Two sides of eParticipation in Central and Eastern Europe: PEP-NET interview with Chuck Hirt

17. May 2010 – 10:14 by John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH)

Chuck Hirt

Photo of Chuck Hirt

I spoke to Chuck Hirt, from the Central and Eastern European Citizens’ Network (CEECN, a member of PEP-NET) about eParticipation in Central and Eastern Europe. Chuck says that eParticipation along Western European lines is “science fiction” in C&E Europe. On the other hand, people who visit the region are often “inspired by the spirit, energy and enthusiasm” there.

John Heaven: Hi Chuck. Please tell me a bit about CEECN.

Chuck Hirt: The Central and Eastern European Citizens Network gives grass-roots citizens organisations the opportunity to work together, share ideas, and enhance their organisational growth. It started by bringing together staff and citizens from a few organisations across Central and Eastern Europe, who found the meetings really helpful - if anything, just to gain inspiration and energy to take home and continue the struggle.

We found out that several of us were funded by a US donor organisation, the Charles Stewart Mott foundation. They said they would be happy to promote this activity, but asked that we included organisations from further away in the east. We were happy to do this, and our members now come from 19 different countries.

The network is going strong, and we are celebrating our tenth anniversary this year. We are just making preparations for a Citizens’ Participation University. At the moment we are doing some research into the state of participation to act as a base line.

JH: What is the key to the network’s success?

CH: The network was a good place for exchanging stories and experience, putting on training from the start and particularly running a conference every two years. But things started taking off as we began to find way to become proactive and institute events like “Citizen Participation Week”.  This was a lot of hard work but gave us a focus. This was quite an exciting moment.

JH: What achievements does CEECN have to its name?

CH: Our first major success was our joining a struggle against a gas station in my local town. At first, we couldn’t even find out who was behind it because the local government didn’t think it needed to tell us - that’s an illustration of the culture here. We found out later that Shell was behind it, so we organised a meeting with the Head of Shell in Slovakia and citizens. He came and promised to take their concerns seriously.  Unfortunately, he then ignored us so we prepared a number of actions including a Shell boycott.

When we mentioned this to other members of CEECN, they joined the boycott and helped us campaign. We first realised it was working when the head of Shell in Romania phoned up our Romanian partner.  Several months later they scrapped the plan.

This was a real inspiration - we realised how much we could achieve by being proactive. A year later, we decided to start a Citizens’ Participation Week. Each country holds several events during the week each year. Hungary (thanks to Máte’s leadership) holds over 200!

When that started, a real shift happened.

JH: You haven’t mentioned eParticipation yet.

CH: Correct! We focus on participation, and the “e” part just helps us get the job done. We are looking to do more work in this area though. More citizens are starting to step into the void left by government because they can make use of online tools themselves. And we are starting to look at how we can prepare citizens to be able to use the web if, and when, governments start taking citizen participation seriously.

JH: How much can CECN learn from Europe, and vice versa?

CH: There is a lot that can be learned from the rest of Europe, but the setting is very different.  There is a lot that we can do to help and learn from each other. For example, when we mentioned Citizens’ Participation Week to PEP-NET members, several of them offered to help straight away.

But on the ladder of participation - a really useful framework, by the way - Central and Eastern Europe is only on the first two rungs; the rest of Europe is further up.

JH: You’re originally from the US. Does the same apply to learning from the US?

CH: Lots of organisations in Central and Eastern Europe are financed by the US.  There has been a significant American influence during the transition.  The same can’t be said for the older part of the EU. So in that sense, a transfer is taking place. We have had meetings with people from the US. The US can provide lots of inspiration, but it is a matter of working out exactly how to apply it here.

In one sense, Western Europe and the US are more similar in the development and maturity of democracy and participation. Central and Eastern Europe is at a different stage.

But Central and Eastern Europe does have advantages that other countries are envious of. We don’t have to undo things before putting new participation measures in place. For example, I was talking to the City Manager from Charleston in the US this week as he was visiting our city here. He said that existing neighbourhood groups, and the “usual suspects” that are represented on them, are sometimes a barrier to change. We don’t have these groups at all.  In some ways it is easier to try new ideas. People from other EU countries have commented that they are inspired by the spirit, energy and enthusiasm in the CEE region.

Also, the US and Western Europe are not always the sacred territory that they appear - they have community centres and money etc. but scratch beneath the surface and you often find that they have their problems too.

So yes, there’s some good stuff in the US but sometimes difficult to make it work in a different setting.

JH: The current discussion on eParticipation is often around the transformation from eGov to WeGov - moving from doing old government electronically to allowing citizens to be directly involved in governing. Is this relevant for Central and Eastern Europe?

CH: There is some interest in this, and there are some exceptions where this exists here too. But generally, there is no impetus from either side: neither from politicians, nor from citizens. Citizens still don’t understand that they are allowed to get on and really participate.

We don’t have the infrastructure here. In other places, you have community centres that make the tools available, and offer training. You still have that here - our city put wifi in the city centre. I used that once or twice, but not many people walk around with wifi devices here. Mostly the younger generation do.

I saw a really impressive project in Venice, where the city put on a training facility, showing people how to use the internet, promoting citizens’ use of it, and involving citizens in the budget. This stuff is “science fiction” to us. I don’t want to romanticise the situation in Western Europe, but there’s a significant difference between the situation here and in the rest of Europe.

As I said earlier, Central and Eastern Europe is just not as far up the ladder of participation

JH: Where do you see Participation in the next 20 years?

CH: Things are changing and there’s an awareness that citizens are important, and that there will be a big problem for administrations that don’t take this on board by operating transparently. It is difficult to get this on the agenda and even more difficult to get the funding to lay the groundwork.

I’m a cautious optimist: things are getting better, but it’s slow, hard work. There are some special cases - because CECN’s reach is wider than PEP-NET’s (i.e. beyond EU) there are countries such as Belarus where oppressive regimes mean that the environment is different - but we are moving in the right direction and there is no going back.

I find it exciting when people raise issues like “WeGov”, and am glad that these questions are being asked.

JH: Chuck, thanks for your time!


Post a Comment

The PEP-NET Blog uses the gravatar service to display your picture next to comments!