Written by Eva Stokluska
A mysterious word beginning with the letter "p" has recently been on everyone's lips. To put it simply – it means "taking part", engaging in social activities aimed at the common good. There are two types of participation: social (horizontal) and civic (vertical). The first one involves various common activities, working together towards a common goal. The second one relates to a specific segment of our activities – when we act as citizens – among ourselves, but usually in relation to the authorities aiming at a purpose that is defined as public, political or civil. Such participation means making active attempts to influence decisions about public life, getting involved in public affairs and taking part in actions that shape them.
The very idea of participation is based on a specific understanding of democracy and citizenship. In this case, they are defined not only as some institutional framework, but as a model in which members of a community (neighborhood, local or national) cooperate actively and with a sense of shared responsibility in order to co-create the conditions in which they live. Participation is therefore not just a set of techniques which help to put into practice a specifically-defined model of governance – it is more. It is about a very particular understanding of the essence of democracy and the way democracy is being implemented; it is about safeguarding citizens' rights and giving them a voice in all important matters more often than just during elections (which include presenting the authorities with new ideas about how public policies can be developed, consultations and an active control over the actions of politicians).
The magic prefix "e" – what does it mean in the above context? It means harnessing the tools of modern technology to achieve the ideals of participation: the internet, various applications and communication tools. In more established democracies, e-participation often means making standard political or administrative procedures more technologically advanced – for example, submitting a petition or voting via internet. The power of technology is very useful in this area (it is much nicer to be able to complete various formalities sitting in front of a computer than queuing up for long hours in an office), however e-participation does not come down only to the electronic dimension of procedures – it is a deep civic engagement facilitated by the new communication technologies (ICT).
ICT tools are extremely helpful in accomplishing various objectives when it comes to engaging citizens in the process of decision-making. For example they allow us to multiply the power of mobilization activities (such as online pro-voting or protest campaigns). Thanks to them, it is also possible to bring together – with unprecedented ease – expertise on issues of public life (both among citizens themselves and between citizens and the authorities).
Mapping services are a good example. With the use of web pages and applications on mobile devices they allow hundreds of thousands of people in different parts of the world to report to officials an occurrence of a problem in their community which needs intervention. Thanks to that the authorities can then inform the residents when the case is settled. As a pure benefit the authorities save time and resources that they would otherwise have to use to monitor all such events.
www.fixmystreet.com and www.naprawmyto.pl are only two of such mapping services. www.ushahidi.com on the other hand is an open source mechanism which in a similar way allows mapping of any important social issues, such us irregularities during elections.
The other examples of fast-developing e-participation tools are those based on a mechanism of crowd-sourcing - a means of generating ideas and information socially. It can be used to collect online ideas for new solutions for managing local communities. Such is the aim of www.neighborland.com - which is something like a huge discussion forum for members of local communities, where they can share their thoughts on developing the local area or, for example, on new modes of transport.
This kind of crowd-sourcing often takes place in response to questions posed directly by the authorities which are about to take some important investment decisions and therefore look for clues among the people. They want to use the potential of the community's "collective intelligence".
Various tools of crowd-sourcing also allow the successful creation and support of offline participatory processes. www.mindmixer.com was developed as a "place" for online debates but was later used to collect ideas and discuss them in real life – during traditional meetings of the people of Valejjo California while implementing the participatory budget.
When we think about the contribution of various ICT tools to participation, first of all we must remember about broadening the space for civic deliberation. Technology has dramatically increased citizens' ability to communicate with the authorities and the possibility of democratic discussion on public affairs. It means that big groups of people have been given an opportunity to express their opinions, take part in deliberation and even declare their preferences in important matters through voting, regardless of their current location and at a minimal cost.
In addition to a variety of consultative platforms, which are increasingly used by governments and local authorities, it is worth looking at projects like www.popvox.com. It is a service that allows continuous monitoring of legislative work in the U.S. Congress. All of its users can instantly see the bills and other legislation that are currently being processed. They can also get to know the position of the various lobbying groups and state their own opinion on the matter as well as follow the exact course of work on individual documents.
The www.adhocracy.de is an open-source tool quite popular in Germany. It is used by committees in the Bundestag, political parties and various organizations to engage citizens in discussions on draft legislation – people can comment on both finished and unfinished projects, bring in their own proposals, suggest amendments at various stages of the work. They can also support their preferred solutions (in the form of internet voting).
A particularly inspiring example of combining deliberation tools with crowd-sourcing in order to encourage people to take part in the creation of the law is www.rahvakogu.ee – Citizens' Meeting Online. It is a platform created by a coalition of Estonian NGOs in cooperation with the central government. Its aim is to ensure that all citizens can be actively involved in a debate over the shape of the law on such issues as: elections; political parties, competition between them and their financing; the strengthening of civil society; and the prevention of public positions from being politicized. This platform is a part of a broad campaign for changes in the legal system. The ideas and proposals that it allows them to generate will become a matter of debate in the Estonian parliament in the spring of 2013.
Technology also enables citizens to control the authorities on a truly large scale and share opinions on that matter. Good examples are two websites that allow the monitoring of the activity of parliamentarians (British www.theyworkforyou.com or Polish www.mamprawowiedziec.pl). Thanks to them we can figure out if our representatives in parliament fulfill their obligations – how they vote, if they submit draft regulations, if they speak at the sessions, etc.
www.whatdotheyknow.com is on the other hand a platform for exchanging information related to the acquisition of data under the Freedom of Information Act. The website makes it much easier to send a request but also to collect data on similar queries that have been sent by other users and to see their experiences in dealing with various institutions.
A separate category of services which support participation are data repository projects – for example on public finances. Thanks to them, everyone (including local journalists or social activists) can get an insight into how public money is spent. These services usually rely on socially-created technologies with the use of an open API or more static public databases (such as www.naszakasa.org.pl or www.wheredoesmymoneygo.org)
The secret of the power of participation using ICT lies primarily in expanding the scale of its availability and its mechanisms as well as in the significant reduction of the costs of such participation. The financial benefits of e-participation are substantial. The costs of engaging in e-participation projects are only a fraction of those which we bear when we physically take part in various participatory events (for example securing a place and materials). Savings can also be made because of the potential benefits of cooperation while creating and developing various tools. This trend is becoming more and more popular and it gives people a possibility of getting free support for new ideas that require help from a specialist (someone who, for example, knows a given programming language). Many similar such tools (also described above) work and get developed as open-source projects.
Of course, e-participation is not a trouble-free phenomenon. It often carries various risks that can be associated with specific technologically-mediated activities, such as incidental commitments, anonymous communication being brutal and, finally, the danger of exclusion of those who have limited ICT access. One should keep that in mind and try to minimize these risks. But as Kipling once said... that is another story.
The image used in this post has been taken from FLICKR where it is published under the CC-BY-SA-3.0 license.