In our articles, we are always trying to illuminate the most interesting and innovative new practices (or tools if you will) that make democratic participation easier and more effective, especially if they entail an online or e-participation element. But since we are based in Latvia, I always have a question popping up in the back of my head – would this initiative work in Latvia? What obstacles would it meet and how could we overcome them to integrate these new tools in our existing system?
In 2011 a new participation tool was created in Latvia – a web platform manabalss.lv where people could sign for new law proposals to be then discussed in the parliament. With this step the participation rights of Latvian citizens where extended, now adding the collective petitioning rights to the list.
From June, 2011 to September, 2014 801 initiatives were submitted to the portal, 71 of which gathered more than 100 signatures and 14 – more than 10 000. In 8 of these 14 cases Saeima has already undertaken to develop these ideas further – either as a result of the suggested proposals or as their own independent initiative. After 3 years, 106 536 have signed a proposal in the portal, the total amount of signatures exceeding 316 469.
Like it is with any new idea, this initiative needs time for people to appreciate the opportunities it provides and start using it more frequently. But the level of involvement up until now and the mere fact that such a platform exists is a big step towards improving quality of democracy in Latvia.
Now looking at back at the success of this platform, it seems to be an appropriate to develop the idea of increased participation in Latvia further. Which other tools could be implement and use? What could potentially motivate people to use them more actively? Would they even work here?
Finding answers to these questions is the very reason behind us working on this blog – we describe different initiatives with a hope that perhaps some of these will inspire people to try and ‘import’ them into Latvian society (or any other society for that matter). So far what we see is that many of them could easily work in Latvia, but not without support from both the government as well as the general public.
So what are the most popular participation tools and what can we learn from them?
There are many participation tools out there and it is difficult to predict how exactly they would function in Latvian context. Nevertheless it is worthwhile to try and sketch the main tendencies to help us determine in which direction we would want to go in an ideal scenario.
Most of the participation tools are used in USA and UK, though there are many successful participation platforms operating in Europe, too (some of these are listed here). In Great Britain, for example, the civic involvement is so popular that it has led to emergence of companies whose main task is developing mobile or online apps and tools of participation for state institutions and other governing bodies (Check Delib, Intellitics,Govdelivery).
There are different types of participation tools but the most popular by far are petition portals and monitoring sites. The former are usually trying to get support for a concrete project or a proposal (such as the popular global petition Avaaz.org) while the latter, as the name suggests, monitor a concrete institution, execution of certain responsibilities, as well as reporting breach of law. Portals of this type are extremely useful for increasing participation, while at the same time they also offer more information to general society and help them make more informed decisions. It is perhaps due to these practical benefits that these types of participation tools have gained the most popularity.
When it comes to themes and topics addressed most, its mostly issues that people encounter in their everyday lives and which somehow decrease their quality of life. A good example here is a British participation platform called- Fix my street. It allows people to submit their observations of the condition of roads and street nearby them, as well as things like broken benches, garbage dumping and other problems they may encounter in their immediate environment. The local municipality is then to react to these complaints and attempt to solve the issue.
Tools like this are popular, because they lighten the bureaucratic burden and speed up the communication processes between the general society and the authorities – instead of several people writing their each individual complaint they can instead join their forces online. Plus, they then know they are not on their own and many other people are affected by the same problem.
Similarly, the American participation tool Politifact serves as a good example – it helps people to evaluate the work of a certain politician or an institution. The portal uses a “truth-o-meter” to evaluate statements made by politicians and their promises, using a spectrum of categories from “true” to “pants on fire”. Thus, with the use of humour, the portal offers valuable information to general public in an ‘easy-to-digest’ manner.
It is interesting to note that the popularity of the online participation tools seems to differ by country, too – in Britian, discussion portals for experts are popular, as well as participation tools’ repositories (such as Participation Compass) and petitions’ portals. Meanwhile, In USA most popular platforms are those that have to do with open data and promotion of transparency, such as Opening Parliament, Opening Government and Open Knowledge Foundation.
Latvian experience in global context
Even if it doesn’t reach out to millions of people like Avaaz.org does, the Latvian petitioning site manabalss.lv. is remarkable nevertheless. The most amazing thing about it is that it can actually affect the agenda of the Latvian Parliament (Saeima), which is a rather rare achievement. This platform allows the Latvian people to take their participation to a very serious level, which is why manabalss.lv stands out among other petitioning platforms out there.
Having said that, I must admit that many of the initiatives that have gained support on the platform are a result of a pro-longed discontent with the current situation – in other words, they have come up when people have become so desperate that they could no longer remain quiet. But having this platform actually allows putting these issues for discussion much earlier – way before they become so pressing it is impossible to keep your mouth shut. If the hope is to make participation a common practice, it is crucial to work towards building trust and starting a quality dialogue between the government and the people, which includes a more active use of participation tools such as manabalss.lv. As it stands, according to Eurobarometer data, only 33% of Latvians believe that their voice carries any weight at all in Latvia, which is a really alarming indicator.
So the first steps would be introducing more participation tools – such as fixmystreet or whatdotheyknow, which allows users to monitor institutions, also asking them questions about topics that are important to them. However, this sort of thing can only work if the institutions are pro-active. Introducing this system is one thing, but using it responsibly and answering to questions regularly is something else altogether. We need both.
In other words – introducing such tools in itself isn’t anything extremely complicated or painfully expensive, but there is no point of doing it unless the government and state institutions actively engage and don’t abuse general public’s trust (which, admittedly, will be difficult to gain in the first place).
The general public could, of course pressurize the government and ask for certain information itself, but if the government neither has the skill or the will to respond, cooperation will freeze right there and trust will drop to lower levels yet.And if this cycle continues, the government will not only lose support of the electorate and its own legitimacy, but also throttle quality decision making processes and cripple the general quality of democracy. And that’s no good for anyone.
The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.
Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.
NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.