Online citizen deliberation for urban development: A holistic approach

e-dialogos is proud to have been nominated by the European Commission as a finalist project for the European eGovernment Awards 2009, announced during the 5th Ministerial eGovernment Conference, that took place between 18-20 November ’09 in Malmö, Sweden.

The emergence of e-Democracy and e-Participation theory and practice these past few years was accompanied by a rhetoric affirming the potential of ICTs to rejuvenate our “old democracy”, giving it the tools to redefine itself in its everyday functioning. Most European Countries have some kind of e-Democracy or e-Participation Project going on, few have integrated this spin in their own National Strategies. From the outset, Local Authorities and Municipalities were seen as the ideal test-bed to experiment and develop such initiatives and projects.

In Greece, things start to move in that direction, although at a slower pace. Some of the reasons are the low internet and broadband penetration rate compared to other EU Member States but mainly political unwillingness and limited understanding of ICT related issues and challenges at top and middle public service management level in both National and Local Government and Public Administration. This rather difficult “environment” certainly poses challenges but creates opportunities as well for innovative policy makers and initiatives to stand out.

C. The e-dialogos Project

A testimony to this is the innovative “e-Dialogos” project at the City of Trikala.

It is funded through the “Politeia” Programme of the “Greek Ministry of Interior, Public & Local Administration” and the “Region of Thessaly” and it is championed by the Mayor of Trikala himself. The project is about providing an innovative and fully fledged e-Democracy methodology and platform for citizens of the City of Trikala to participate in the decision making processes of the city, combining online deliberative and voting processes.

“Access2democracy”- a now inactive Greek NGO which I had the honour of directing – developed the strategy, methodology, the user requirements and specifications as well as the marketing strategy, while IMC Technologies (a Greek IT company that leads the project, awarded as ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2008′ by the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry) developed the web based platform that hosts and supports the process.

The innovation of the project lies in its holistic and integrated approach to e-Democracy and e-Participation.

For this fully integrated approach, we studied best practices worldwide and we developed a unique and original methodology of e-deliberation which is consistent with the current political theory of democracy and models of deliberation. We selected the tools and methods that have proven their value in experiments we have studied and combined them in such a way as to offer a tight serial process of dialogue.

B. The Platform and the tools

The platform comprises of three tools:

  • a top-down e-Surveysystem, where the City Council can ask citizens to respond to specific issues of interest to the municipality;
  • a bottom-up e-Petition system where citizens act on their own inititative;
  • an e-forum for direct moderated dialogue
    and most importantly,
  • a fully fledged e-deliberation process, where the innovation of the project lies.

C. The novelty of the e-deliberation process

This is a ‘serial process’ with a specific time-framewith several well defined and concrete steps embedded in the deliberative cycle, a process where the different corresponding e-tools are put to particular use.

In brief, the process is best seen at the following diagramme.


Verbal explanation of the Deliberative Cycle process

1. The Mayor and Councillors decide on a pool of potential topics for deliberation (the focus being on topics that have a strategic and long term developmental impact on the City).

2.Information is gathered on this pool of topics. The objective is to create short condensed and meaningful insiders documents on each of the proposed issues, written in plain language and a journalistic style, for the information to be accessible to all citizens. This is uploaded on the website.

3.Citizens must register on the e-Dialogos site in order for them to participate, where they also create their own demographic profile. The demographics will also be used to weigh the results accordingly, balancing the views of over or under represented segments of the population, facilitating statistical analysis at the end of the deliberation cycle. An important aspect is that of catering for the registration of citizens who are not necessarily “permanent residents”. Let’s not forget that there are more stakeholders to this discussion, people that have some sort of “vested interest” in the well-being of the city (like students, regular commuters, businesses etc). Moreover, there are citizens that live and work permanently in another city or even abroad but keep close ties locally.

3.e-Polling: The pool of suggested issues is put to an online e-Polling process where citizens can decide which topics will finally be part of the deliberative process. They are also allowed to add issues they consider important that have not been picked up by the municipality. If they get enough “votes”, they are included in the topics to be discussed hereafter. This is essentially an agenda setting stage.

4.e-Forum: The selected topics are then discussed among citizens in professionally moderated online forums with the participation of the Mayor, civil society, experts etc. The forums feature two or three pre-determined discussion threads so that the discussion will be well-focused. The moderator – a journalist -is trained by the team to follow carefully drafted guidelines in order to keep the momentum and foster constructive discussion. The background information is always accessible easily

5. The moderator uploads a well drafted user-friendly and balanced summary of the main points discussed.

6. These codified results of the discussion, lead to the drafting of a detailed and thorough questionnaire which is uploaded in the form of an e-survey that will record the quantifiable final position of citizens on the specific issues. A novelty of the platform is that for every question there is a button which allows a pop-up window to appear with the necessary background information needed to answer this particular question (the “fact bank”). This feature, not found in other e-survey platforms, fosters real and substantial informative opinions.

7. The results of the e-forum and the e-survey are forwarded to the City Council, which will discuss and decide on these issues in a dedicated session which will be webcasted, with a citizen-envoy collecting and reporting emails and chats sent by citizens injecting their views and questions into the debate at regular intervals.

8. The City Council finally decides on the issues discussed, the result is uploaded and a new deliberation cycle can now commence.

D. The importance of a concrete communication plan.

From the outset of the project, Communication was considered not just a supportive action but a critical factor of success. It is no secret that many e-participation projects fail to attract and sustain citizens’ participation due to inadequate resources and thinking going into marketing of the initiatives.

It is absolutely crucial that citizens will be informed and mobilized to participate in such a process. In the case of e-dialogos a comprehensive communication plan was designed, involving a full array of media and tactics: Brochures, posters, press releases, press conferences, tv and radio spots, interviews and press articles and so on.

Particular emphasis was given to the branding of the project, something which would facilitate awareness, recognition and respect and would express the values and the inclusiveness of the project.


E. Critical success factors

  • Strong commitment from policy makers to seriously engage in the process (the leadership and vision of the Mayor Mr. Michalis Tamilos and the commitment of Mr. Odisseas Raptis, CEO of “e-trikala S.A.“, were essential factors in the project)
  • Definite decisions and outcomes at the end of the process to convince of the real usefulness of citizens’ participation
  • Special attention to the Interface Design so that it is intuitive and easy to use to the average citizen. UI is not an “add-on”, on the contrary it is an essential element towards inclusiveness, a democratic prerequisite.
  • Training toolkits for Citizens, Municipality officials and Moderators.
  • Special measures to increase access to the processes by providing public access points and guidance
  • A comprehensive and well thought-out communication strategy involving the full array and the right mix of marketing tools like; branding, informational brochures, posters, press releases, advertising in mainstream media, online campaigns, champions’ press  interviews etc. Care should be taken towards timely advertisement and awareness raising activities on forthcoming discussions online and offline, reminding citizens of the appropriate stages where their input is needed.

F. Presentation at the World e-Democracy Forum, Paris, 2008    

G. Dissemination & Publications about e-dialogos