E-participation - a new sphere of NGO activity?

Author: Simon and Matej Delakorda

E-democracy is hard form a political and social point of view rather than a technical one: visibility and impact is posed against risk of government high jacking and legitimacy problems, discusses Simon and Matej Delakorda.

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A new sphere of NGO activity has emerged in recent years in Slovenia, as a number of NGOs have started to take a more web-based approach. A number of on-line projects have been introduced, such as the Slovenian Civil Society e-Participation web service[1], The Citizen's Forum[2], the NGO e-Participation portal available during the Slovenian EU Council Presidency[3], The Citizen's forum for the European elections 2009[4], Open-source NGOs e-Participation platform[5] and the e-participation platform for NGO involvement in establishing the Law on voluntary work[6]. These projects aim to strengthen civil dialogue and utilize the internet to support participatory democracy.

Maximizing the impact of this new arena has understandably led to some challenges and dilemmas, for the NGO sector, which we will outline here and will, hopefully, form the basis of further discussion.

The real challenge
A number of ad-hoc e-participation projects and successfully implemented applications are not seeing much traffic or interaction because internet users are simply not paying attention to them. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, the application is intentionally or unintentionally badly promoted to the general public or focus groups. Government institutions are not usually keen to promote on-line participation tools which are already available. They fear a potential rush to participate and management problems. NGOs, on the other hand, often do not have enough resources to promote their e-participation projects on a larger scale, particularly through traditional mass media.

Secondly, the e-participation projects are focused on relatively minor or highly technical expert issues, which may be irrelevant to the general public and their quality of life. If this is the case, NGOs have a duty to explain these complex issues, relate them to everyday life experience. They have to explain to people why the issue is relevant to them and how their participation can improve the situation. Never-the-less, a much more effective way to rally people around e-participation is to base projects on public problems and policy issues, which directly concern a larger proportion of the population.

Thirdly, there is often little evidence of how these e-participation projects will impact public opinion or decision-making processes. Potential users do not know how the results of e-participation are going to shape policy issues, problems or public perception. Improving this situation requires feedback from governmental institutions and politicians, monitoring any impact on legislation or changes in public perception of a particular issue and the degree of mass media recognition. E-participation is therefore often more of a political and social challenge than a technological one.

Sustainable success
NGO e-participation projects, although not for profit or market-oriented, are often very demanding in terms of both organizational and financial resources. Open-source Internet applications and user friendly web 2.0 applications enable NGOs to establish their own e-participation applications very quickly and with minimum costs. Whether or not an NGO successfully implements e-participation, however, depends on its mobilization capacity, decision-making impact, community building, technical security, personal data protection, moderation of on-line communication, public promotion, monitoring techniques and evaluation methods.

Most of this know-how is needed in order to establish a proper social, communication and political environment for e-participation applications. For example, when moderating an on-line policy forum or consultation, a specific set of rules usually applies to enable deliberate democratic communication and starting questions. Data is usually available to enable informed debate and messages from participants are summarized in a report at the end.

NGOs facilitating e-participation projects often need to have at their disposal expert and in-depth understanding of complex decision-making, policy-making and public opinion forming processes, especially at the level of EU institutions.

Furthermore, new skills are required when facilitating and building up social networks and communities as a part of e-participation projects. This includes using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flicker and providing messages through different formats and features on-line. As the most successful e-participation projects are the ones which are most sustainable, NGOs have to provide long-term, diverse human and technological input to keep up with rapidly evolving Internet technology.

Coordinating off-line and on-line participation
The digital divide is often cited as a barrier to e-participation. Older generations are generally less likely to have the proper skills required to use new information and communication technologies. Marginalized groups within society often do not have proper Internet access, allowing it to be dominated by white, well-educated people.

It has been suggested that the democratic potential of the Internet is strengthening the political power of those who are already information-rich and empowered. The Internet therefore supports the existing balance of power in favour of political elites.

For these reasons it is vital that e-participation projects implemented by NGOs play a part in real-time processes and are connected to live events and discussions in order to enable the participation of people who are unable to utilize the latest technology.

For example, the on-line Citizens forum for the European elections 2009 enabled e-participation through a system of e-points, positioned at live public events. Facilitated by a moderator, these e-points provided access to laptops. Paper questionnaires were also distributed with the results later published in an on-line debate.

Legitimatizing participation
NGOs deliver both top-down and bottom-up e-participation projects and applications. The first are usually co-financed by government institutions on a local, national or EU level. The second are usually co-financed by the NGO foundations, networks or implemented by NGOs themselves.

As top-down e-participation projects such as e-consultations, e-panels, participatory budgeting and e-legislation are promoted and supported by government institutions, they have a higher degree of public visibility. They are also more likely to impact policy or legislation directly.

On the other hand, because these government institutions have a greater degree of ownership over the project, they can hijack the e-participation process and adapt it to their specific goals. These are often related to legitimizing governmental agendas, as was the case with the NGO e-Participation portal for the Slovene EU Council Presidency.

Bottom up e-participation projects such as e-activism and e-campaigning are used by NGOs to coordinate, organize, finance and engage the public. They aim to mobilize and gain support or deliver a political message as a part of political campaigns, as was the case with the Open-source NGOs e-Participation platform.

Grass-roots activities like e-petitions, e-questionnaires, Facebook groups and blogs do not usually represent part of a formal or institutionalized policy-making process and are therefore providing much needed input from citizens in relation to government institutions, based on the principle of participatory democracy. This can, however, sometimes result in conflict with a government or a stalemate in the decision-making process. In order to overcome this kind of dichotomy, a new NGO participatory community multi-media project in Slovenia has been exploring new possibilities for video e-participation 2.0, such as Studio 12)[7].  Top down e-participation is more efficient but bottom up e-participation is more legitimate.

Looking for success in e-democracy
NGO e-participation projects in Slovenia clearly demonstrate the democratic value of the Internet, especially when providing information and data related to decision-making process.  This was the case with the Slovene Civil Society e-Participation web service which provided information and opportunities for citizens and NGOs to e-participate in different policy-making processes. Meanwhile, the NGO e-Participation portal for the EU Council Presidency enabled document provision, raising EU policy awareness, strengthening transparency and enhancing public visibility of the Slovene Presidency.

On the other hand the challenges of justifying such initiatives as forms of e-democracy and funding still remain. Firstly, meeting social expectations related to the depth of on-line discussions and deliberation is demanding additional efforts in perceiving Internet technology as a truly interactive technology within decision-making processes.

Secondly, the political expectations behind providing concrete evidence of the inclusion of citizen and NGO contributions into final decisions, documents or policies are often not realized. For this purpose a proper evaluation framework or methodology for the effects of e-democracy should be created. The latter is especially important when reflecting on imaginary and fake top down e-participation projects conducted by governments and public relations agencies.

The future of NGO e-participation
A number of challenges therefore remain for NGOs keen to get involved in e-participation. They must develop effective ways of linking on-line and off-line participation, thereby tackling the digital divide.

They must also reflect critically on institutional, top-down public relations and technocratic-oriented attempts at e-democracy introduced by political elites and governments.
Successful examples of NGO e-participation need to be promoted to the general public through the media, thereby creating more public awareness.

Transparency of e-participation, inclusiveness and personal data protection must be secured in order to build confidence and the conditions necessary for e-participation need to be cultivated further.

NGOs need to create focused and sustainable e-participation projects and cement their role as e-participation facilitators.

Finally NGOs need to successfully manage their e-participation resources. They need to build up a catalogue of professional skills in on-line engagement and participatory process management. They need to accept that e-participation needs to appeal to the general public as a means of improving quality of life. E-participation needs to become personal.

e-participation initiatives clearly come with more political and social issues and dilemmas than technological ones. This gives debates on e-participation additional relevance, as they are framed and conceptualized by debates on the future development of political democracy.

 


 

[8]    The Institute for Electronic Participation was established in 2007 as the first Slovene non-profit non-governmental civil society organisation professionally focusing on eDemocracy, eParticipation, eGovernance, eInvolvement and eInclusion. INePA experts and professionals have been the main architects behind most of the largest and most successful e-democracy projects in Slovenia. (www.inepa.eu).

References used in this article:
1. Delakorda, Simon / Delakorda, Matej (2009) Contribution to democratization of the EU Council presidency: NGOs e-participation portal Predsedovanje.si. The International Conference on eParticipation: ePart 2009.1st-3rd of September 2009. Linz, Austria. To be published.
2. Delakorda, Simon (2007) Digital Age - A Stronger Democratic Role of Non-Governmental Organisations in the EU? The Our Europe project. Available on-line http://www.ourdebate.eu/index.php?oldal=hirek&id_hirek=73.
3. Delakorda, Simon (2007) Citizen's Forum: The first successful eDemocracy initiative in the Republic of Slovenia? eChallenges 2007 conference & Exhibition, 24th-26th of October 2007. Den Haag, The Netherlands. Available on-line http://www.inepa.si/images/stories/citizens_forum-delakorda-echallenges07-final.pdf.

 

Simon Delakorda is a full time e-democracy/e-participation practitioner & researcher and managing director of the Institute for Electronic Participation in Ljubljana. Starting in 2000, he has participated in most of the early internet democracy projects conducted within the university and NGO sectors in Slovenia. He is the author and co-author of a number of articles and case studies and is a conference speaker on democracy, political participation, active citizenship and on-line government. He received his political science B.Sc. degree in e-democracy in 2002 and is about to finish his M.Sc. thesis on e-participation. He has also worked as an e-democracy course associate and researcher at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana, as a co-founder and head of the Centre of Electronic Democracy at the Institute of Ecology and as an e-democracy associate at the Arctur IT Company Ltd. In 2004 and 2006 he was involved in the preparation of documents relating to a Slovene eGovernment policy. During 2006-2007 he coordinated and managed the E-participacija web portal and moderated the first successful e-democracy experiment in Slovenia - the Citizen's Forum. In 2007 he founded the Institute for Electronic Participation (INePA). Heis currently an affiliated expert of Demonet, the eParticipation network.

 Matej Delakorda is a project manager and IT expert. In 2007 he obtained his University Degree in Sociology at Unversity of Ljubljana. In his career he has been involved in developing and maintaining eDemocracy and eParticipation web applications. He is a president of management board of Institute for Electronic Participation and a project manager in Studio 12 which is a Slovene multimedia Center and Internet TV station. Among his bigger IT projects were: non-governmental organizations portal for the period of Slovene EU Presidency, web portal for democratic e-participation of Slovenian citizens, NGO’s and civil society, video portal and independent multimedia production that covers issues of ecology, society and human relationships.


This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.

 


Comments by readers

Posted by: Botnaru Petru

On: Friday, June 19 2009 @ 06:32PM

Good luck...

 

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