Inclusive policies call citizens to act. Democracy in a digital society, at the e-Governance Academy

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A classic quote by American author and political activist Ralph Nader says that “if you do not turn on to politics, politics will turn on you”.

It was nineteen years ago, in a different country from what the United States look like today, at the beginning of an electoral campaign that, in the end, saw George W. Bush defeat Al Gore and claim the Presidency. But even though politics have changed, the economy has changed, the world has changed, one thing remains now as clear as it was then: people’s activism and participation are some of the biggest assets that society has to develop policies tailored on the needs and claims of citizens.

The relatively old adage proves to be still valid, and at all levels, whether we talk about local governments or national executive branches. With increasing calls to more inclusive processes of decision making, or projects aimed to establish patterns of direct democracy, people are asking and showing the willingness to participate.

Digital tools can foster and improve this communication by building a bridge between citizens and politics. The request for a higher degree of involvement goes beyond voting for an election: budgetary issues, urban planning, civil and social rights. We spoke to Kristina Reinsalu, Programme Director of e-Democracy at the e-Governance Academy, to understand how and which spheres of public life can potentially benefit from citizens’ activism, and what governments can do to coordinate and enhance participation in policy formulation.


Kristina Reinsalu, Programme Director of e-Democracy at the e-Governance Academy

What’s the Estonian way to e-democracy, and what are the main projects you’ve been taking care of here and abroad?

The first thing we can say is that the Estonian e-government infrastructure is user-friendly and well-functioning, especially if compared to the ones of many other countries. It offers a wide variety of comfortable e-services to citizens, and this is done securely and in a transparent way. This paperless, all-online and trackable approach has definitely played a key role in the build-up of one of the least corrupted countries in the world.

However, if we talk about e-democracy and citizens’ participation, we can see that it’s not enough. I believe we’re in a situation of consumer internet democracy, where the emphasis is mostly focused on e-administration and e-services. I do not think that citizens are satisfied with this passive recipient role nowadays. To me, the way forward seems to be paved with different e-channels and experimental tools that stimulate and motivate citizens to participate and co-create ideas, solutions, decisions.

At the e-Governance Academy, we try to bridge the gap between the “us and them, those in power and the civil society and make both sides see the benefits of more transparency, enhanced consultation activities, and active e-participation. In Estonia, in our advocacy activities, we have mostly focused on municipalities and the local level, a great test-ground for participatory democracy where we can get results quickly and assess the real impact of our projects. One of the highlights is the project of Participatory Budgeting (PB), which we pioneered in Tartu and has extensively spread to other municipalities in Estonia – and also,  abroad, in Georgia.

“In the end, it gets less and less about the technology itself, and much more about creating the awareness around what such tools are meant for, how they work, and to make you see that your say does count.”

Even though a few examples of so-called “institutionalized involvement” haven’t been so successful, it is clear the impact that the tools provided can have. For instance, the petition called Harta 12, initiated in 2012 on the platform, has managed to gather 18 210 signatures and to have a tangible outcome: it was the driving force behind the creation of the People’s Assembly, focused on engaging people into policymaking.

In my opinion, one of the key issues is to educate citizens over the existing tools and why it is important for them to participate. For us, this work began in 2011, when within the framework of e-citizenship projects we aimed to increase the motivation of young people into being more active as a crucial component of the civil society. However, it is true that our tools need some serious updating and face lifting. Besides working with developing countries or with e-residents from across the globe, I believe we should still pay attention to Estonians too, and make sure they feel empowered as e-citizens.

What are the preconditions necessary for e-democracy initiatives and programmes to work in favour of both citizens and local governments?

If we want to establish an order among the activities needed to build a truly e-democratic environment, we shall look not only at technology, but at motivation, awareness, and digital literacy too. In Estonia, the Tiger Leap programme launched in 1996 equipped all Estonian schools with ICT tools, connected them to the Internet and provided the necessary knowledge to teachers to employ a new set of skills. In 2001 there was Look@World, a programme that helped to increase the digital literacy of all Estonians. These steps were quite revolutionary for the times, especially considering how poor was our country, and how many other priorities there could have been. In our case, this boost has proven to be crucial.

“The e-State can make our countries inclusive, open, secure and transparent only if you guarantee easy and cheap – or even free – access to the tools available, and educate people to use them.”

We understood that something totally different from the usual had to be done, so to quickly make up for the time we lost due to the Soviet occupation. Somehow, consensually, all groups in Estonian society realized that they had to contribute – and suffer, if necessary – to the making of the digital society we have today. In this perspective, public-private partnerships had a huge positive impact as well.

It’s always interesting to notice how the more one country is struggling politically or economically, the more vivid is its civil society and the effort to combat corruption, and to monitor and balance power relations and resources. Good recent examples of this tendency are Ukraine and the US, where the awakening of civic activism is indeed remarkable.

What kind of support, contribution, and expertise can citizens bring to processes of decision making and city planning?

Personally, the biggest benefit is represented by the broad variety of different angles and user-experiences that various groups of citizens can bring to the table. For instance, when I started assisting local governments on participatory budgeting, it was clear from the beginning that such process had to go beyond just bringing ideas and let citizens vote on how to spend public money. We had also many other goals, like stimulating community activism. We worked to make people forget about their individualism and to see neighbourhoods starting to collaborate, identifying common problems and fighting for their ideas.

Another main objective was to draw a map of the problems in different areas of the city, thus engaging citizens in a much broader process of budget definition, not limited to the participation in one or two votes per year on investments and projects. The combination of smart city tools, crowdsourcing methods, and traditional face-to-face deliberation formats allows people to highlight the most actual problems and challenges. It’s a remarkable help in designing local budgets, from year to year.

Elections are coming up in Estonia in March, and in May in the whole European Union. We know about the international interest in i-Voting, but do you see also a progressive shift of attention towards e-democracy?

Well, i-Voting is just an alternative way to vote, but other than that I don’t consider it as part of the concept of e-democracy. As the health of democracy becomes more fragile, more attention should be paid to the skills and tools that empower communities, we have had many projects focusing on elections in the information society.

Before the 2011 national elections in Estonia, in collaboration with the Estonian National Broadcast and the University of Tartu, we prepared and launched a revolutionary e-tool for the times – the Voting Machine. This electoral compass enables citizens to walk through important value-based issues on society and politics and to compare their own standpoints with those of parties and candidates. We were among the first to promote this type of tools, giving people the chance to navigate campaign promises realistically and assess them in a critical manner. I am glad to see that, currently, there are already 3 competing electoral compasses available for citizens to use.

And that is just one of the many examples: e-democracy is getting more and more attention everywhere. One of the explanations for this shift from e-administration to e-democracy is definitely the questioning and change currently taking place in the understanding of democracy and its values. We can see it in so many places in the world, and also in Europe. We need a quick, joint and innovative effort to develop the potential that technology yet has to fully express in this field, to support democracy and avoid backward trends. Artificial Intelligence, or the smart use of data in decision-making, could be some of the foreseeable future paths. But again, we will see effective results only if the human dimension doesn’t go lost in the process.

Focus on citizens: why is it necessary for politics and governments to make people feel more involved, before and beyond the moment of the vote?

The first, main benefit is that the decisions reached are better in terms of quality and understanding. Democracy is also about this, accepting the fact that it’s not possible to satisfy everyone’s expectations, but more communication and a better understanding is possible.

Politicians and leaders aim to gain the trust of citizens because that’s the source of legitimacy for policies and decisions. One, if not the only way to build that trust, is to show that you are not the one with all the answers and that you are eager to weight different options and listen to all the arguments presented before taking a decision. And in addition to that, by actively involving citizens from across the social spectrum, you’ll see how many useful feedbacks and fresh ideas can come from those who will be affected by the choices you make.

Keeping people involved is hard, claiming to satisfy everyone’s claims is impossible. In Estonia, we need to work towards a more inclusive process of decision making overall, and admitting that our political and civic consciousness is still fairly weak can definitely be the first step. Many more will come on the way to active citizenship. At the same time, however, it is important to point out that the responsibility for final decisions and policy formulation lies on governments. If involved, can we assume that citizens would be ready to share such responsibility? It’s a path. But yes, I do think so.


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