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Debating Europe

In the post about European Parliament elections we talked about how online platforms help to make European politics more comprehensible and engaging. However, the roots of any position of a political party or MEP – be it national or European – still lies in that uneasily definable space of news, opinions, commentary, trends which constitute a public debate. In other words, it is difficult to have politics without a space where those different positions are established in the first place and which then are crystallized into concrete political decisions. It also highlights the issues that are of most concern to the particular society.  Europe is said to have limited space for such debate, as reasons accounting lack of common language, institutions (e.g. European media) as well as the fact that the citizens’ deepest interest and understanding belongs to national politics. Can the online platform Debating Europe, which allows anyone to start a discussion on basically any topic as long as it remains connected with Europe, be a significant step in the direction of creating such space?

Idea of how Debating Europe works is quite simple: anyone who is interested and has prepared a question or comment that has significance in European context can submit it in written form or via video message. Then ‘’Debating Europe’’ team takes up a pertaining question and reaches out to politicians and experts that are associated with this particular issue. Sometimes publicly heated topics are first posed in the platform for users’ response, most popular are then taken for policy-makers and experts to discuss. In the result, the impetus given by any platform user can be developed in a full-scale debate where the opinions of different sides are introduced, creating better insight into a particular matter and giving more solid base for further discussion in the comments section.

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Themes that have been discussed in ‘’Debating Europe’’ are very diverse and it shows that European public sphere can be very much alive as there are so many aspects – political, social, economic, environmental, ethical, and cultural – to be examined in reference to the communal life of Europe. One of the recent examples concern the Greek economic crisis and the referendum in which the Greek people voted ‘’no’’ to the debt refinancing plan prepared by the European institutions and the IMF. This event sparked a serious debate about the member state’s sovereignty and the rules of the EU as a political system itself. ‘’Debating Europe’’ has closely followed the developments of the Greek debt crisis, inquiring its users about its possible solutions, heeding on the conversation whether the Greek debt should be forgiven as German debt was in 1953 (attracting great interest by the users which posted more than 1500 comments in response), asking should the Greece leave the Eurozone. Here, for example, their differing opinions expressed Manfred Weber, a MEP and Chair of the centre-right European People’s Party, American economist Barry Eichengreen as well as Stelios Kouloglou, a MEP from the Greek governing Syriza party. There were several other discussion threads about Greece which all were very actively received by the users, and presented both viewpoints of experienced observers and participants, both opinions of ordinary people across Europe.

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On ‘’Debating Europe’’ radar are various issues, and the most acute political issues are just a part of them. One of the more sociologically reflective debates that highlighted the gap between expectations and reality in the former Soviet bloc countries was dedicated to a theme-debate series ‘’25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall’’. Debate Have living standards in Eastern Europe decreased after Communism? was initiated in response to the comment of one of the users Hrovje who argued that ‘’Life in many former-Communist countries is worse than 25 years ago, especially countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. They have many social problems, including huge corruption, nepotism, and fake democracy.’’ His argument was discussed by Czech academic, a journalist, and the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the EU as well as debated by other users.

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Along conversing on the EU political topicalities and the broader socioeconomic tendencies of Europe, ‘’Debating Europe’’ gives quite a lot of attention to social, cultural, and also ethical questions for people to talk through and see different sides of the issue. There have been debates about whether the euthanasia should be legalised across Europe or should all EU states recognise gay adoption. This is significant if we consider that in the more regular debate social and ethical questions are more accounted to the national than European perspective. Thus an online platform as ‘’Debating Europe’’ can be one of the few well-equipped channels to discuss these issues.

‘’Debating Europe’’ is a unique platform in Europe and probably even in the wider scale. In regard to Europe it gives a platform to discuss important issues from a starting-point which is unmistakably European as it engages participants from different professions, interests and national positions. But also beyond, online debating platforms can prove to be a tool with increasing importance in today’s democracy.

[Lelde]

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.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

Toolbox of participation for Latvia

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 DelibIntellitics,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 ParliamentOpening 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.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

What are the Finns up to?

This week Democracy One Day is discussing e-participation in Finland. I’m interviewing Joonas Pekkanen –  founder and president of the Open Ministry (Avoin ministeriö) and a Member of the Board at Open Knowledge Finland (which was recently accepted into the international Open Knowledge network as a local partner).  Joonas is also one of the organizers of the Open Knowledge Festival which has seen some wonderful contributions to the discussion of e-participation and open data

E-petitions and open data

Throughout last year I’ve heard a lot about Finland in the context of open data and e-petitions to parliament. Would you say that those two are the most interesting democratic innovations in your country?

Yes, I believe those two are the major ones.  There’s a strong open data and open democracy movement, especially in Helsinki. Helsinki has been opening up a lot of data, including the data on decision making. A Helsinki region project was just awarded 100 000 euro prize from European Union for being in front line of opening-up municipal data.

There’s also a new legal framework (since March 2012, when the constitutional amendments and Citizens’ initiative law came into force) that allows 50 000 citizens to suggest new laws directly to parliament. 50 000 citizens is 1.2% of population – that’s what you need in order to put a question into the parliament’s agenda.  So it is the first time when the parliament has to take into consideration topics that they otherwise would not touch.

There are some interesting pilots in participatory budgeting and parliamentary monitoring, but the open data and e-petitions seem to be the most impressive initiatives. They are also of particular interest to me.

Is Finland in any way special when compared to other countries regarding opening its data?

Currently, there’s a strong political will to open up everything, it’s even in the government program and there will be some government budget for this purpose next year. The roots for openness are deep – after all, we have the world’s first public records and freedom to information legislation dating back to 1766. But it hasn’t been obvious in the last decades that we would be in the frontline regarding open data. I still do not know whether we are, but we’re trying – our public information regulation is quite good and we’re working together with officials to prioritize data-sets that will be made available in machine-readable format.

Could you give me an example of an open data success story in Finland?

At Helsinki municipal level even the subcommittees have placed their information online – all the agenda items. They are available in machine readable formats, so you can make applications out of that data. There’s one ongoing project that is being developed at the moment – OpenHelsinki.net – which would make it possible to structure conversation around those data so that the people can have meaningful discussions about the same topics that local politicians are considering. There might even be shadow voting on the same issues. It would also structure the data in a way that you can always explore the history of some debate or amendment. All of such possibilities will probably be self-evident in a few years, but we’re not there yet.

There’s a lot of data online. The most widely used datasets concerns real-time public transportation. With the real-time data that includes GPS-coordinates, developers have made applications that show you whether your bus is already behind the corner.

Is there any information that is currently not available to the public, but should be?

It would be interesting to get the datasets and models used by Ministry of Finance to create simulations of various budget decisions so that anybody could see how, by changing different budget decisions and variables, different outcomes are reached. This would improve the level of political debate and allow not only opposition politicians but also academics to make solid counter-proposals to the government.

Ok, let’s move on to e-petitioning! How did Finnish population manage to convince the parliament to change the constitution to allow such petitions?

At that time there wasn’t much of a political debate. Only after the constitution was changed and the first initiatives started coming in, did the politicians wake up and really understand what they have done!  There’s now four initiatives that have passed the 50 000 threshold to be considered by the parliament – so that’s not many. But, nevertheless, some politicians are feeling that they are losing their power to set the parliamentary agenda.

Are those members of parliament voicing their concerns in public?

Yes, there has been criticism. Many members of parliament are quite welcoming towards citizen initiatives, but there are also quite a few who have voiced their criticism and, thus, attracted media attention. For example, recently the members of Democratic Party said that citizen initiatives that are not in the government program, would not be accepted. That makes no sense – the whole point of the citizens’ initiative is to bring issues to the parliament, which would otherwise not end up there.

But those initiatives are not binding to the parliament, are they?

They are treated in the same was as other initiatives proposed either by a majority of the members of parliament or by the government, as is usually the case. Citizens’ initiatives may be accepted or rejected, but they are first considered by the subcommittee which hears to experts, organizes public hearings and prepares a statement on the issue – it can also suggest amendments. The parliamentary plenary then votes on the initiative and the possible amendments that the subcommittee has suggested. The plenary can also make changes, even though this would be rare.

Please tell me more about the initiatives that have passed the threshold!

The first one gathered around 70 000 signatures – it was about farming the animals for their furs which is banned in several European countries. Despite the initiative, the majority of members of parliament decided to not ban such farming. It was very clear from the very beginning that there will not be political support for that initiative.

Yesterday we handed-in the petition of 53 000 signatures – the petition is on copyright regulation.  It is the most crowdsourced petition to this date! My organization helped to collect people’s ideas and to formulate the petition into a law-proposal format. In helping this initiative, we wanted to counter-balance the influence of copyright industry:  there’s a lot of criticism of copyright legislation being overly influenced by the copyright lobby of the entertainment industry and members of parliament lacking alternative information.

More than 150 000 signatures were gathered in favour of allowing the same-sex marriages which will go to the parliament later this year. There’s also a petition on Swedish language no more being mandatory for Finnish students.

So the parliament refused the initiative on animal farming, but what about the other three – do they have any chance of being approved?

The other petitions have a decent chance of being turned into laws. Some suggestions regarding copyright legislation have wide general and political support even though the industry objects to many of them. The Swedish language issue is a very culturally controversial issue in Finland, so there will be a lot of debate, and the result in unclear. The same-sex marriage petition would be quite hard to vote down considering the international developments of more and more of countries now updating their legislation on the issue.

These three initiatives most likely will be processed in the spring 2014.

Please, elaborate a bit on the process of collecting signatures in Finland!

Since last December, there’s a website maintained by the Ministry of Justice, kansalaisaloite.fi, where you can verify your signature in several ways, including online banking codes. Prior to that we launched our own version of the digital signing platform, but the banks refused to provide us the possibility to verify the signatures free of charge.

Our main mission is to help develop the initiatives before they are launched: we’re making sure that many people are collaborating on producing the initiative, and in making it into the law format with volunteer lawyers. The 50 000 threshold is not easy to reach unless the campaign is also well prepared. I founded the Open Ministry because I saw the risk of low quality initiatives damaging the reputation of the whole system. So we’re trying to make the suggestions as good as possible so that the parliament would take them seriously. Up until know we have been involved with all the fours initiatives that have reached the 50 000 signature threshold, in three of them from form the very beginning. So there’s a good correlation!

 

(Iveta)