Category Archives: Interactive Initiatives

Building the European democracy in the web or how to engage citizens in politics?

Nothing makes the idea of transnational democracy more real than the European Parliament. However, the persistent concern about its legitimacy has brought into the question whether a Europe-wide democratic system is really possible. Turnout of the EP elections has steadily decreased while the focus of the election debates has remained on national rather than European issues (hence the often mentioned ‘second-order’ character of elections). For the 2014 EP elections things were to change as the slogan – ‘’This time it’s different’’ –  indicated, launching a campaign with goal to increase citizen participation and interest in the European Parliament politics. An important part of these efforts were several online platforms that gave the opportunity for voters to find the party and MEP that best matched their political stance, get insight into issues MEPs are debating and follow analysis by experts. If indeed development of European democracy is hampered by its citizens’ lack of interest and knowledge about it, online tools definitely provide significant possibilities to address these limitations.

Here we will take closer look on three voting advice applications that were created for the 2014 EP elections and each of whom had a separate twist. Two of them were developed by the online platform VoteWatch Europe which is a very interesting initiative itself, shedding the light on complex processes inside the European Parliament not only during  elections.

If anyone was confused for whom to vote in the European Parliament elections, he or she just had to answer a set of questions and a web application advised the right party. EUvox , as the preceding application EUprofiler from the 2009 EP elections, compares to many similar platforms across the world.  The principle of EUvox is simple: one had to evaluate statements that target the central issues of the European integration such as ‘’should [your] member state should drop the Euro as currency’’ as well as respond to statements like ‘’the state should intervene as little as possible in the economy’’ that located one’s preferences in more traditional left-right spectrum. The party positions earlier were determined by a group of academics in each member state. The results then showed the political party with which the user had the best match. Yet as in these tools the political parties were set in their national context without referencing the big European party families, for those well accustomed to their local politics big surprises could not arise. However, along getting more information on positions of the small and niche parties that sometimes kick bigger campaign for European than national elections, such ‘testing’ could also be chance to see the national parties in a new light through their stances on the EU issues.

Slightly more informative was a complementary project, the Votematch Europe, that not only gave chance to find specific voting e-tool in your country (if it had one) but, as these different country projects worked with the uniform set of twenty statements designed by the Votematch team, to also see how the party stances matched across the EU.

 

euvox

 

Another voting tool for the EP elections was MyVote2014.eu, orientated on the younger generation of voters. Yet it had another exceptional difference. Whereas EUvox used a well-known mechanism of using party manifestos and statements for determining the party positions, in MyVote2014 their actual voting behaviour was used. MyVote2014 was based on VoteWatch Europe data (about which in a brief moment) and matched the vote ‘casted’ by the user with actual MEP votes on various issues. Example includes ‘’ should the EU strengthen and extend its internal market for services?’’ In such way you could find out your most like-minded member of the European parliament! It therefore was more introductive to European political scene, by asking to value statements that MEP’s are voting on and see stances of politicians across Europe not just national candidates.

 

myvote

The third platform Electio2014.eu, as the EP 2014 election hub of sorts, integrated elements from both EUvox and MyVote2014 to supplement it with up-to-date commentary by academicians, civic activists and politicians themselves. It also provided possibility to match your vote with the MEPs, evaluate and vote for the European Commission presidential candidates (main innovation of the 2014 elections) and follow news and analysis on elections. Interesting feature of the site was chance to compare votes submitted by users to outcome of the actual vote, giving a glimpse on how direct democracy would look like on a European scale.

Thus, the 2014 European Parliament elections showed some considerate and promising approaches in e-democracy tools to advance voters’ knowledge about European politicians and parties, and to increase overall interest in the elections.  While the low turnout trend was maintained in these elections, the crucial idea behind the Europe-wide democracy – to connect European citizens with the parliament – was quite admirably realized through these internet platforms. Their potential is only unfolding.

 

 

electio-2014

 

 

Little of that would be possible without VoteWatch Europe. A NGO, started in 2009 by group of academics from London School of Economics and New York University, has developed an internet platform that allows to follow the voting and attendance in the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers. Collecting the information from institution websites directly, it makes the EU political decision making more accessible for both specialists and the wider public. The 2014 EP election vote-matching platforms was a great example how the VoteWatch data can be used to bring the seemingly abstract work of the EP closer to the general public. It is even more so when these data catch attention from the media, such as in this The Guardian article about  UKIP’s as the ‘laziest party in the Europe’ , inquiring into party’s attendance and voting practices.

VoteWatch makes possible to observe the political process in the EP: from individual MEP activities in drafting laws, making reports, attending and voting to party politics by seeing what coalitions are formed in what issues. As in the most traditional conception of democratic accountability, VoteWatch checks and provides information on actions of the parliament. Only now it refers to European level.

 

[Lelde]

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Enhancing Estonia’s democracy through Rahvakogu

In February, Democracy One Day blog reported on a fantastic e-participation initiative in Estonia, rahvakogu.ee. The idea was to crowdsource policy proposals that have a potential to enhance Estonia’s democracy. In that post, we promised to do a follow-up when the project is finished. So, to keep our promise, we contacted Olari Koppel of the The Foundation Estonian Cooperation Assembly (Eesti Koostöö Kogu[i]) to tell us what has happened since February.

The readers of Democracy One Day already know the idea behind the Rahvakogu and about the initial idea-gathering process. What we do not yet know is what has happened since the end of February. Please give us an update.

We gathered approximately 1500 proposals during the  crowdsourcing stage, the three weeks in January. After bundling, analysis, evaluation by experts and seminars these 1500 were boiled down to 20 most important proposals which were submitted to the Deliberation  Day audience (320 randomly chosen people). The result, 15 proposals were presented  to the Parliament by the President of the Republic [Toomas Hendrik Ilves]. The Parliament’s  Committee of Constitutional Affairs has been discussing these  proposals for some time now and had a public hearing on 3 June.

The positive thing is that the Parliament has treated Rahvakogu’s work as  a legitimate material so far and this is a clear sign of cooperation.  According to our laws, the Parliament actually has the right to reject any proposal without discussion, if the proposals are not submitted in accordance with the law. Even the President has no  right to submit new laws or amendments to the Parliament (he/she can  only initiate amendments to the Constitution).

Two MPs – one from the [ruling] coalition and the other from the opposition – acted as  rapporteurs. They presented the proposals about the timetable [of implementation] and  possible ways of combining the proposals. Also, they reflected the  initial reflections from the parties represented in the Parliament. I cannot say that politicians are overwhelmed by the job Rahvakogu does. But  they are not totally opposed either. I predict, one third of the proposals will be  passed and the laws changed as Rahvakogu asked, one third will be  somewhat modified and one third will be rejected. The real work –  writing the official amendments and discussions in the Parliament –  will start in September.

What are the proposals that, in your view, are almost certain to be adopted by the Parliament?

Rahvakogu is proposing the idea of lowering the threshold for founding a new political party. Under the current law you have to have 1000 members to establish a party. Rahvakogu’s proposal is 200. I think the final result will be somewhere between 300 and 500.

In addition, Rahvakogu is proposing the idea of lowering the threshold of votes necessary for entering the Parliament. Under the current law a political party must get 5% of the votes in order to become eligible for seats. Rahvakogu’s proposal is 3%, but most likely the final result will be 4%.

What about those that have almost no chance of being adopted?

This one is much easier to answer [laughs]! The Parliament is opposed to giving the citizens the right to initiate referenda. The proposal that would make the members of supervisory boards of state-owned companies directly financially responsible  [for possible financial losses of those companies] also does not have any political support.

What has been the public response to the whole process? Has it  been more positive or negative?

The public response has been ambivalent. There are people and groups  who lack trust  in the parliamentary process, particularly when it comes to politicians dealing with their own privileges and rules of conduct, the election laws etcetera. And these people call Rahvakogu’s  efforts a  nice try  but they doubt if any real results and changes  would come out of it. Some have even said that the whole Rahvakogu thing is a pretense, a process initiated by the political establishment in order to avoid serious consequences and real change.

And, there are of course people, who sincerely believe that this could  be a new way of doing and discussing things. It is too early to make any projections or measure success. I personally believe that, in a democratic system, political changes should  be evolutionary not revolutionary.

Would you consider the Rahvakogu initiative a success?

It is too early to answer this question. But it definitely works  as a method for gathering and discussing various proposals. There are two ways of evaluating the whole Rahvakogu event. Some prefer the process – communicating with people, discussing, gathering ideas, finding a compromise et cetera. Some prefer the results, i.e. how many proposals will actually become law. Process-wise we can call it a success already. The method -deliberative poll or deliberative democracy- is sound and it can be used in the future. Result-wise we have to wait till next spring [2014]. And I do personally hope, that the Parliament will start amending laws out of  the desire to improve our democracy. Although the cynical element also exists – that it is just very unpopular to ignore Rahvakogu.

I wonder if Rahvakogu initiative (the whole consultation, the idea -crowdsourcing process) was something totally new for Estonia or did you build on something that had been tried before?

There have been several efforts in the past to build a direct link between the politicians and the general public. You can still write a letter to your representative in the Parliament or to a government minister. And there are also internet platforms where you can follow public discussions about certain topics initiated by the Government.

However , Rahvakogu is unique because of its method, scope and the measurability of the possible outcome. We defined the topics, designed the process  and set a deadline.

How did you come up with the methodology for Rahvakogu?

It was like putting a puzzle together  – one thing leads to another etcetera.  It is really a combination of different things. There is nothing unique about web-based crowdsourcing, i.e. pooling of ideas, proposals and arguments. And Professor James Fishkin from Stanford [University] has conducted  deliberative polling in 18 countries already. We combined the two and  also made an agreement with the political parties represented in the  Parliament, that they will give a fair treatment to the Rahvakogu  proposals.

There were many Estonian NGO’s involved in Rahvakogu initiative: how did you manage the logistics?

We had the so-called initiative group to run the whole „show“: some IT geeks to design and maintain the online platform, people from the so-called roof organization of NGOs, e-Government Academy, the analysts from Praxis [Center for Political Studies], one representative from every political party represented in the parliament. My organization coordinated the whole process, kept people together, watched the deadlines, paid the bills etcetera. Most of the work was done on a voluntary basis in the evenings and weekends.


I know that there are several other things under way in your organization. Could you briefly describe some of them?

This year, the Estonian Cooperation Assembly started a three-year project of the so-called state management analysis. We are going to evaluate the functioning of the state apparatus by first describing all the different bodies established by the state and executing state power, from the ministries to various semi-public/semi-business/semi-NGO organizations, where the state is a stakeholder or an interested party. We review all the functions and  resources (money and people), which are used for running these bodies.  The next stage is the same analysis at the local level. And the basic question we are trying to answer is whether this whole organization we know as the State is working in the public interest, is the bureaucracy only solving problems or perhaps creating some new ones, is the system sustainable and so on? Our analysis could finally become a White Paper for a wider state reform.

Well done and good luck with that!

[Interview by Iveta]

[i] The Foundation Estonian Cooperation Assembly was established by the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves  in 2007 as a cooperation network for non-governmental organizations. The foundation monitors topics which influence Estonia’s long term development and that are seen as priorities by its members. It was given by the President the task to „run“ or co-ordinate the Rahvakogu process.

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Crowdsourcing Icelandic constitution: a myth or reality?

Many have heard the  inspiring story of Icelandic people crowdsourcing their own constitution. But how much of it is real and how much rather is wishful thinking?  To find out, Iveta Kazoka, PROVIDUS policy analyst, talks with Finnur Magnusson who was the Chief Technology Officer of the Constitutional Council in Iceland.

Prior to writing constitutional draft, was large scale citizen participation in decision making something common for Iceland?

Not really! We’d not been as participatory as some other countries. There had been some attempts on city level, especially Reykjavik, but the parliament was quite one-way in its communications.

How come the parliament didn’t draft the constitution itself?

There had been numerous attempts! The parliament had been setting up committees and working groups for the last 40 years or so. There was no new constitution, just some updates coming from such efforts: for example, a new human rights chapter. Our constitution has a strict acceptance clause – that means that all amendments have to go through two consecutive parliaments in order to come in force, so it is very difficult to change our constitution.

Who had the initiative to draft a constitution by involving so many people?

It was our prime minister [Johanna Sigurdsdottira] and her party who were interested in having a new constitution and insisted that it should be widely discussed. The process of drafting a constitution started with a specific event – 1000 randomly selected Icelanders were flown in to Reykjavik in order to decide on the main principles for the new constitution.  .

Do you think that such a large scale event was necessary?

I believe that it was a very good starting position for drafting a new constitution!  It paralleled a historic event – our first parliament Althing where people came together to decide on common matters.  There was also a more recent event: when the crisis struck, people brainstormed ideas to make life better.  That was a great success! So when politicians decided on drafting a new constitution, they wanted some similar process. It was important that people gathered in the event represent the Icelandic society – so they were randomly chosen as to come from all over Iceland; gender, age, other demographics were also important. They met in Reykjavik where they worked for a whole day being paid the salary that a member of parliament would have got for a day’s work. That’s how we got many new ideas. We even made a complex mind map to organize them.

Was there a statement, idea that originated in this event and ended up in the draft constitution?

People wanted the constitution to be readable, in a clear language. They also wanted more direct democracy and that it is clearly written in constitution that Icelandic public resources belong to its people. Those were very clear messages coming from the Assembly. Those ideas can be found also in the final edition of the constitutional draft.

Who were the people chosen to draft a new constitution?

There were more than 500 candidates who participated in elections for Constitutional Council. Candidates needed a specific number of signatures in order to run. So people voted in elections using single transferable vote system, and that’s how we got 25 Council members.

But then there was a hiccup. One person challenged the election results because of technicalities (our voting legislation states that you should fold your ballot and you should be in closed surroundings during vote, but this time we voted using electronic machines). The High Court deemed the election results void. But the government decided to go ahead anyway – they just renamed the institution “Constitutional Council” (rather than “Constitutional Parliament” as originally intended) and offered the 25 to take their seats in this Council.

But were the 25 people in the Council already known in Icelandic society?

It was a good cross-section of Icelandic society. We had politicians, mayors, a TV celebrity – yes, it was hard for someone totally unknown to be elected for Council, but otherwise the Council was quite diverse.

Was the Constitutional Council free to choose its own methods of engaging people?

I’d say that High Court ruling turned out to be a good thing regarding this specific issue. The parliament had made some very clear guidelines on how the constitution should be written, and that was a very old-fashioned way of doing it. Many committees, consensus-based procedures – a lot of people, me included, were doubtful whether that was at all possible to write a constitution this way. So when they renamed Constitutional Parliament into Constitutional Council the parliament decided to let the Council itself to decide on its procedures. You can do whatever you want, but get everything completed by the deadline!

So we had two weeks to come up with methods. We knew that the process should be as open as possible, so we developed on that. Basically we tried to publish what we had frequently. We created the foundations of the process, but then adapted it to circumstances.

What methods did you use to involve people?

We used our own website. We publicized our event via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, but the work itself took place on our website. Every week we posted an update of the bill, and as soon as it went live on the website, you could post Facebook-style comments! It was quite critical to get the first release of the report – when the drafters saw that nothing bad happened because of it, then they themselves wanted to publish more, just to see what the people would say. And everyone got very used to this type of working.

Did crowdsourcing lead to changes in the draft?

Maybe 12-13 Council members were very active on the discussion threads. People noticed that: they felt listened to, considered. In the meeting notes you can see that they are discussing the ideas from the people.

I can say that at least 4 out of 100 articles in the constitutional draft were directly influenced by the online conversations, for example, on open data and rights of children. We also received formal letters! So we had a very considerable amount of suggestions.

Were there any influential people against such a process of drafting constitution?

Yes, one of political parties – Independence party – was against from the very beginning. They believed that it is the parliament that should write the constitution. This party and their media have been criticizing the process the whole way.

Even the scholars in university sometimes say that this big of a change should be drafted by legal teams, and not members of the public. There are also members of parliament who think like that – they also say that the draft needs more time, more work, that maybe some amendments should be enough…

So there is no total agreement on the new constitution. In fact, the things are not looking good! If it is not passed in this parliament, then it will take a very long time due to the constitutional amendment rules in Iceland.

How would you explain such an opposition? Are the arguments by legal academia convincing to Icelandic parliament?

This has put many people in doubt – that maybe the constitution needs more time, more arguments… There are also attempts by the parliament to delay the process. It is very hard to reach a consensus. We needed 4 months to draft a constitution, but now it is already 2 years since parliament can not manage to approve it.

What does the Icelandic public think about the constitutional draft?

We had some on-binding referenda questions. Majority gave a clear indication that they wanted this constitution to be adopted, and that they wanted more direct democracy, and also the statement on national resources. A slight majority wanted us to change the section on religion, so there has been an update in the text.

So at least 50% of population wants this constitution, and that’s important for political parties prior to elections. But the current parliamentary majority is not very vocal in supporting the draft! Maybe that’s because there are some changes that takes some power away from politicians and makes things more difficult for them – for example, ministers would not be members of parliament anymore.

As things stand right now, I’m not very hopeful that this parliament will adopt the constitution.

Irrespective of what happens with the draft, do Icelandic people now expect such brainstorming methods to be a new norm for civic participation in decision making?

Despite a few positive discussions, the parliament hasn’t shown any signs of increasing citizen involvement. But there are some parties running for elections who advocate for similar work procedures – such as Pirate party and some new parties (and we’ve never had so many new parties!) There is some work under way in the Ministry of Finance on open data. The city of Reykjavik has done the most – for example, they’ve created a site for participatory budgeting. So there are a few things on municipal level, but the parliament remains quite the same.

You can also watch Finnur talking on the Icelandic constitution here:

http://bambuser.com/v/2995524   (in Finland, 2012)

and in Riga, 2013 here:

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Citizen crowdfunding neighbor.ly

OK, by now we have all previously have heard about crowdsourcing for public good, but what about … crowdfunding?

Here is a website that does exactly that – neighbor.ly:

neighborly1

Imagine you have an idea of a project that would make you city better, but there just isn’t enough money! What do you do? You either fight for this idea to get funding in the next municipal budgetary planning cycle where it might both win or lose in its competition with other initiatives or …

you may act yourself and fundraise to make it real! And why not fundraise online?

That’s the mission of neighbor.ly. Municipalities or NGO’s whose mission is related to civic infrastructure can apply to use this website as a platform to  find funding for a project that might bring an improvement to the city.

See, for example, this screenshot where people are fundraising to introduce higher speed internet in their area. As you can see there are already 111 donors and more than 10 000$ have been gathered.

neighborly2

An interesting concept which, if successful, might have some deeper consequences!

For example,  isn’t it wonderful that people are ready to contribute financial for the public good even after they have already paid their taxes? But … should they? Maybe a better option it would be for people to have more say regarding how their tax money is spent?  Would it really be healthy if  a municipality or state agency starts to rely on such funding? Would poorer people not get blamed for not contributing enough?

And  can such an idea and crowdfunding (for what is perceived to be an obligation of a state agency anyhow) ever work outside US where the taxes are relatively low and there is a deeply-rooted tradition of donating money for charity?

[Iveta]

Further insights from the German-speaking countries – The Voting Advice Applications Wahl-O-Mat, Wahlkabine and Smartvote

In this post, we will again look at the German-speaking countries of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. How is the situation in these countries concerning so-called ‘’Voting Advice Applications’’ (VVAs)? VVAs are online tools trying to help you with the decision how to vote in an election and have increasingly gained popularity in many countries across Europe. How do the German, Austrian and Swiss applications work, how do they differ and how useful are they actually?

Germany – Wahl-O-Mat
http://wahl-o-mat.de/

 Wahl-O-Mat (the name is a word play with the German words for election and machine) is hosted by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education and directly embedded in its home page. The project was first established for the national elections in 2002 and during the last national elections in 2009, it was used over 6.7 million times. Besides the national elections, a Wahl-O-Mat is usually also set up for federal state and European elections.

The application now basically works in a very simple way: on the basis of the party programs before an election, the Wahl-O-Mat team selects 38 central issues which are transformed into simple statements and put into a questionnaire, which is submitted to the political parties. Whilst the statements often refer to very general issues (e.g. Germany should leave the Euro), some of them, especially concerning federal state elections, can also be rather specific (e.g. a certain harbor in the federal state should be expanded). The parties then state whether they agree or disagree with the statements or are in a neutral position. Once the questionnaire is put online, the user can click through the statements and also respond to the statements with ‘’Agree, Neutral, or Disagree’’.

Wahlomat_1

After having gone through all statements, you can select which issues are particularly relevant to you, meaning that a weight will be added to these statements in the following computation of your result. The program now compares your answer with the ones of the parties and shows you with which parties you are most in agreement.

Wahlomat_4

Moreover, you get an overview of how each party responded to the statements and can see them in comparison with your own answers. You also have the possibility to see brief explanatory statements by the parties in which they explaine why they answered the way they did.

In addition, the project also offers many links leading you to some political neutral background information by the German Federal Agency for Civic Education concerning each of the issues of the questionnaire, the participating parties or the elections in general.

If you are interested in German politics but don’t speak German, you can find an English version of the 2009’s Wahl-O-Mat for the national elections here. There is also an English version for the 2009’s European elections.

Austria – Wahlkabine
http://wahlkabine.at/

Wahlkabine (in English: pooling both) is hosted by the Institute for New culture Technologies in cooperation with various other organizations working in the field of political education and was first established for the national elections in 2002. It is mainly available for national, European as well as federal state elections and has been used more than 2.3 million times since its start. In addition, there has been a German and Italian version of it for the last elections in the Italian province of South Tyrol, which compromises a large German-speaking minority within Italy

Wahlkabine now basically works in a very similar way as Wahl-O-Mat. There is a questionnaire of usually about 25 questions concerning the central topics of an election to which you can answer with ‘’Yes, No or Don’t know’’.  After giving your answer, you have to weight the topic on 9-stage scale from ‘’not so important’’ to ‘’very important’’. At the end, a graphic is computed illustrating with which parties your answers intersect most and you can also see the answers and weights of the parties for each single question as well as short explanatory comments.

Some general information on Wahlkabine in English can be found here and also an English version for the last European elections is available.

Wahlkabine_1

Wahlkabine_3

Switzerland – Smartvote
http://smartvote.ch/

Smartvote was first introduced before the national elections in 2003 and is hosted by the scientific network Politools. Today the program is available for various elections at the national, regional and municipal level. During the latest national elections in 2011 it was used over 1 million times.

Unsurprisingly, Smartvote is based on a similar procedure. You go through a questionnaire (you can choose between a short version with about 30 questions and an extended version with up to 70 questions) with the answering options ‘’Yes, rather Yes, Rather No, No, or Don’t Know’’ and you have the possibility to weight the questions. In addition, there are usually also many questions concerning the budget of the respective entity (e.g. should the government spend more or less on military, education, etc.). Based on the questionnaire, you get an advice how to vote in the upcoming election.

However, just as it has been the case with the interactive communication platforms (see the previous entry), Switzerland is again ahead of its German and Austrian neighbors when it comes to the attractiveness of online democracy tools as Smartvote  is more complex and has more to offer than Wahl-O-Mat and Wahlkabine. Thus, Smartvote does not simply compare your answers with those of the general parties participating in an election, but with the responses of the individual candidates of your constituency or the respective party-lists of your constituency. In this regard, each party-list and each individual candidate has his or her own profile page for an election including some basic information as well as the answers to the questionnaire and some explanatory comments (you can also see your own answers in comparison).

Smartvote_profil allg

The profiles of the candidates/parties also include the so-called Smartspider, a graphic illustrating one’s political opinion based on the questionnaire by means of showing agreement or disagreement with basic political positions (e.g. liberal economic policies, open foreign policy, restrictive migration policy, strong welfare state, etc.). Your own Smartspider is also integrated into the graphics and you can see your intersections with the respective candidate/party.

Smartvote_profil smartspider

Finally, the site offers also the so-called Smartmap, a kind of shortened version of the Smartspider, illustrating your political position in a coordination system (left vs. right and liberal vs. conservative) and you can choose to compare your position with the ones of the candidates from a specific party list.

smartvote_smartmap

Hence, Smartvote shows you in a much more detailed way with who your answers are in agreement than its German and Austrian equivalents. By integrating profile pages and focusing on single candidates and regional party-lists, the application becomes less abstract and you can use it to actually get to know the persons you might be voting for and compare their positions with yours. Moreover, the graphics which can be displayed are certainly a nice feature. However, you also have to mention that the focus on individuals is probably to a large extent simply the result of the Swiss political and voting system, which is characterized by strong federalism and weak party discipline. Nevertheless, of course also in Germany and Austria, differences between candidates of the same party that might play role in your voting decision exist and it certainly would be interesting to have them displayed in the German and Austrian VVAs.

You can change the welcome page of Smartvote to English (also French and Italian are available) and then have the possibility to receive some information and go through some questionnaires (e.g. of the last national election) in English.

 

VVAs – Tool for enhancing democracy or useless gimmick?

Despite their popularity, VVAs are certainly a rather controversial issue. Can they really make a useful contribution to enhancing democracy or are they just useless features that might even affect democracy in a negative way by reducing the forming of one’s political will to the answering of a questionnaire, thereby giving your decision into the hands of a machine? Since probably all VVAs work in a similar way as the ones described here, this discussion is certainly not only relevant for the German-speaking countries.

There is certainly no doubt that these applications work in a very simplified way and can by no means replace an active forming of political will. Sometimes you get rather confusing results, advising you to vote for an extremist party whose extreme views might not really be reflected in the questionnaire or your result might show strong correlation with two completely opposed parties, e.g. a left-wing and a right-wing party as the questionnaire might not really capture such complex things as ideologies, views of the world and so on. Moreover, the application cannot measure if you agree with a party with respect to a certain issue, but totally disagree with the way the party wants to tackle the problem (e.g. you might generally agree that renewable energies should be promoted more, but think that a party’s energy strategy is way to expensive).

Even if we assume that the applications really reflect your opinion perfectly, another problem is that they cannot capture your personal impression of a party’s candidates, which, however, could be important for your voting decision (e.g. would you really vote for a party whose program might perfectly reflect your personal views but you have the impression that its top candidates are totally inexperienced and incompetent?). In this regard, it is also important to mention that sometimes you might rather choose to vote strategically (concerning coalition forming) than voting for the party representing you most, because you are aware of the fact that your vote could provoke the forming of a government you want the least.

However, despite these various problems (and I think that most people are aware of them), VVAs can nevertheless make an important contribution to democracy as their intention is not to replace a proper forming of one’s political will, but rather to contribute to it. As it is also stated by the hosts of the VVAs themselves, you should not overvalue your result, but rather be provoked to take a closer look into the central subjects before an election and the positions of the parties. For example, you might always have considered yourself a supporter of a certain party, but if the VVA shows you that in fact, you disagree with many of their standpoints, you are provoked to deal closer with certain issues and maybe rethink your position or the VVA certifies your previous views and you can see it as a kind of confirmation. On the other hand, if you are a traditional swing voter, using a VVA is really helpful to get a first overview of the most important issues and the positions of the different parties before an election. Moreover, due their simplicity, VVAs can be a first step for nonvoters to become interested in politics. Hence, if used as they are intended, VVAs certainly can be a useful tool helping you with the forming of your voting decision or provoke you to vote at all.

[Christian]

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Abgeordnetenwatch, Meinparlament and Politnetz – Interactive communication platforms in the German-speaking world

In a previous post the Latvian website Gudrās Galvas, an online platform allowing citizens to communicate with politicians, has already been introduced. Now, what about the situation concerning such tools of communication in the German-speaking countries of Germany, Austria and Switzerland? What possibilities to communicate with their politicians do the citizens of the German-speaking world have and how useful are the communication platforms in these countries?

Germany – Abgeordnetenwatch
http://www.abgeordnetenwatch.de

 

Abgeordnetenwatch (in English: deputy or parliament watch) is an independent online platform allowing citizens to pose questions to representatives in parliament. Originally limited to the federal state of Hamburg, Abgeordnetenwatch today compromises the majority of deputies of the national parliament, the European parliament, 9 of 16 federal state parliaments as well as various municipalities. When there are elections, candidates can join the site and be consulted, too. Each day, about 10.000 people visit the site. Some general information in English can be obtained at:

http://www.abgeordnetenwatch.de/layer-248-0.html#kapitel4

How does it work?

Each participating representative has a profile (see below), mainly including some basic information concerning his or her political activities in parliament.

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If you have a question to a specific deputy, for example, you might want to contact the deputy of your constituency in the national parliament, all you have to do is to go to his profile and click the link to the question formulary. All questions posed and the respective answers are shown at the profile page of each politician (see below).

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What is it good for and what could be improved?

The site gives citizens the possibility to directly contact representatives with their questions or concerns and the majority of politicians do indeed answer most of the questions they receive. Just like questions and answers appear on the site, people can also look at the questions of others and the respective answers so as  to inform themselves, or maybe also become inspired to post a question of their own. Politi­cians on the other hand, get an overview of what really concerns the people and can demonstrate their expertise and willingness to help them. Hence, Abgeordnetenwatch can be regarded as a kind of center for channeling the online consultation process be­tween citizens and politicians and therefore certainly makes a valuable contribution to enhancing democracy and transparency in Germany.

Unfortunately the site is solely focused on a question-answer process. According to the general terms and conditions of Abgeordnetenwatch, each enquiry has to be formulated as a question. Neither politicians, nor citizens have the possibility to express an opinion on their own behalf and there is also no possibility to comment on a certain question or answer. Thus, real discussions between citizens and politicians cannot take place. Extending the project by finding ways to allow for an actual dialogue between citizens would certainly make the platform even more interesting.

 

Austria – Meinparlament
http://www.meinparlament.at/

 

Meinparlament (in English: my parliament) is a kind of  Austrian version of the German Abgeordnetenwatch and was also set up with the help of the Abgeordnetenwatch team. Hence, it is no surprise that it basically works in the exact same way and also uses a similar layout (see below).

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The only real difference between the two platforms is that Meinparlament does not include representatives of regional or municipal parliaments, but only representatives of the national and European level. However, in contrast to Abgeordnetenwatch, Meinparlament also has a section compromising all the members of the Austrian government including the Austrian chancellor. Hence, the chancellor and the ministers can be contacted just like any other member of parliament. Although there are also a few ministers on Abgeordnetenwatch, they do, however, seem to be less active than an  average politican. Meinparlament can therefore also be regarded as a real contact point to the Austrian government.

 

 

Switzerland – Politnetz
http://www.politnetz.ch/

 

The Swiss website Politnetz (in English: political net) is certainly the most interesting communication tool in the German-speaking countries. It is an independent platform, allowing for an actual dialogue between citizens and politicians. Currently about 3000 politicians including members of parliament from the national, regional and municipal level as well as various other politicians (e.g. youth politicians, candidates) and 15.000 ordinary citizens are registered. Last year the project was awarded with the Data Journalism Award by the Global Editors Network, illustrating its importance and innovative power.

How does it work?

Politnetz now follows a completely different approach compared to its German and Austrian equivalents as it is not a tool for consulting politicians, but rather a platform where citizens and politicians can express their opinion by publishing articles on political issues or comment on the articles of others and consequently engage in a discussion. As ordinary citizens have the same right to publish articles and leave comments as politicians, it might be regarded as a form of democratic or citizen’s journalism. In addition, the platform includes some elements of social networks such as Facebook. Below you can see how the system works. A member has written an article on family policies. After clicking on the article and reading it, you can leave a comment and give your opinion on the issue to which the author or other members might in turn react. You can also express your support for an article by clicking on ‘’like’’.

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 Given the importance of direct democracy and the frequent holding of referenda in Switzerland, the following feature of the site is also very interesting. Members can write short statements on how they will vote in the referendum and Politnetz contrasts the pro and contra statements with each other (see below).

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In order to publish articles and participate in discussions, you have to create an account or register via Facebook. Each member of Politnetz, politicians as well as the ordinary citizen, has his or her own profile page (see below) including some basic information and an overview of all articles written. Moreover, members have the possibility to embed their Twitter account in their profile and you can also subscribe as a supporter and follower of a politician.

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What is it good for and what could be improved?

What makes  Politnetz so interesting compared to Abgeordnetenwatch and Meinparlament is that citizens and politicians can actually have a real discussion, which also takes place on absolutely equal terms. Rather than finding themselves in a kind of inferior role requesting something from a politician, Politnetz gives citizens the possibility to tell the public and the political class their opinion on a certain issue or to react to statements written by politicians. To give an illustration: whilst sites like Abgeordnetenwatch function like writing a letter to a politician, which is then made public (and the answer as well), Politnetz is like attending a speech from a politician and discussing with him or her publicly afterwards or, changing the roles and giving a speech on your own which can then be commented by politicians. In turn, the site gives politicians the chance to present themselves, promote their ideas and get input from the citizens.

Browsing through some discussions shows that the system really works. Various articles are published regularly and citizens and politicians often have a lively debate. Sometimes, it is also interesting just to see how politicians comment on each other’s articles, like watching a political debate on TV with the important difference that you can join the discussion any time if you wish. So you can say that Politnetz fulfills an important role in taking the traditionally already very open and democratic political system of Switzerland to the times of the information age.

What could now be improved? Well, I really think that there is not much to improve at Politnetz. However, a simple consultation function as offered by Abgeordnenten­watch and Meinparlament would nevertheless be nice to integrate into the website since the comment section under articles is not really suitable for general questions. Given the ‘’Facebook-like’’ style of the site, a message board on the profile page, similar to the Latvian site Gudrās Galvas, could fulfill this function. Moreover, the site could also try integrating government representatives from the national and regional level (at least I couldn’t find any).

 [Christian]

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E-communication tool GudrasGalvas.lv

 

http://gudrasgalvas.lv/

So this is an online platform (hosted by Centre for Public Policy PROVIDUS) providing voters and general public with an opportunity to interact with the MPs and ministers. In many ways it resembles a social networking website, like Facebook, for example, where each politician has his/her own profile, which includes a picture, Curriculum Vitae and their online appearances. Most importantly, though, it allows anyone to post a question or a suggestion to the politicians to which he/she is then expected to answer. You also get to see statistics of how active this particular politician is –  how often he/she logs onto the platform, how many questions he/she answers etc.

The one thing that most certainly makes this a valuable platform for democratic participation is that the voter is given an opportunity to directly interact with a certain politician –  not only via asking questions but also proposing concrete suggestions and solutions and receiving direct feedback on the  proposal (provided the given politician responds and engages actively which, as observed, has by and large been the case on most of the instances).

Here’s what it looks like:

screenshot_gudrasgalvas

However, as the evidence shows, the web-platform becomes actively visited shortly before the elections and is relatively quiet during the interim. The question remains, how do fix this? How does one increase civic activism?

[Indra]

There are several additional interesting features about this website. In the screenshot below you can see three of them in the profile of a MP:

1) the MP can not only answer a question posted by a voter, but also create a survey himself/herself. He can tell the broader public about the survey via twitter or other social networks, which is exactly how this particular MP got responses to her question!  Hence, this platform functions also as an e-consultation tool.

2) As you can see in this picture, this is not a strictly question-answer platform, but rather it allows a discussion to begin between a voter and a MP – this opportunity has been added to the website because the MP’s felt that they needed more opportunities to engage with their voters.

3) in the section called “media monitoring” a MP can check what is being tweeted about him or her (also their own tweets are stored here). This is one way of motivating MPs to visit this website more often.

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Next screenshot shows some additional “motivational” features of gudrasgalvas.lv. There are several gamification elements spread throughout the website that are intended to motivate both MP’s and voter to be more active! For example, the MP’s who respond the most to questions or create survey/blogs get an activity badge and their names turn up on the first page of gudrasgalvas.lv as the most active MP’s. The experience of gudragaslvas.lv has shown that this is quite an effective way in encouraging participation.

Each visitor of gudrasgalvas.lv can create his/her own profile. All the questions asked by that user are being collected there (it is possible to get e-mail notification whenever they receive an answer), and he/she can also see how much points she has earned by surfing through the site, by having participated in surveys, by having asked questions etc. (see, the screenshot below – that user is currently the 70th most actvie user on gudrasgalvas.lv!) On the right side of the screenshot you can see the general statistics of gudrasgalvas.lv – until this day 16347 questions have been asked to candidates and MP’s. MP’s and candidates have answered 9463. Out of 100 Latvian MP’s, 87 have logged in gudrasgalvas.lv at least once.

The audience of gudrasgalvas.lv can vote for the MP of the week. Then a short video interview with that particular MP is made available on the website. The MP can also indicate the other ways how he or she prefers to communicate with voters: for example, via Twitter, Facebook, political party page etc.

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Finally, gudrasgalvas.lv also functions as an accountability tool. Most of ministers and all of MP’s took part in elections where they were asked by gudrasgalvas.lv (which at the time was functioning as a communication website between election candidates and voters) to specify their motivation in taking part in election and 3 promises they could give to their voters (see below in the screenshot). This information was kept on the website, so every voter can judge for herself whether these promises have been kept and post questions about them. In addition to that, this website is also linked with another Latvian website deputatiuzdelnas.lv where the audience can find information on whether the MP has or has not been involved in some shady deals (we will tell more about this website in the future)!

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In addition, there is also a widget freely avilable on gudrasgalvas.lv that can be embedded in any other website fully integrating with its functionality  – the widget allows the users of that particular website to ask questions to MP (for example, in the context of some news story). The Q&A then gets posted both at that website and also at gudrasgalvas.lv.

It looks like this (this is deputatiuzdelnas.lv website):

DuSdeputats

So, these are the main features of this multi-multi-purpose website …

What do you think about it? This is definitely something new for democracies – something less stiff and formal than usual parliamentary websites, there is quite a lot of youthful gamelike element integration. But is such an informal way of communicating with high officials something of benefit to democracies or not?

[additions by Iveta]

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