Impressions of the eDem 09 conference in Vienna

9. September 2009 – 15:49 by Bengt Feil

On September 8th and 9th 2009 the European eParticipation, eDemocracy and eVoting community met in Vienna to discuss the latest developments in the field and to work on potential strategies to move forward. I would like to talk about a few impressions of this event which has been supported by PEP-NET and was one of the events of the PEP-NET Conference Series 2009 which includes the eDem 09, Berlin in October, Future-Democracy 09 and the World e-Democracy Forum.

PEP-NET organized a workshop on “Participatory planning: conflicts, context and cooperation” (Thanks to all speakers and many participants!) on the second day of the conference. Detailed information about the talks and workshops at eDem can be found on the live coverage blog both for Day 1 and Day 2. Some participants did also use Twitter to cover the event. Their posts can be found here.

But now on to a few trends I saw in the talks and discussions:

Technology is just a tool: One of the most repeated (and possibly most true) statements by speakers and participants was that there is a need to drop the “e” in eDemocracy/Participation/Government and shift the focus of research and practical work towards the social and procedural questions. Technology is only a means of organizing processes not the solution to a problem in it self.

It’s about quality not quantity: The sheer number of participants in an online participation process cannot be seen as the most important indicator for success. In many cases the quality of the results is not depended on the number of participants but on how participate with which goal. A few hundred people form heterogeneous social and political background can produce much more sophisticated and balanced recommendations on a political issue than thousands of people who agree on the subject in discussion.

Evaluation of electronic participation processes is very difficult: Several speakers and the workshop led by David Newman tried to identify ways and methods which can be used to judge the success and the performance of eParticipation efforts on a scientific basis. I strongly believe in the necessity of this work but I also think there will not be a tool-set for error-prove evaluation in the near future. This may be one of the reasons why success is still measured in raw number of participants in many cases.

There are leading topics for eParticipation: The discussions and reactions to talks on the event support the point that there are specific groups of topics which lend themselves to eParticipation more than others. Two of them are participation in spatial and urban planning (which is mandatory in many cases and stretches the gap between eGovernment and eParticipation) and participatory budgeting (still a growing trend in Europe). The third group of topics covers internet politics and especially the question of internet filtering and surveillance. Several speakers pointed out that eParticipation projects which did not have the specific goal to address these topics where used by participants to discuss about them. This suggests that governments should try to make use of eParticipation when getting involved with internet politics.

In summary the eDem09 was both a productive gathering of scientists and researchers as well as a possibility to identify some trends in the field. I would be happy about any comments agreeing or disagreeing with my view on the event and the four trends I pointed out.

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  1. 5 Responses to “Impressions of the eDem 09 conference in Vienna”

  2. By Peter Cruickshank on Sep 15, 2009

    Thanks for getting a summary up so quickly!

    One point: I wonder if instead of talking about dropping the ‘e-’ (which I did too, I know), we should be talking about the ‘e-’ as being one of several channels available to citizens - supplementing paper or community-based routes. That way, we can focus on where/why e-participation *is* (or could be) beneficial - while at the same time allowing us to share general lessons with political scientist and media specialists?

  3. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei on Sep 15, 2009

    Well, I’m not sure if the “e-” should be dropped. Dropping could be too radical, and the e actually “adds” some meaning.
    But I’m also not happy with the suggestion from Peter: to consider Participation and e-Participation as two very related things, but somehow also different: e-Participation understood as an extra channel for participation. Thus, we would need to be able recognize how to combine both and when to use each of them.

    I think what is needed is to correctly relate the “e-” side to the “Participation” side of the mix.

    And this means:

    1. Recognize the diminishing meaning of the e- part of the term. In the next years the “e-” will surely just disappear. In the same way that we no longer speak about e-Banking, because we assume that any “Banking” worth its name MUST integrate an “e-” infrastructure that empowers it… citizen Participation without an “e-” backing will simply be a contradiction in terms.
    It’s the same case with “electric lighting” too. “Electric lighting” was probably an expression profusely used at the beginning of the XX Century: but now, most of the time, we no longer explicitly name it “electric” -we just assume lighting “is” electric, since gaslighting belongs to our history.

    This is the reason why our association, since years, uses the alternative “(e)Participation” term, that emphasizes the fading significance of the “e”.

    2. But at the same time that the “(e)” significance fades away… it gains more and MORE importance.
    It is clear that the “e” doesn’t change the fundamental meaning of “participation”, that it doesn’t change its essence.
    [Sadly enough, most “experts” on e-Participation still do not realize this. They have traditionally considered (and “sold”) e-Participation as something essentially different from Participation. And they have done this because, in most cases, they had NO idea what the traditional “Participation” is about, and what are the problems and dynamics associated with it. And they weren’t willing to read the thousands of socio-political papers devoted to it :-( ].

    Anyway, let’s go back: we were saying that the diminishing “(e)” does not change the nature of Participation.
    But as time goes by, it will completely change the way Participation works. And it will also change our notions on what is possible to attain through Participation (and thus: through Democracy).
    Again, the (e)Banking example is very illustrative. Using computers, networks and the Internet for banking and finance revolutionized what could be done. Not sure if those changes were for good… but the fact is that (e)banking, without changing the very nature of banking, radically changed the way banking works.

    Later today, we’ll publish in the PEP-Net blog a second “Image for reflection” (in addition to the one we published yesterday) that expresses in a vivid an humorous way what we have just explained.

  4. By Bengt Feil on Sep 15, 2009

    I think that the emphasis on “electronic” participation will wear of by itself if eParticipation gets established as a “normal” part of participatory processes (e.g. accepted by all players involved, maybe codified in law etc.).

    Anyways I aimed at starting a discussion by pointing out the major trends I noticed at the event and that seems to have been successful.

  5. By Tim on Sep 15, 2009

    Thanks for the summary!

    Will you share notes from the workshop on performance criteria/metrics as well? Much appreciated.

  6. By Bengt Feil on Sep 15, 2009


    David Newman (@davidrnewman on Twitter) will structure the results and posts them online. I am not completly sure where.

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