Opening Ceremony of the Fourth Session of the Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy.
Madrid, 15 October 2008, 4 pm

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is an honour for Spain to host this Fourth Session of the Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy and I am proud to be taking part in the opening ceremony.

I wish to begin by extending a warm welcome to you and by thanking the City of Madrid, represented here today by its Deputy Mayor, Doņa Ana Botella Serrano, for its invitation, its co-operation and the support it has given to this event.

Of all the international and European supranational organisations, the Council of Europe plays a key role in protecting and strengthening democracy, human rights and the rule of law. No other organisation has such an important goal as its specific objective.

In this context, the Forum for the Future of Democracy is an exemplary initiative designed to promote discussion and exchanges of ideas on issues relating to citizen participation in public decision-making as they are perceived by governments, parliaments, international organisations, civil society or the academic world. It therefore deserves the fullest support from European governments.

As member countries of the Council of Europe, we are fully committed to democracy based on a system which fully guarantees citizens’ rights, maintains a balance between branches of government and establishes controls to reinforce the rule of law.

This requires us to strengthen our democratic system, foster greater citizen participation in public affairs and endeavour to ensure that many citizens do not simply vote at general or local and regional elections but become more closely involved in matters of concern to them.

It is therefore, as I have already said, a privilege for me to open the Fourth Session of this Forum, the theme of which is “e-democracy”, in other words the challenges raised by the new technologies related to the information society and the opportunities they provide to strengthen democracy.

This new form of interaction and access to information undeniably has a decisive effect on the relationship between the public authorities and the general public and therefore deserves our special attention. The development of the information society offers excellent opportunities in various spheres, as it gives fresh impetus to social participation, fosters social ties and facilitates the exchange of and access to information of general interest, by promoting transparency and accountability of the public authorities.

New technologies also raise challenges which must be addressed without delay. For example, we must ensure that the digital divide does not jeopardise the principle of equality, that new information systems are developed in a context of freedom of choice for the public and not imposed by the public authorities, and that special attention is given to the protection of individual rights, in particular the right to the protection of personal data. This is the only way to build the necessary confidence in the use of these new forms of participation.

You will be considering many issues in the course of this Forum, but, on account of their particular relevance to this Ministry, I would like to draw special attention to the consequences of e-democracy for local governments, in view of their closeness to the grassroots, and to the opportunities which new technologies provide to change the traditional relationship between the public and the administration, and also because they help to guarantee principles such as efficiency, freedom of choice for the citizen and the accountability of public officials.

At local level, the development of technologies related to the information society is fostering new forms of interaction between municipalities and their inhabitants through various information systems, foremost among which are the new forms of participation in town planning or in the allocation of public funds, through so-called participatiory budgeting.

In the course of this Forum we will have the opportunity to pool our experiences. In the case of Spain we will analyse the participation policies established in such cities as Madrid, San Sebastian, Lleida and Malaga. I therefore wish to take this opportunity to thank the mayors of these cities for attending and participating in this Forum and the Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces for the assistance it has given us in organising it.

The public now expect more personalised and more rapidly and readily accessible services and this calls for major changes in the organisational structure of the administration. It is therefore essential to continue modernising the administration, with citizens as the focal point in the provision of public and administrative services.

In Spain, new technologies have thus been instrumental in developing initiatives which are of huge significance for the general public, such as the plan for reducing administrative burdens on business enterprises, approved by the Council of Ministers in June 2008, the increasingly widespread use of electronic procedures and the one-stop-shop concept. The transposition of the Services Directive will also help remove administrative barriers and result in greater flexibility and transparency for people who wish to set up or provide a service.

It was in this context that the Spanish Parliament approved the law on citizens’ electronic access to public services, which establishes electronic communication with public authorities as a right for citizens and as an obligation for the authorities themselves. It lays down the rules governing electronic communications both between citizens and public authorities and between public authorities themselves, thereby guaranteeing the interoperability of electronic information systems and co-operation between authorities. Most importantly it gives citizens the right to choose and places the authorities at their service. This right will become fully effective as from 31 December 2009.

This obligation poses a challenge to the authorities since by that date they will have to ensure electronic access to not only some but all public services.

We are therefore continuing to strengthen existing common facilities and services that can be used by all public authorities, while at the same time establishing new ones.

We are continuing to extend services for the validation of digital certificates, electronic signatures and information concerning identity and residence so that no citizen need be asked for information which the administration already possesses.

We are also reinforcing the 060 website with which many of you are already familiar. This service, which came into operation in late May 2006, provides access to 151 electronic services of the general state administration. The rise in the number of electronic services provided continued in 2008 and 813 services are now accessible via this website.

The same has happened with the 060 telephone line: since it came into operation, the number of calls has increased steadily from the approximately 8,000 calls per month handled by its predecessor to a monthly average of 50,000 in the first half of 2007 and to a current monthly average of 160,000 calls.

Likewise, the network of 060 offices is developing and expanding significantly. To date the co-operation agreement has been signed by 13 Autonomous Communities and 1,534 local councils, of which 1,521 have joined the 060 network as registration offices.

I trust that these and other experiences will contribute to the debates and serve as inspiration for promoting the underlying values and principles of the Council of Europe, on which our democratic political culture is based. I encourage you to take an active part in the discussions and wish you every success in your work. In this way you will help to secure improved access to information and knowledge for our citizens and thereby help to build a society of greater freedom, justice and well-being.

Without further ado, I declare open the Fourth Session of the Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy.
Thank you for your attention.