Tag Archives: Germany

E-petitions in Germany

Petitions are a well-established way in many democratic states to give citizens the opportunity to raise their voice and forward their complaints or concerns to the country’s representatives, thereby often enforcing their claims and also creating public awareness through the collection of signatures. In Germany, an interesting platform transforming this traditional way of democratic participation into an e-democracy tool has been established in 2005: the e-petition portal of the Bundestag (German parliament).

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Although an online platform for petitions is certainly nothing tremendously innovative these days, one has to consider that unlike many other e-petition websites, this is an official platform hosted by the parliamentary commission for petitions within the German parliament, which also means that it is ensured that your petition is actually scrutinized.

In Germany, sending individual or public petitions to parliament is one of the fundamental rights to be found within the constitution, the German Basic Law. After registering at the website, citizens have the possibility to exercise this right online, making the procedure much more convenient. Whilst the submission of individual non-public petitions relating to personal concerns becomes certainly more comfortable by means of the portal (you just have to fill out an online form), the platform is particularly interesting with respect to public petitions, which can be supported by other citizens. In this regard, instead of going through the exhaustive process of collecting signatures on paper, the petitioner just has to submit it on the e-petition platform and other registered users can “sign” them online with just a few clicks. All public petitions appear in the petition forum, which is the centerpiece of the website. Here, the users get an overview of all petitions and can also have a discussion on them.

Petitionsforum

Since all public petitions submitted are first screened with respect to the compliance with several specific rules (e.g. they need to be of public interest and suitable for discussion), it may take some time for your petition to get published and be open for signature and discussion. If the parliamentary commission for petitions is the opinion that a petition does not comply with the rules for publication, it may still be treated as an individual petition.

Even though the mere number of supporters gathered for a petition has no direct influence on its success in the subsequent parliamentary scrutiny procedure, a large number of supporters makes it of course much easier to be heard. In this respect, there is a quorum of 50.000 signatures that has to be reached within 4 weeks after the online publication of the petition (traditional paper signatures may be added, but not  signatures collected via other non-official online platforms). Having reached this figure, the parliamentary commission for petitions usually holds a public debate on the issue, whereby the petitioner is invited and has the possibility to present his or her arguments before the delegates.

Irrespective of whether a petition is an individual or a public petition and whether the quorum has been reached or not, all petitions complying with the general formal rules go through the parliamentary scrutiny procedure conducted by the parliamentary commission for petitions. Hereby, the members of the commission debate on the issue and request a statement from the respective responsible ministry, which is in turn scrutinized and taken into consideration. Once the commission has come to a decision, it presents a recommendation to the plenum of the Bundestag, which then decides on the issue. Usually this marks the end of the procedure, meaning that the petition is either rejected (e.g. because a change in legislation is not possible) or that it is accepted. Either way, the petitioner receives an explanatory statement outlining the reasons for the decision, whereby the statements concerning public petitions are published in the online forum. However, the fact that a petition is successful does of course not mean that legislation is now automatically changed according to the petitioner’s wish. Instead, the petition is usually submitted to the government, which might also be requested to take action regarding the issue concerned.

The usefulness and effectiveness of the overall German petition procedure or legislation not withstanding, the e-petition system of the Bundestag is certainly a simple but very interesting feature to modernize a traditional tool of democratic participation.

[Christian]

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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.

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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.

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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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