Forum for the Future of Democracy
Madrid, 15-17 October 2008

Sub-theme I: Democratic governance

Workshop track No 1

ICT for participatory democracy

Statement by Mr G.Lindblad, Chairman of the Political Affairs Committee, PACE

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The concept of democracy  relies on the participation of citizens in governance. This is also clear when we look at the etymological roots of this Greek word: demos and kratos which together mean “the people rule”.

For obvious reasons, nobody can expect that even in the most advanced democracies today, all people would rule indirectly. Therefore, representative democracy has become a convenient way to instrumentalise the ancient notion.

Even if we criticise our democratic systems for various deficiencies and shortcomings, we all agree – at least at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe – that there is no better system than representative democracy. This does not mean, however, that representative democracy is perfect and does not need improvement. On the contrary, democracy is an ongoing process which is constantly faced with new challenges and which has to adapt itself to new situations.

In the Parliamentary Assembly we devote considerable attention to these questions. Every other year we devote a full-day debate to the state of democracy in Europe. During the discussions we try to identify the main concerns and shortcomings, and we propose some remedies. My present statement is based on the conclusions of these various deliberations.

We have agreed that one of the main concerns of our democracies is a form of alienation of citizens from political processes. Democracy is supposed to empower citizens and give them the feeling of being able to influence their own lives and act in order to live in dignity. Do they really have this feeling in the representative democracies of today? Are they actors in the decision-making process, in governance? I am afraid that the reply is negative.

Traditional representative democracies tend to limit citizens’ participation to a simple act of voting. But unfortunately, many citizens have lost trust in their political representatives. There are many reasons for this: people feel that they are estranged from political actors, institutions and processes. They are unable to identify their own every day problems and concerns in the official political agendas. Furthermore, politicians are perceived as distant from ordinary people, living in another world and serving their own interests.

Political parties, which should be the most important links between representatives and their voters and where problems should be analysed and transformed into policy proposals, have lost much of their capacities and are functionally replaced by media which set agendas and organise debates.

Moreover, globalisation of markets has created the feeling of inbalance between economy and democracy, and the strong conviction that decisions are increasingly taken outside parliaments under the influence of different lobby groups.

As a consequence, voters feel that elections do not offer real choices between genuinely different policy options. They have doubts about democracy because they feel unable to influence the political processes in decision-making.

The immediate and most revealing result of loss of interest in this kind of participation is a decrease in electoral turnout over recent years in many Council of Europe member states. This is potentially a very serious problem because it may undermine the legitimacy of the whole concept of representative democracy.

I deliberately dwelled at length on this diagnosis of today’s democracy because I am convinced that ICT – information and communication technologies – can, to a large extent, help overcome some of the problems faced by our democratic systems today. They offer possibilities which could remedy our present problems.

This is not the question of replacing democracy by e-democracy or representative democracy by partcipative democracy – not at all. It is all about making wise use of e-tools with a view to responding to certain challenges faced by our systems, in order to perfect our present democracies.

The potential is enormous. I am convinced that we are only at the beginning of a long road and what we are witnessing today will be fully effective once the necessary conditions have been put into place. The great value of this Forum is that it paves the way for systematic solutions and regulations; it introduces models and enables us to share good practices. We already have many spectacular examples of using e-tools for the benefit of democracy, but they remain isolated, and one of the aims of this Forum is to promote their introduction in a systematic and harmonised way.

Participatory democracy is a process which puts emphasis on the broad participation of constituents in the direction and operation of political systems. It should create opportunities for all citizens to make meaningful contributions to decision-making. It should be able to convince citizens that they have a clear interest in participating, and that they have genuine powers to influence the process.
The first necessary condition is to provide citizens with reliable and adequate information. Let us not confuse this with the free press. Without diminishing the importance of freedom of the media, we have to acknowledge that the media are business units which have to generate profit and their main purpose is not to serve the interests of democracy but to attract people’s attention. Therefore, electronic media, flooding people with sensational information, does not necessarily advance democracy.

On the other hand, the internet provides invaluable opportunities for all actors in the political process – including politicians, parties and institutions – to share information. Of course, it has become common that parliamentarians have their own websites and blogs, that public institutions at all levels have their websites too and that some parliaments or municipalities transmit their proceedings on the web. This is a very positive development, which enables citizens to get acquainted with the issues at stake and encourages them to express their position.

However, the goal is not achieved yet, and there are numerous websites which need improvement in terms of selection and transformation of available information. This seems to be a technical question strongly linked to financial resources. Nevertheless, it should be given a good deal of attention as it is the first step towards participatory democracy. Without clear information, which is easily accessible, people are not likely to significantly increase their participation and engagement. Here, the Council of Europe is well placed to promote best practices, help share experiences and introduce guidelines at the pan-European level.

Furthermore, the interaction between citizens and their political representatives at all levels, including at the level of governmental institutions, may certainly inspire citizens to increase their engagement.

The websites of public institutions at all levels should be designed in such a way as to enable users to get in contact with interlocutors. The whole process should be highly effective and citizens should be treated seriously. Of course, this requires financial resources and people in charge of communication on a permanent basis, but this is necessary in order to convince citizens that they are being heard. Again, the Council of Europe has a role to play in this respect.

First of all, we should promote best examples which exist already in many countries. Switzerland is one of the most advanced democracies making use of democratic tools. Thus e-initiative can be used there for a proposal for a new law, an amendment to a law or for a referendum on a government’s decision. These e-initiatives are allowed for the communal, cantonal or federal levels.

But it is not only the public institutions which should be expected to be active on the web. There is a huge area for action for different NGOs, associations and citizens’ initiatives. I know numerous interesting examples of platforms for action in several countries. You will find reference to them in the memorandum prepared by Mr Szabo, one of the General Rapporteurs of the Forum.

The problem is that this kind of activity requires financial resources, organisational capacity and know-how. There have been many initiatives which have appeared and disappeared, perhaps to the disappointment of people who might have placed some expectations in them. We should be careful not to waste citizens’ enthusiasm: if they become convinced that this kind of action is useless, they may not get involved again.

Therefore, particularly in this case, the Council of Europe should use its resources with a view to creating better conditions for public initiative. These should include guidelines, assistance and promotion of best practices. But we should not stop at that as such public initiatives, even the most successful ones, usually do not produce results which would be binding for those who govern. Not all constitutions allow for public initiative in launching new laws. As far as I know, no European parliament foresees the possibility of voters recalling a parliamentarian. No law obliges the governments to take into account the opinion of their citizens expressed on the web.

This is the biggest challenge for the Council of Europe, which is an institution defending democracy, rule of law and human rights, and the Parliamentary Assembly, of which I am a member, is well placed for the examining of this challenge, at the political level.

Mr Szabo, who is one of the General Rapporteurs of the Forum, is also rapporteur in the Parliamentary Assembly on e-democracy. He will certainly use the ideas and conclusions of this meeting to develop his report, which will subsequently be discussed first in the Political Affairs Committee, then in the Assembly. The Assembly will no doubt adopt a recommendation addressed to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, and I am sure that it will give clear guidance on the measures which should be taken by governments in order to allow e-tools to become really effective in improving our democratic systems.

Thank you for your attention