E-democracy: How to participate in politics digitally

, by Marie Menke

E-democracy: How to participate in politics digitally

The coronavirus pandemic has brought many parts of public life to a halt. The European Youth Event (EYE), which was set to gather 9,000 young people in Strasbourg at the end of May, could not take place this year along with many other political and youth conferences. As a result, it has become more difficult for citizens to make their voices heard. A possible solution could be moving democratic processes to the Internet and participating digitally. Whereas so-called e-democracy comes with some risks, it could also be an opportunity for the European Union to explore new forms of debate.

Brando Benifei and Wietse Van Ransbeeck both work on making digital citizen engagement possible, even though they focus on very different political levels. Italian social democrat Benifei has been a member of the European Parliament since 2014, Belgian entrepreneur Van Ransbeeck founded CitizenLab, a digital platform allowing local governments to consult the public. As part of EYE Online, Benifei and Van Ransbeeck came together for a live debate called ‘E-citizenship and Covid-19’ hosted by Caroline Tranberg where they discussed participatory democracy and online elections.

Taking democracy online

E-democracy is defined by the Democracy Centre Vienna as the ‘implementation and support of democratic processes using digital information and communication technologies’, ranging from social media to platforms specifically created for public consultations. The Democracy Centre further distinguishes between e-government, for example replacing visits to the authorities with digital tools, e-participation such as online petitions or discussion forums and e-voting. Whilst many European countries remain hesitant to allow the latter, the world’s first ever nationwide vote that included remote electronic voting took place in Estonia in 2007.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Van Ransbeeck has witnessed an increasing interest in e-democracy: “Big policies are decided on, but governments are scratching their heads, because they have to look for substitutes for public meetings” he says. In that sense, the pandemic has acted as a trigger for fostering democratic innovation. Van Ransbeeck’s company CitizenLab has been working on such since 2015. Among other projects, it organised the first ever digital referendum in the Belgian region of Flanders, deciding on whether or not the city of Kortrijk should introduce car-free Sundays.

Risks and solutions

Van Ransbeeck is aware that e-democracy comes with some risks. Among them is the increasing polarization of online discussions. To Van Ransbeeck, creating platforms specifically designed for democratic participation is key to establishing a digital space for political debates: “It has been remarkable how little inappropriate content we have on our platform,” he says. Since in contrast to most social networks CitizenLab is able to verify a user’s identity, it has been faced with comparatively little spam and trolling: “People know that they are interacting with their neighbours in a space crafted by their government.” On europeanyouthideas.eu, user Mathieu also argues that a “European social media platform designed specifically for civil society” might be the next step for the EU to take: “We cannot rely on foreign social media platforms that don’t have the values of solidarity, engagement, understand, education and dialogue among others at heart,” he writes.

Additionally, Van Ransbeeck considers transparency to be one of the most important principles in e-democracy: “You must change the way you communicate and be very transparent about your decisions,” he advises governments who are testing digital tools. Citizens participating in online consultation processes should know exactly when they will hear back from the government, how their data and feedback will be processed and what the results of the process are in the end, Van Ransbeeck recommends. He says, “If people feel like dropping their opinion into a black box without anything happening, they will not take the time to come back and engage again.”

E-democracy on a European level

Brando Benifei also considers a lack of transparency to be a barrier for successful e-democracy in the EU. “You [as a citizen who wants to engage] have to understand very well what is being talked about as you risk discussing something when the discussion is already very advanced or even over”, he says. In his view, the digital communication tools such as the institutions’ websites have become much better over the years. Nonetheless, he still sees room for improvement: “We can sometimes still do better at making ourselves understood, so that people know what they can ask for and what we’re discussing and deciding.”

An instrument developed in the past to allow European citizens to participate in EU decision-making is the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI): If a petition registered as ECI succeeds in collecting one million signatures from EU citizens of at least seven EU countries, a hearing on the matter has to take place in the European Parliament. Then the European Commission has to decide whether to turn it into a draft proposal. Benifei considers the Citizen’s Initiative to be in need of a reform though: “It is too complicated,” he criticises. “It should be easier to access and [its outcome should be] more binding than it is right now.”

Casting your vote online

Neither he or Van Ransbeeck expect digital participation to lead to direct democracy nor to substitute representative democracy. Instead, Van Ransbeeck considers it to be complementary to the latter: “I would want to focus on the system we have in place where you go voting every four or five years, but at the same time also make people heard in the policy-making process,” he describes his vision. E-democracy to him is not only about elections, but much more about engaging people in discussions and debates. In the end, he wants to make “representative democracy more representative”.

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