The European Union is now attempting to encourage citizen involvement in the policy-making process by using digital tools.
The record abstention levels seen at the recent local elections in France are part of a fundamental trend throughout Europe. With the approach of the European elections scheduled for 22 - 25 May in the 28 EU member countries, the issue of voter apathy has never been so poignant. Accordingly, the European Union authorities are on a mission to re-motivate citizens and have been investing in new digital-based participatory instruments. Three EU-funded research projects – OurSpace, PuzzledbyPolicy and PARTERRE – focus on sharing and interaction between people and policy-makers. The idea is to use innovative, interactive tools to encourage citizens to take part in the policy-making process.
Promoting better understanding
Citizens are often turned off by jargon and indigestible policy papers, and they often feel disconnected from the political world. Starting out from this observation, the organisers of the Puzzled by Policy platform set out to involve ordinary people more closely in policy discussions through online participation. However, rather than creating a new dedicated website, they decided to take advantage of the platforms which citizens are already using. “We use networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to get the message across to the communities that are interested in policy-making, explained the Puzzled by Policy project coordinator Deirdre Lee of Insight-NUI Galway. Pilot testing of the project showed that citizens find it difficult to correlate their opinions with actual proposals by policy-makers. To overcome this disconnect, Puzzled by Policy developed a Policy Profiler tool to translate opinions into policy directions. In addition, the tool encourages the user to join in online discussions, exchange ideas and discover new points of view as a basis for formulating their own opinions. The platform then sends reports and summaries of these discussions to political decision-makers. In the same vein, the OurSpace platform is specifically intended to raise awareness of public policy issues among young people. Already adopted by the British Youth Council, an independent charity run for and by young people representing their views to central and local government, Model European Union (MEU), the annual international young people’s simulation of the European Union legislative process, and Cafebabel, an online European news magazine in six languages, OurSpace brings together political decision-makers and future voters with an Android smartphone app, via Facebook, an iGoogle widget, and also runs its own website.
Fostering dialogue with voters
The third EU-supported project, called PARTERRE, focuses on stimulating dialogue. It offers a range of e-participation tools to local government institutions, including a self-evaluation tool that enables public sector organisations to judge whether they are ready to introduce a local democracy electronic participation model. PARTERRE has also developed an ‘electronic town hall meeting’ format where users can discuss policy initiatives in small groups. These meetings can then be broadcast online using the Demos Plan, a collaborative planning tool. Political decision-makers and citizens can use it to work together to draw up plans, make drawings and draft documents in real time. In addition, with an eye on the forthcoming elections, the PARTERRE team has set in motion a new initiative called Blasting News. The project involves building 28 websites – one per member state – on which citizens can publish articles detailing their expectations and explaining what Europe means to them.