On 25th of November, the UK’s main conference on eDemocracy brought together the European eParticipation community in London. This article provides a summary of some speeches held in London.
Blogosphere in the US
Will Straw (Left Foot Forward) gave a very interesting overview of the blogosphere in the US, and presented the similarities and differences in the UK blogosphere.
Bloggers have been able to provide a new political narrative, beginning with the Huffington Post which encouraged its readers to go out and act as journalists, thus providing new angles to a story. Blogs are able to keep a story going on for longer period of time (in comparison to the traditional media would usually present the same story for one day only).
The UK Blogosphere experience lags 5 years behind the US, but here too the majority of political bloggers are mainly supporters of the opposition parties. Although there are lessons to be learned, there are cultural differences that cannot be ignored.
Blogs are important as a tool for providing fast replies; their strength lies between the links they can make to other blogs, old and new activist groups and not having anything to loose! They can influence the mainstream media, their audience and community.
The business model behind a blog? Blogs such as the one run by Straw do rely on donations and sponsors (which are listed on the blog), and although a blog is not expensive (these are mainly labour costs), but it is important to keep the costs low.
eParticipation in Europe
Chuck Hirt (CEE Net) and Gugliermo Celata (DEPP) from PEP-NET present two different experiences from the European Scene of eParticipation. Chuck shows that in Central and Eastern Europe, the citizens are still being left behind, they are not being involved. There is a need to become an active citizen, but citizens are neither being included nor do they want to. There is no tradition in such countries to participate, there is no public space for it, and there is no history of trust between citizens, institutions and government. But it is not all negative: the neighbourhoods are being economically integrated, there is sporadic energy and spirit at local and national level to be seen (the Orange Revolution as an example) and new resources are becoming available. Future work will have to be on the development of attitude, knowledge and culture – and accepting that there (still) are differences between the West and East of Europe in terms of participation.
Gugliermo Celata presents the Italian perspective with the project Openparlamento.it, which lies between the US, UK and Central/Eastern European experience. Italy has a traditionally hierarchical society which only has a few opportunities for eParticipation. In addition, the majority of eParticipation projects are tied to a political agenda or political party. But in 2009 a report was presented ranking the politicians’ level of activities: whilst it received a high number of negative reactions from the politicians, there was very positive response from the media and the citizens.
Engaging Young People in eDemocracy
Tom Lodziak (UK Youth Parliament) provided some “rules to follow” for success when working with young people:
- engaging language and tone
- listen to what they want
- don’t over-moderate – and relax: the more moderation, the less participation
- don’t be scared of controversy
- influence the offline world – makes the offline world more interesting.
Beccy Allen (Hansard Society) presents the project HeadsUp, a forum for discussing political issues. The main challenges in such are project are: technology barrier (although this is mainly with teachers and politicians), misunderstanding the format, linking up with government and committee, the reputation of previous engagement exercises, funding and trying to keep pace with new technology.
Jo Woolf, from Channel 4 described Battlefront, a platform which allows young people to learn how to lead campaigns using technology. How do such platforms support those young people who organise activities or support causes which may be seen as controversial, such as the young BNP? This has to be accepted, but a closer eye will be kept on it. It is important to allow for controversy – in some cases, through online discussion and participation; such views may become less extreme. Allowing such topics does make the discussion more open and honest, and often the young participants will provide their own, valuable counter arguments.
So, what are the topics should be discussed? It is important to let people talk about what they want to!
Hugh Flouch founder of Networked Neighbourhoods helps citizens to be involved in their neighbourhood, the local issues, campaigns – which can be very diverse. Such networks do have an impact, and because at the moment it is mainly implied evidence/anecdotal evidence it is important to conduct research into this. It is important to conduct research so as to understand what the citizen websites are really achieving. Research conducted on email groups show that these encourage the formation of local ties (members of an email list will have 4 times more offline local ties). But it is important that the online provides a basis, and then moves offline then, with social events such as meet-ups and summer parties.
Local Government and Citizens Interaction
Catherine Howe (Public-i) looks at how local government can interact with citizen initiatives by raising a number of questions as to how this should or could be done. How can these different social worlds be brought together? Must local councils respond to the trends? And how should local government respond? It is important that they concentrate on what they are good at doing, and to avoid falling into the trap of trying to be the citizens’ friend. This means listening to the conversation already happening, defining the local citizen (it isn’t you), building an idea of a better citizen; build the spaces that allow for co-creation and ensure for moderation at a local level.
PEP-NET – eParticipation Workshop
Noella Edelmann, Daniel Roleff, Julien Marie organised the PEP-NET-Workshop
Participants were provided with a range of topics to choose from: the business models for e-Participation projects, e-Voting, how to reach young citizens, the World Forum eDemocracy Awards 2010. The participants voted for a discussion about financing projects and business models.
Guilermo Celata was asked to start the discussion on the basis of this project http://www.openparlamento.it. The project began with an investment in terms of hours of work, and has not been able to receive funding from institutions such as the Italian Camera and Senato. In Italy public or institutional funding is not always an advantage, this kind of funding may work better for projects developed in other countries.
In order to finance the project data was sold (although none that included users’ contributions). At this stage, the project involves 4 core editors and approximately 10 external professionals (for coding, marketing…). The data is interesting for private enterprises, but it took 3 years before there was a return on investment. The technology used in this project is tailored to the Italian particularities, it is not universally applicable.
The issue of applicability in other countries was echoed by Jeremy Millard’s question as to whether it is too early to talk about “good practice” or are the cases, projects, ideas and countries too different? The cases and projects are often culturally bound, and therefore have to provide inspiration for other countries.
In Tuscany, participation is mandatory by law (passed 2007) and one million Euros have been made to ensure the debating process. Each discussion must last 6 months, and on the basis of the results obtained, a decision is then taken. The participation process here is both on- and offline.
The discussion led to a number of further questions which could not be fully discussed during the workshop session, it was suggested to post them on the PEP-NET Blog:
- Which topics should be chosen for the participation process?
- Who decides what young people should discuss?
- And who decides whether one issue or point of view (e.g. in the discussion tourism vs. environmental issues) is more important?
Plenary: MPs’ e-Democracy Question Time with
- Lord of Norton of Louth (MP, Conservatives) – contributor to Lords of the Blog
- Helen Milner (UK Online Centres)
- Lynne Featherstone (MP, Liberal Democrat)
- Tom Harris (MP Labour)
Does twitter make MPs redundant?
The power of media is certainly not to be ignored – but no, as we still need leadership, good decision-making. MPs should tweet as a way to be closer to the citizen and to communicate with them. Twitter should be “done properly” though – its impact is similar to that of blog on the media, i.e. you need a partnership with the media.
Why is twitter interesting to use in the political context? Twitter is changing the relationship between citizens and politicians – which reflects a desire to have a personal relationship, whether it is twitter, door-to-door or another tool. It has become necessary to involve citizens in politics much more, and to establish a relationship with them (e.g. how to they want to hear from you).
Is IT an enabler or barrier for someone to get involved in politics?
It is important to be an MP first, then use the technology. But this is a question that is not easily answered. For some it will be a barrier, especially given the political climate in the last 15 years: you have to be sure of what you are doing and a political blog has to be interesting and novel – but media will often prevent you from doing that. It has to be an enabler though – there are other tools too such as Google and the internet. Such tools have to be used, but again, this has to be done “properly”, which takes time. IT and politics are about communication – it will be a disadvantage if you cannot participate online. Politics is a people business, and use whatever tool to reach them. If you don’t have anything interesting to say, don’t blog or tweet.
IT is an important tool that cannot be ignored since other politicians are using it. But there are people who have never been on the internet – they must not be forgotten! The next election will be an internet election – but after that parties will have to follow society’s demands and trends.