most likely to meet?" There are at least four kinds of obstacles to the success of e-democracy. They may be political, participatory, organisational or technological.
Some barriers are institutional. Politicians and administrations can find eDemocracy initiatives disruptive – there is a risk of eParticipation working too well and of administrations not being able to cope with the increase in demand. There may also be a question of whether eDemocracy policies have adequate political backing.
Other barriers relate to scepticism about the level of public demand for eDemocracy and questions about trust, data protection and user authentication. There is also a question about the so called “bottleneck of attention”, how to win the battle for people’s attention with an overload of available information and websites, and how to win “the rules of credibility”, whereby people decide what information to trust.
Then there is the risk of e-Participation initiatives being dominated by interest groups and failing to reflect the diversity of society. There is the risk of creating barriers to digitally excluded groups, such as older people and people on low incomes.
Many people are also concerned about what we may call “pseudo-participation”. People will only participate if they understand how they can contribute to the political process and believe that their contribution will be taken seriously. Elected representatives and democratic institutions can contribute to developing trust by using e-Democracy initiatives only where participation is meaningful and can be shown to be so.
e-Democracy projects often prove difficult to maintain as permanent democratic features. They may be under-resourced: there has been a tendency to develop pilot projects rather than sustainable strategies. We need to pay attention not only to the internet but also to other technologies such as television, cable television, digital TV, mobile phones and wireless networks. Our e-Democracy projects should be aiming at the integration of technologies through multiple platforms.
We need to identify what response is needed by policy-makers, and locate the most useful initiatives in using new technologies in representative democracies. We need to look closely at how citizens use information and what they are looking for in eDemocracy projects. We have to improve our understanding of what people want from e-democracy, e-administration and e-services. We need to understand how organisations are adapting to the new flows of information, for example conducting quantitative research on the quantity and nature of information that our elected representatives are receiving. We need better studies on website usability and on the accessibility and neutrality of online consultations and polls. Furthermore we need research on how to build tools designed for democratic purposes and research on low-cost technologies that could facilitate eDemocracy.
A final question: do we need a “digital bill of rights”, which would include, for example, the right for citizens to identify elected officials and contact them via email, the right to watch council and legislative body meetings, the right to free software to help citizens organise and lobby on issues of importance and the right to access public information in a digital format?
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In the Congress, we have been looking into the issues related to e-democracy and e-governance at local and regional level for several years. In 2006, the Congress adopted a resolution on new information and communication technologies as a new opportunity for local democracy, targeting in particular youth participation. At the plenary session in May 2008, the Congress adopted resolutions and recommendations on e-tools for local authorities, and on e-democracy and deliberative consultation on urban projects.
It is clear that new technologies and a variety of e-tools offer increasing possibilities for interaction between citizens and their elected representatives. The changing face of politics and policy-formation is a direct result of the development of the Internet and other communication technologies. The increasing potential of such technologies affords new methods for consulting voters on electoral issues, legislation, political decisions and policy implementation.
To make full use of this potential, the Congress calls on local authorities to use information and communication technologies (ICT) to improve public participation in local life and enable greater dialogue on the future of their towns and cites and their environment, while using traditional forms of participation in parallel with on-line tools, and ensuring their compatibility, thus making sure that everyone has the opportunity to participate and that both individual and collective opinions can be heard.
In its 2006 resolution on "Young people and new information and communication technologies (ICT) - a new opportunity for local democracy", the Congress recommends that local authorities seek to bridge the digital divide by adapting technologies and providing infrastructures to make them accessible to all user groups, regardless of their social or cultural character or geographical location. We call for more efforts to be made by local politicians to promote youth participation in local life using ICT, to narrow the gap and ensure that the economically underprivileged are not deprived of these new tools.
In its resolution on e-democracy and deliberative consultations on urban projects, the Congress also recommends that local authorities undertake electronic deliberative consultation on urban development which goes beyond the formal consultation required by existing legislation. We call on local authorities to encourage participatory initiatives started by other urban development stakeholders and take particular account of citizen-to-citizen initiatives.
Furthermore, the Congress calls on national governments to reinforce the legislative and regulatory framework for consultation and foster the renewal of decision-making processes, making it compulsory for all tiers of governance to involve the public in projects that affect them, in particular in terms of sustainable urban planning, spatial development and local infrastructure facilities.
Governments are also asked to conduct prior consultation processes at national level, concerning national infrastructure and spatial planning projects, which foster new, electronic public debate procedures, and to lead by example, create and regulate the conditions for the widespread use of the Internet and ICT in public participation, and support local authorities in their e-participation trials and innovations.
In its resolution on e-tools for local authorities, the Congress is calling on elected representatives and administrations to embrace e-tools as a means of improving local democracy, their engagement with citizens, and the feedback that they receive from citizens. Parallel traditional systems of consultation should be maintained, however, when introducing new methods of communication, so that people who are slower to take up new technologies are not excluded from the political process.
At the same time, the Congress is asking national governments to give logistical support to local government for improving local democracy by the use of e-tools, and to ensure that successful local authority initiatives are widely publicised and made available to other authorities.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is an exciting period for democracy. There is a clear need to continue to review developments in this area, debate the issues and exchange good practice, and this Forum was another proof of it. The Congress has identified e-democracy as a priority area of its work for the next two years, and will be pursuing its action for creating the “citizen environment” at local and regional level, which I mentioned at the outset – and which is part of the Congress’ overall efforts to build an equal and cohesive environment within sustainable communities centred on the citizen.