In the past years, the communication between governments and citizens has evolved: from a one-way « government to you » perspective, to a two-way « government with you » perspective. This is the result of the increasing use of digital tools. They allow an even closer collaboration, which creates new ways to co-produce public policy and services. Indeed, in the digital age, many new information and communication technologies tools allow participation online, or e-participation.
According to the e-participation researcher A. Macintosh, e-participation is:
“ICT-supported participation in processes involved in government and governance. Processes may concern administration, service delivery, decision-making, and policy making”
But still, beyond this academic definition, we sometimes have a hard time picturing what e-participation entails for citizens and for governments. The process can remain a blurry concept that needs to be broken down. In this article, we are going to dive into what it means to implement an e-participation process.
Based upon the OECD participation model, the United Nations defined a framework for e-participation. It can be decomposed into these 3 following steps:
- E-information: making it possible for the citizen to know everything there is to know about a specific topic by making all the needed information available
- E-consultation: allowing citizens to be part of deliberations regarding decisions that are to be taken on public policies and services
- E-decision-making: including citizens in the co-creation of the public policies and services
We’ll guide you through each step in the sections below.
Step 1 of e-participation: e-information
E-participation is an efficient way to harness the collective intelligence of citizens, however it will only have a relevant and constructive outcome if the participants are well-informed on the topics they contribute to. They need to be able to take into consideration all aspects of the matter, hence the need for information.
E-information or diffusing this information digitally means making more information (and data in general) available to more people. The only requirement is to have an internet connection at one’s disposal. Therefore, digital tools can help provide a more democratic access to information which is essential, both for the governments and the citizens.
Not only is there a need to have access to the relevant data, but the (quality of the) data also needs to be trusted. By data we mean information necessary to form an opinion on policy-making: government budget & spending, administrative boundaries, land ownership, etc. (the full list of topics can be found of the Global Open Data Index website). It helps the participation process in two ways:
- it increases the citizens’ confidence in the government by enhancing the transparency and accountability of institutions
- it allows people to make up their minds being fully informed and thus to take part in deliberations in a more relevant way
That is exactly what open government data efforts are all about. The United Nations defines it as
“Government information proactively disclosed and made available online for everyone’s access, reuse and redistribution without restriction”
An easy way to track how well governments are doing in sharing information with their citizens, is to measure their proficiency in terms of Open Data. The Global Open Data Index (GODI) is an independent assessment of open government data publication from a civic perspective. See more on the methodology here. It follows the 8 principles of Open Data, that states that open data should be:
- Machine readable
For further reading on the topic, have a look at our intro to Open Data for Governments.
Step 2 of e-participation: e-consultation
To get to consensus-based decision-making in the citizen participation process, governments should consult different viewpoints and allow for exchange & debate. According to the collective intelligence principle, the value gathered through the consultation process should lead to better decision-making, thanks to a wider knowledge gathered, more scenarios explored, etc. The consultation or deliberation phase merely guarantees that each citizen who wishes to take part in the discussion is able to do so, not that their opinion and suggestions will be implemented by authorities (that is step 3).
The internet is an ideal place to have this deliberation. Indeed, it is – mostly – a neutral and uncontrolled space, therefore it allows the expression of each and every idea, no matter their relevance or accuracy which makes the discussion all the more democratic and rich.
E-consultation or bringing the consultation process online is beneficial in the sense that it gives the opportunity to more people to interact and add their value to the discussion. Using digital tools to galvanise the deliberation is therefore a great complement to usual consultation settings, like town hall meetings or paper consultation. Indeed, not only does it allow the participation of a larger number of citizens, but using such tools is also the opportunity to reach out to wider demographic groups, like the youth for instance. By gathering a larger number of opinions from various sources, the citizen feedback is more likely to be representative of the population’s global opinion. This way, digital tools and e-consultation is the most efficient way to tap into the collective intelligence of the citizens.
Several tools can be used in order to initiate the discussion online. Although social media is a free and accessible media to discuss on, professional tools have been developed that maximize the outcome of this discussion, for instance online participation platforms. Their added value lies in the fact that they simplify the collection, organisation and analysis of the citizens’ feedback. That way, the governments can best understand and follow the discussion.
Step 3 of e-participation: e-decision-making
The third step of the e-participation framework is the e-decision-making step. In this last step, the citizens are actually a part of the final decision-making. To do so, they use digital tools. It can for instance take the form of online voting. And even if the action taken is not as recognized as voting, the citizen at least has the opportunity to express a preference towards the adoption of such or such scenario. For instance, on the CitizenLab platform, citizens can show their preference or dislike for a proposal by clicking ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’.
More than being consulted, in this final step of the e-participation model, citizens have a stronger guarantee that their opinion will be taken into account at the end of the process. In that case, citizens are the ones having a final say, just like councillors, members of parliament, etc. They are, in a way, part of the policy-making assembly. This step is the one that empowers the crowd the most, as the citizens become part of the decision-making process and not only participate in the discussion.
Often however, only a few propositions are allowed to emerge from the e-consultation phase to the e-decision-making phase by government officials. The impact of the entire online participation process depends strongly on the freedom and guarantees that a government is willing to give.
It seems to us that this e-participation framework can be considered both as a process and a ladder. What we mean by this is, all efforts towards a more participatory democracy are good efforts, and even if the whole process cannot be implemented yet, each of the steps above that gets implemented is a great step taken towards online citizen participation.
To wrap up: e-participation in a few words
Implementing a successful e-participation process means doing these 3 things online:
- Making the citizens aware on the topic they will be consulted on
- Enabling the discussion between citizens in a neutral and free way to generate a rich discussion
- Empowering citizens by giving them the possibility to express their preference on the final public policy or service to be implemented
Still wondering about online participation?
Do not hesitate to drop us a line in the comments below or on Twitter, and don’t forget to have a look at the CitizenLab e-participation solution here.