The Dilemma of eParticipation - How to Frustrate People

21. April 2010 – 16:18 by echo source

eParticipation is often equalized with “digital democracy”. Top-down approaches are based on the assumption that participation means involving citizens in governmental power structures. As governmental power builds on the development and execution of policies, it has been tried to make citizens participate in policy making. This led to the idea of a direct digital democracy, where virtually every law could be drafted and decided on by the citizens themselves. However, this vision of open virtual parliament or digital democracy faces several serious difficulties. Firstly, because of the lack of technical solutions for scalable discussion & co-editing, collective drafting is not possible with existing online tools. Thus, there is still plenty of space for new innovations in this field to overcome such technical constrains. More importantly, such a participatory digital democracy would be characterized by single-issue decisions. This certainly can be seen as one of its greatest advantages. But if open drafting would generally result in binding laws, its democratic legitimation would have to be guaranteed. Thus, citizens would have to participate in virtually every running decision at local, regional, national and European level at the same time. Since this is absolutely impossible, decisions would be made by random sets of participants (probably mainly lobbyists) without any democratic legitimation. Clearly, eParticipation cannot and should not be understood as an alternative for existing representative democracy, but rather as a complementary instrument.

To solve this dilemma, today´s eParticipation initiatives do not allow citizens to make binding decisions. Instead they ask people to contribute their ideas and preferences to preparatory stages of official decision-making processes. The binding decisions are still made by the institutions and their traditional decision-makers. In fact, eParticipation today is limited to eConsultations. It neither really empowers citizens, nor does it take into account their very own issues and concerns. As a result, the motivation for participation is very limited.

Instead of having been empowered, many participants may feel somehow betrayed or used to legitimate official decisions. From this perspective, eParticipation might be more interesting for decision-makers than for most citizens, who mainly look at politics as something quite boring and frustrating, which they do not feel very attracted to.

This article is an extract from our paper for this years EDem conference in Krems.The whole paper will be published by the Austrian Computer Society under the titel „BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN BOTTOM-UP AND TOP-DOWN E-PARTICIPATION APPROACHES


The EDem conference series is jointly organised by the Danube University Krems and the University of Economics and Business Administration, Vienna.

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  1. 5 Responses to “The Dilemma of eParticipation - How to Frustrate People”

  2. By Steven Clift on Apr 21, 2010

    This is why “citizen-based” e-participation is essential. If we expect to be served with participation opportunities by government on anything but their institutional terms/based on the agenda items then need input on, we will remain very disappointed.

    So the convening role among citizens is important. We know that advocates … well they organize like minds and advocate. The media, they should do better but they are almost as top-down as government or even worse they convene and use models that promote political warfare essentially.

    So what we need are new mediating institutions that convene people online, but put the responsibility on participants to generate value and not just be served.

    So here is my challenge to all the experts in the field - be a convener at the local level. Everyone reading this has a neighbourhood. At we’ve learned (but few seems to follow) that local e-participation is the the most attractive to the largest percentage of the population and unlike input into some mysterious black box of national input the participants can see and measure the results of their input. Better yet, with some issues, they can step forward and take actions directly to help make a difference.

    Until every local place has viable and well hosted online spaces for community engagement involving 10-20% of households, I would argue that most national efforts will be stuck barely engagement .1-.2% of people. While moving people up the chain from hyper-local e-participation to regional on up opportunities isn’t a given, I think it is our best opportunity.

    So, who is ready to make something happen in their neighbourhood? Let me know:

  3. By David Woods on Apr 22, 2010

    Very interested to read this article. I think it hit’s the nail on the head pointing out that without real empowerment citizens do not feel it’s worth engaging in policy debate. I also agree that allowing all policies to be decided by citizens is not an effective method of government.

    But how about a half way house? How about a Virtual Parliament that has 10% of the voting rights in the real parliament that DOES give citizens a real say in policy, without removing the benefit a smaller number of elected representatives?

  4. By Tim Bonnemann on Apr 23, 2010

    If participants come out of an online consultation feeling “somehow betrayed or used” or otherwise disappointed it may have less to do with a lack of decision making power but rather may point to poor process design or lack of expectation management on the part of the convener.

  5. By Rolf Luehrs on Apr 23, 2010

    That people’s motivation to take part in eParticipation projects depends on whether these projects lead to binding decisions has been said quite often – but do you have any empirical evidence for that? I’d like to argue that it could rather weaken eParticipation. There seem to be basically to ways to assure that results of eParticipation projects become binding for decision makers

    1) eParticipation becomes eVoting. You would have to care about authentication and security. Interestingly especially citizen organisations and the net community are fighting against eVoting pilots where ever they have been put in place – at least in Western Europe. Instead of providing a space for opinion shaping, deliberation and dialogue between citizens and politicians or PAs this would also drive eParticpation into the battle fields of election campaigns.

    2) eParticipation still means discussion and deliberation but the results have to be implemented. The first problem is that these projects usually do not lead to non-ambiguous results. Furthermore it will be asked: who took part in the discussion? Was it representative? How have the results been achieved? Etc. pp.

    I think this discussion is not in the first place relevant for eParticpation but it is rather pointing to the old dispute between proponents of direct vs. representative democracy.

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