e-participation: Are we on the right track?

Following my participation at the relevant session of the Global Forum 2008 in Athens last week and my experience from e-participation projects, here are a few scattered thoughts that I would probably raise if time allowed me to do so.

  • e-participation and e-democracy are frequently hosted within ICT related events. Is this right? What does that mean? It seems to me that e-participation should be more about methodologies, sound political thinking and insights into citizens’ needs. It would seem that socio-political and media-communication fora are more apt for this kind of conversations. It’s interesting to note that many people from the ICT-related sector “re-present” e-participation projects. Has the “e” overtaken the essence of the debates? After all, e-democracy is about democracy not technology.
  • Related to this point is also the fact that way too few people with communication expertise also have a presence in those fora – and actual projects for that matter. I believe there is an immense know-how within people, organizations and companies that deal with communication, opinion polling & research and this is greatly underutilized in most of the projects that see the light of day.
  • A related symptom is the complete lack of interest or funding for the communication campaigns needed to support any e-participation initiative. “Dissemination” is the preferred buzzword but this usually means promoting a project within a closed group of peers (experts, academics, at conferences etc). Most -if not all – e-participation projects lack the necessary communication strategies needed to create, attract and sustain citizens’ interest in a project. Unless we take it as granted that citizens lead lives that leave ample free time for continuous deliberation on every subject imaginable on earth.
  • Could we attribute this deficiency to the European Commission’s insistence that e-democracy is an ICT research-related issue suitable for funding mainly by the Information Society (meaning ICTs really) related directorate? After all, the EC is a prime source of funding for many e-participation projects and this tends to put a certain mark on the philosophy behind real projects.
  • It’s something to reflect on, that for example, the ECs own communication strategy, notably the Plan-D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate” expressed by Margot Wallstrom (Vice President of the European Commission in charge of Institutional Relations and Communication ) is a strategic platform which is known by very few people within the core ICT community let alone digested and exploited accordingly. After all, it sounds more logical to link european e-participation projects to the principles of the Plan-D, rather than place them under the same roof with radio spectrum, satellites or nanotechnology.
  • On the other hand, I think that the Council of Europe’s work on the subject (notably CAHDE: “The ad hoc Committee on E-Democracy of the Council of Europe”) is more in line with the need to involve a more diverse set of skills and have a conversation that is meaningful because its emphasis is on democracy rather than technologies. The Council of Europe has raised relevant issues before, within its integrated democracy projects, including e-voting in the March 2007 Parliamentary Elections in Estonia (a world’s first really).

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