This is the first in series of article on the role on the evaluation of eParticipation projects and their role in participatory democracy, which will be posted by the members of the TuTech team over the course of the next weeks.
There is a general agreement among many actors in democratic societies that there is a lack of possibilities for political participation. New media and the internet especially have been heralded as solutions to this problem and while eParticipation cannot replace other forms of participation and solve the democratic deficit once and for all it can help to improve the overall democratic culture in a society.
A strong democracy has to offer different participatory processes to answer a variety of needs of both citizens and government bodies. An election for example is excellent in involving almost the whole population in a decision making process but is very restrictive in its options (e.g. parties and people to vote for) and does not facilitate deliberation. A public hearing on the other hand can only be attended by a relatively small number of people but offers an open space to discuss many different options and develop compromises in collaboration. One cannot state that one form of political participation is “better” than the other but both processes answer specific needs by citizens and government and contribute to the democratic culture at large.
To support the before mentioned point there is the need to discusses what kind of dimensions can be used to categorize a participation process. The following list of dimensions (which will be picked up in following articles) is be no means complete but shows how many different variables have to be taken into account to understand the different forms of participation processes:
- Number of participants: This number can reach from a few people meeting to discuss a local issue to a whole population of a country or even multiple countries (EU-Elections).
- Number of available choices: Many referenda only leave two choices to the participants as for example in the referendum on the banning of minarets in Switzerland. On the other hand deliberative processes may be completely open and the available choices are developed by the participants themselves.
- Representativeness: This dimension is relatively problematic as it is unclear whether true representativeness can be achieved (random selection in polling might over the best result here). However there are processes which typically are only used by persons of distinct socio-economic or political backgrounds while there are others which are used by people from many different groups in society.
- Scope of decision making: Participation processes can be concerned with a wide variety of topics and decisions to make. On the one hand there are strategic or political decisions (e.g. electing a government for 4 years) and on the other hand there are issue-based or policy decisions (e.g. how to design a certain road in a city).
- Amount of information produced by the process: All participation processes aim at uncovering or producing information to be used in the political process. Participation processes vary strongly in the amount of information detail the can produce. Referenda for example can clearly tell that a certain part of the population is for a given option and another part is against it. Deliberative processes on the other hand can lead the production of genuinely new arguments and viewpoints on an issue or even lead to the development of new solutions.
- Level of interaction among participants: There are participation processes which are individual acts like voting or supporting a petition. Interaction with others might even be considered harmful for these processes in some cases (e.g. the discussion bout peer pressure surrounding mail and also eVoting). Other participation processes are dependent on interaction among participants, as for example public hearings or other deliberation processes.
- Level of integration into the political/administrative process: Participation processes can be very well integrated into the political/administrative system, as for example the case with elections which lead to direct outcomes, or they can be less integrated, like some consultation processes which advise representatives and administrations but are not binding.
- Initiative: Participation efforts can be started top-down by governments and administrations (e.g. consultations) or bottom-up by citizens (e.g. some referenda, petitions)
- Timing flexibility: Elections are an example for little flexibility in timing. These processes are scheduled a long time in advance if no major issue forces them to get moved (e.g. a government falls apart). Others like petitions can be launched at any time by citizens and are therefore much more flexible in this regard.
The listing above illustrates that no participation process is able to perform well on both ends of the dimensions above. Deliberative processes are very good in working through an issue and developing solutions for problems but do not scale well to millions of participants (and in most cases would not be able to attract this many people). Processes able to handle a very large number of participants, like referenda, however need to reduce the complexity and the amount of interaction among participants to be able to do so. Only a combination of different participation processes is able to cover all the ground between endpoints of the many dimensions. In other words the matrix of dimensions with their end-points should be covered as much as possible. This heterogeneous participation system answers the different needs of citizens and governments and is offering all citizens different routes for participation.
eParticipation in itself can be divided into the three types eDeliberation, ePolling and eConsultation. The electronic aspect in all three cases enhances the process itself without losing its intention. eDeliberation processes for example can involve a larger number of participants and lower the barrier to entrance in comparison with their offline counterpart but the key factor still is deliberation. Being participation first and electronic later these types of eParticipation can be categorized using the described dimensions. By enhancing the underlying participation processes through the use of information and communication technologies eParticipation is able cover areas the between the end-points of some of the dimensions which were uncovered before. eParticipation can therefore be an important instrument in the orchestra of participation.
Maren Lübcke will follow up this discussion next week in an article about the use of the dimensions described here as a tool for the evaluation of eParticipation projects.