The newly elected Greek Government was quick to launch opengov.gr after a few days in office, and two weeks later embarked upon a real practical application of a certain form of e-enabled public dialogue which was dubbed “public e-deliberation”. This is the first time that public administration in Greece deploys such a platform and the government has relied heavily on this to prove that a fresh, open and transparent political mentality is in place.
After 120 days, it is time to make a few comments about this novel process for our country.
The form chosen is essentially a website where text documents, mainly in the form of draft legislation or ministerial decrees, are published and are open to simple serial commenting paragraph-by-paragraph by anyone. The split of paragraphs follows the form in which the document is already structured by the writers, so in many cases, even a general preamble or a concluding note is also open for comments. No comment threading, voting by users or some kind of ranking is currently available. Login to comment is straightforward via a form which requires name, non-publishable email and optionally, a link. The way to follow any deliberation topic is via RSS feed subscription. Up to date opengov.gr has hosted 23 deliberations on a wide range of topics relevant to 7 out of the 14 ministries and attracted roughly 38.000 comments from citizens (40% submitted for a single consultation on the Tax Reform Bill).
Opengov.gr & e-deliberation
The main premise is that this platform was hastily called “e-deliberative” and, although it has delivered some benefits in the symbolic level, now is the time to take a step back and rethink/redesign the process and the format if we wish to transform it into a truly permanent and formidable weapon for citizen engagement and accountability.
One could easily initiate a discussion around the notions of participatory, direct, representative, or deliberative democracy but I am afraid it would become too academic (valuable nonetheless) and in any case others are better equipped to tackle these issues adequately. But a few early thoughts can hopefully spark a useful discussion.
A few definitions may help to begin with:
- Dialogue is a two-way exchange of views, experiences and ideas among people, an open conversation which may well facilitate learning, understanding and trust but does not aim to produce any definite outcomes or decisions.
- Deliberation (or consultation) on the other hand, is a structured process which aims to produce actionable results. As such, it must take into account all opposing and well-informed opinions before culminating to decision-making.
The Involve organization puts is that way: “Deliberative public engagement is a distinctive approach to involving people in decision-making. It is different from other forms of engagement in that it is about giving participants time to consider and discuss an issue in depth before they come to a considered view.”
In this respect, the opengov.gr does not serve well the criteria put forward by other organizations which have a long-standing experience in public consultations and deliberative exercises.
It is worth reminding here that the act of public consultation has a long history in democratic societies and in no way is exclusively linked to online methods. In Greece, as in other countries, offline consultation practice does exist among decision-makers and interest groups (trade unions, professional bodies etc). The Economic and Social Committee is for example empowered to act as an intermediary in such consultations. Whether it is done properly or not is another matter. One of the important factors to observe here is the role played by intermediary groups which either “represent” the interests of relevant parties who are affected by future policies or act as “experts” (in the form of academics, NGOs, think tanks etc).
The web of course has made possible for everybody (at least those connected to the internet) to participate remotely, instantly and easily in public consultations and in this respect change the terms of public engagement. This fact in no way should detract from the importance and the invaluable input of “expert publics” and the need for “peer review”, especially in complex and demanding topics.
All these being said, in the opengov.gr case – and all similar cases of open consultations where the general public is invited to participate – there are several questions that we need to consider, like:
1. Does my opinion count? Will it reverse decisions of public administration and how?
In the same report mentioned above, Involve.org also states that:
“Deliberative public engagement should not be used: a. when crucial decisions have already been taken; or, b. if there is no realistic possibility that the engagement process will influence decisions.”
It is hard for me to understand what exactly one can hope to change in an almost “final” legislative document which obviously has been drafted carefully and expertly by legal teams and is one step before voting by parliament.
Even if we sidestep this, what are the conditions for this to happen? For example, does the number of comments matter, the “quality” (and how do we rate this?) or what else? Of course it is not an e-petition system where ideally we should have some kind of critical mass (like the 1 mill signatures needed for the Citizens’ Initiative in the Lisbon Treaty), but nevertheless a citizen has the right to know how much weight his opinion carries and under what conditions and to which extent policies are reversible.
2. What is the process of evaluation for the opinions submitted?
And what happens with a large amount of comments like the 15.000 submitted already in the case of the all important Tax Reform Bill? What would happen if those views reached six-digit numbers?
This is of course the “holy grail” of e-democracy technology today. Semantic ontology-based algorithms, text mining technologies etc, that will extract, aggregate and synthesize meaningful results out of millions of words and characters (some comments submitted run into 2.000 words or more). To my knowledge, there is no real applicable technology available today and I will gladly stand corrected on this. Whatever methods we may employ (taxonomies, folksonomies or collabularies where classification experts collaborate with end users to create rich and controlled content tagging systems), we still have to undergo a painful process of manual moderation and intelligent aggregation and reporting in order to extract meaningful conclusions on “what the people think”.
This is why we usually have multiple models and tools, and none is better than the other, but at least we need a set of transparent rules and principles by which we abide and perform the dissection of public opinion. We haven’t seen such models deployed here but, in fairness, a good attempt in intelligent summarizing of the outcome was produced for a Ministry of Citizen Protection consultation which however had to analyze only 229 comments.
Moreover, moderation of a discussion is a highly specialized and demanding task and one should really take every measure to put adequate teams in place, develop training toolkits and guidelines and ensure that appropriate procedures are followed.
3. Am I properly equipped to have a fairly informed opinion on the subject discussed?
Does my comment weigh the same as those submitted by experts in the field?
Recent consultations in opengov.gr include topics like: “The pricing of energy produced by photovoltaic systems” and“Technical consulting services for the implementation of the national infrastructure of passive open access fibre-to-the-home optical network (P2P-FTTH)”.
I must admit that I have difficulty to understand these titles, let alone make any meaningful comments. Can the average person claim to have a really useful or insightful opinion on these topics?
Of course these are extreme cases, but even in other top-line themes like the one on the “Development of Renewable Energy Sources to Combat Climate Change” ideally one should have a distilled and balanced account of pros and cons, in a language that can be easily understood and digested by anyone. In the case of opengov.gr none is offered, apart from links to other official background documents with the same legal lingo. But this is essentially what “inclusive democracy” is: Access of citizens to user-friendly material which can help them grasp the issues discussed and equip them to debate on issues usually reserved for experts. The single most important benefit of e-deliberation is its capacity for empowerment through an informed citizenry.
On a similar note, people should be able to follow the consultation easily but in the case of opengov.gr, the only way to do this, is to visit the website regularly or subscribe to an RSS feed. We all know that unfortunately still very few people are familiar with RSS, so the option to subscribe to a regularly updated email (still the default way of communication for most) should really be the first option.
4. Do citizens have the time needed to engage into meaningful debate?
This is a critical element and an obvious oversight by opengov.gr but also an area where the government has been open to sharp and adverse criticism by the opposition and the media. The practice of e-deliberation has been blamed for significant delays in the government decision-making process, especially at this time where the country is facing a huge economic crisis and speedy decisions are needed.
Now, the government of course brought this down on itself by engaging into this format and implicitly promising something that it should never promise in the first place. The truth is that any proper consultation needs a significant lead-time to mature. All the international guidelines and practices prescribe lead times to the order of several weeks (usually between 6-12, the UK explicitly prescribing the 12 weeks minimum rule) to allow ample time for reflection, opinion forming and constructive debate. In our case we have seen topics open only for a few days. For example, the “Local Authorities Reform Bill” (Kallikratis), which the government itself promotes as one of the most critical reforms it will implement during its lifetime, was open only for 14 days. Many consultations were open only for 5 days, the consultations on “Market Liquidity” or the “Renewable Energy Sources” were open for 7 days, and so on.
It is hard to justify such limited time periods considering that citizens –hopefully- work and do not stay at home endlessly drafting their responses to consultations. The media and opposition are clearly wrong in expecting a speedy delivery but in all fairness, the government has mismanaged expectations for a process which is novel and unfamiliar territory for journalists and other opinion leaders (let alone the public). The government has to educate people but first of all, it has to deliver a framework of reference for consultations which will clarify the scope of the whole exercise. In any case, public e-deliberation is not a magic wand you waive every time you need speedy and inclusive decision-making.
5. How can we safeguard the democratic nature of deliberation?
Which means, how can we ensure that minority views are treated equally, that entrenched positions do not dominate the conversation and that all views are heard and respected?
Despite what one may think, apart from the obvious political nature, these questions can also have a technology aspect. For example, Tiago Peixoto (aka @participatory) in his post titled “Serendipity for Online deliberation”, proposes the use of an inverse tag cloud, a simple method for a redistributive function in favour of less popular opinions. The idea here is to create tag clouds which favour minority opinions and as these surface to the top they have a better chance of being fed back into the discussion.
In the opengov.gr case we observe a simple serial blog-type posting which obviously simply favours the latest comments submitted. Naturally, no blogger in the world would claim that he is engaging into formal e-deliberation just because there are comments in his blog. The tool for commenting paragraph-by-paragraph is perfectly fit for a collaborative exercise among a group of like-minded people but does not fit well into an e-deliberation platform which needs a mix of highly intelligent and demanding human moderation and the appropriate technology tools to support it.
Opengov.gr: Moving on from Alpha to Beta
All these being said, we do not need to reinvent the wheel of course. The OECD for example, proposes a set of “Guidelines for Online Public Consultations” which may shed some light (my summarizations):
- LEADING UP to the consultation: Begin the consultation process long before the consultation per se. Advertise upcoming online consultations several months in advance so that organisations expect and prepare for it. Involve civil society organisations (CSOs) in dissemination and identify organisations with the appropriate expertise, etc
- LAUNCHING the consultation: Explain in detail and clarify the procedure, include direct contact details, include relevant background documents and offer user-friendly executive summaries of the issues, avoiding jargon and technical terms. Allow 8-12 weeks time for responses, and time to summarize them in a comprehensible manner. In other words…be “inclusive”.
- FOLLOWING the consultation: Compile, analyze and intelligently summarize responses, comments and feelings and post them back for further feedback. Summarize next steps and circulate to parties involved and monitor effectiveness.
Similarly, one could have a look at the “9 Principles of Deliberative Public Engagement” proposed by Involve.org. It is clear that it shares many of the principles put forward by OECD and similar reference materials are numerous since there is a rich corpus of knowledge worldwide. The UK government is continually updating its practices and it has a road map in the form of a “Code of Practice on Consultation” (general, not necessarily online) which now runs into its 3rd version.
The Art and Science of online public deliberation goes directly at the heart of how democracy works and it deserves a lead time for proper adoption. Other institutions and countries have long debated on the how and when and their practices continually evolve. The fact that through the web we can do things very fast and easily is no excuse for not giving the proper attention to sound methodologies. Nor does it mean that it is only a “technology” issue. If there was one subject that we needed a truly interdisciplinary approach to tackle it adequately, then surely this is it. In my opinion, the Greek govt might well think of launching a “consultation on e-consultation” and attempt to put an appropriate framework and an evolving dynamic roadmap in place (by the way, this was the spirit of my comment in an article by Kathimerini.gr).
In a way, it is encouraging that Prof Ioannis Panaretos, a worthy statistics academic and a Deputy Minister of Education, is now officially in charge of the e-deliberative experiment in Greece. It is useful to know that he has been an associate of Stanford Professor James Fishkin and his work on the Deliberative Poll (mind you, Fishkin has trademarked this!), a methodology which apparently adapts and blends the well known qualitative method (focus groups) used in traditional market research with quantitative survey-based methods. The Deliberative Poll is a policy-making tool which allows organizations to measure the difference of people’s opinions before and after carefully constructed informative sessions, where opposing opinions are presented and discussed extensively. The simplicity of the idea has gained him wide recognition and the “European Poll” was a demanding pan-european project implemented in 2007, in which Prof Panaretos himself was involved as member of the high-level scientific committee.
Other people involved with the opengov.gr experiment are also familiar with some of these issues and we have to acknowledge that PASOK (the ruling Socialist Party) has a definite head-start vis a vis all other political parties in Greece in terms of intent and capacity. But this fact places an even heavier responsibility upon its shoulders to make opengov.gr work right. Otherwise, we run the danger of disappointing citizens very early on, observe falling participation rates and eventually discredit the process.
Clearly, this would be a net loss for everyone.