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“Scratching where it doesn’t itch?” Time to talk about eParticipation and elephants

28. July 2011 – 16:49 by Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin

“The e-(R)evolution will not be funded. An interdisciplinary and critical analysis of the developments and troubles of EU-funded eParticipation is the title of a paper that our association recently wrote as part of our research and knowledge dissemination efforts. The article is meant to be properly published soon, but some bureaucratic issues have delayed its release more than we can wait.

Because this paper needs to be read and, more important, discussed while its analyses are still current.

Thus, we have decided to make it provisionally available through PeP-NET. To start such a conversation, what better place than PeP-NET, the Pan European eParticipation network? :-)
We have spent many hundreds of hours researching and writing the paper, as we struggled to make sense of the developments and “under-developments” of eParticipation in the last ten years.
Our appraisal is based on an extensive and interdisciplinary analysis of distinct relevant sources, which included the most recent reports, articles and literature reviews dealing with eParticipation research, practice and theory, as well as projects’ deliverables and evaluations, related databases, and our direct examination of eParticipation systems.
We had to resort to a very varied bunch of disciplines (from history and medicine to Mayan performing arts; seriously!! :-) ) to be able to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the field’s challenges… and to make a compelling exposition of them.

The paper ended up being “quite controversial”, as our assessment of eParticipation came to suggest that some of the problems that have hampered its progress have a systemic, overarching character: that kind of ‘elephant in the living room’-issues whose very existence tends to be denied because of their complexity or the embarrassment they cause and, as a result, cannot normally be acknowledged or discussed, let alone get properly sorted out.

Examples of the “embarrassing questions” the paper poses are:

  • How can it be that after 10 years… all relevant ‘agendas’ of eParticipation research are still reported as underdeveloped?
  • And how can it be that even the most basic questions –for example: the relation of Participation and eParticipation, or the understanding of the dual nature of eParticipaton as something that can be driven by authorities or by citizens themselves– remain unsolved?
  • More than 187 millions of Euros were invested in the last ten years to promote experimentation in the field, so… where are the results? Where are the breakthroughs and the research milestones? Can we feel satisfied with just some “vague confirmations” of ideas that 10 years ago could already have been easily guessed?

Through the paper, we have done our best to constructively diagnose eParticipation and to propose some treatments for the field’s maladies. But our perspective and understanding are necessarily limited: the real “treatment” for those problems would require a reflection process that involves the whole eParticipation community.

We see this paper as an urgent “call for self-reflection” and consider it a “MUST READ” for anyone involved in European eParticipation: from the officials working at EC’s Directorate for Information society and Media, to the researchers, practitioners, NGOs, public workers, citizen associations… and even any interested European citizen.

Therefore, we would like to encourage all our PeP-NET friends and in general all people with interest in eParticipation… to have a look at the paper during this nice summer weekend. :-)
Anyone who feels “touched” by any of the paper’s claims and argumentations… should speak up and comment to this post.
It doesn’t matter if it is to support, extend or complement our asseverations, or to oppose, challenge or further qualify them… please, share your views.
PeP-NET was meant to be a HUB for the conversations around eParticipation. So… let’s discuss. It is important that the issues we showed –be them real or imagined– are talked about, and possibly acted upon.

The environment where we operate is moving. Moving faster and faster. And in the context of the ‘Europe 2020 Strategy’ and its flagship initiative “Innovation Union”, which aims to renew EU’s “Research and Innovation Funding Programmes”, the most important question we need to answer is: “What do we do now??”
For sure, we could keep pretending that there is NO elephant in the living room. Stay in our “academic” Ivory Tower, and just continue doing as we did so far… while we wait for the “barbarians of eParticipation” to arrive, change the democratic landscape by really integrating ICT in governance… and make fools of all us. PeP-NET subscribers included. :-)

But in our association we want to believe that we, the European eParticipation Community, could do much better than that.

So… no more to say!! Thank you very much for your attention. We hope some of you enjoy reading of our paper and some exchange of ideas can happen afterwards.



Several people asked for a “summary” version of the paper. Here you have a JPG image (2,5 Mbytes) displaying a Conceptual Map that summarises the paper’s key findings.
I recommend you to save the file first, and then open it with an image editor (like Office Picture Manager) to watch it. It’ll be more easy for you to zoom in and out in the different parts of the image.

Paper's Summary

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  1. 20 Responses to ““Scratching where it doesn’t itch?” Time to talk about eParticipation and elephants”

  2. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Aug 1, 2011

    How can it be? Nobody got “touched” so far?? :-)
    Actually, there is no hurry. But it would be really interesting if we could reflect a little about the serious issues that the paper describes.

    Let me share in the meanwhile a related resource. A very interesting 2 minutes video from Alberto Cottica:


    It was shown to Commissioner Neelie Kroes at the recent “Digital Agenda Assembly”.

    The video brilliantly shows, in a visual way, some of the claims the paper does. Specifically: how “European funding models are failing to promote innovation in the Web 2.0 social field”, and how EU’s aim should be “to achieve much more, by spending much less”, devising new innovation support frameworks that effectively articulate the relevant and innovative actors (not just the big “usual suspects” of EU funding) toward an effective cooperation that truly advances innovation in the field. Greetings!

  3. By Rolf Luehrs on Aug 1, 2011

    Hi Pedro, thick paper on thin democracy :) Still about to read it, will comment later this week!

  4. By Alberto Cottica on Aug 2, 2011

    Re-reading your paper just now. It is relevant and fresh. I am thinking it might get more exposure and recognition if it were 6 pages intead of 22, and it seems that it could actually be boiled down to a core of relevant facts and a challenge to the discipline. Have you thought of making a shorter version?

  5. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Aug 3, 2011

    Hi Rolf & Alberto, I’m very happy to see you here.
    Alberto, they are actually 21 pages; 18 without bibliography. And removing the first and last “contextualising” sections -which just provide… well, context!, but do not academically analise e-Participation-, it is just… a 14 pages paper. :-)
    But no doubt they are dense. And actually… you were the second person that yesterday asked me for a “SUMMARY” that contained just the “key findings” or, as you expressed it, the core of relevant facts and a challenge to the discipline.

    It’s a very good recommendation. Such a summary is very needed, so… I’ll do my best to provide some kind of “executive fact-sheet”.

  6. By Tim Bonnemann on Aug 3, 2011

    Just saw this now. Will check it out over the weekend.

  7. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Aug 3, 2011

    Hi all,
    I’ve updated the post to include at the bottom a “conceptual map” that summarises the paper’s key findings. I hope it is helpful!

  8. By Rolf Luehrs on Aug 4, 2011

    Hi Pedro, this is a great piece, I really enjoyed reading it! What I liked very much is that you really have a message; you (& your co-authors) are the men with a mission. However, from a scientific point of view this strength might be perceived as a weakness at the same time. Furthermore this does not mean that I am generally of the same opinion as you guys and if I was, we hadn’t much to debate about…

    There are lots of aspects to be discussed and I will just address one in each comment…(I have the intention to right a couple of them…let’s see if I’ll manage…)

    This one is on the EU-Commission-Funding-Bashing. Yes you are right, the system is inefficient, but: there are reasons for it which can not easily be changed. And what has been achieved with it is not as bad as you have pointed out. Some points:

    - Bureaucracy: Yes the system is extremely bureaucratic but this serves a purpose: Mainly to prevent corruption. The EC has very bad experiences with this issue and everybody expects that all measures are put in place to fight corruption. This leads to a very formal approval process and transparent approval criteria. As a consequence, professional proposal writers have a huge advantage no matter if what they paid as “lip service” is backed up by the ability to put innovative projects into place. But: everybody has at the same time the chance to write a winning proposal.

    -„right kind of innovating people“ are not attracted: well, how could this be formalised? Who should decide who belongs to this group and who not? You are writing: “eParticipation is certainly an area that would benefit especially from the involvement of creative activist-researchers’, heartily committed to advance and develop their projects and the field “no matter what”, even if this means setting aside their own personal interests”. I think it is impossible for an institution like the EC to translate these idealistic beliefs into operational programs.

    - Only big research organisations are benefiting from the EC funding: That is definitely not true. There are a lot of small and medium organisations who participated in lots of EC funded eParticipation projects.

    As I said, I belief that you are underestimating the achievements of the funding provided by the EC. Just look at the 4 “far reaching” studies on eParticipation you are recommending. Even if not all of them have directly been funded – none of them would have been undertaken if the EC funding hadn’t paved the way. The community of practitioners and researchers would not have been emerged with out it. And there are also a lot more of indirect effects, like e.g. the “emerging eParticpation market” in Germany.

  9. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Aug 4, 2011

    Many thanks, Rolf, for your views. I think we are much more aligned than it could seem.
    The objective of the paper is not to say “everything is bad”. Not at all. But since the paper mission is to “point out” deficits… its difficult not to sould like that. We mainly speak of “re-adjusting” existing mechanisms and “complement” them with extra ones.

    -Inneficiency, bureucracy, not-reaching-innovative-actors in the pheriphery… these are thing the own EC is acknowledging as pressing problems as part of the “Innovation Union” reflection process. For sure, you need to take care of issues like “corruption”, “transparency”, “fairness”, and many others. The question is: is there any other better ways to serve those “important purposes”, and at the same time allow us to get rid of some of the the “bad effects” current mechanisms are having? Again, I’m very happy to see that EC is currently attempting to promote that changes.

    - And there are things that need to be changed. “Impact evaluation” is very needed. As well as devising programs that are not causing so many “conflicts of interest”. And removing barriers that (see the video presentation from Alberto) are keeping real good innovators out. Not everybody “has the chance to write a winning proposal”, sadly as it may seem; some actors are structuraly excluded. And that’s very bad for Europe. :-(

    - I don’t agree that it is impossible to translate “idealistic beliefs” into “operational programs”. Actually: that is the work of the EC!! Listen to each field and recognise “what is the best way to promote innovation in THIS field”. Instead of listening to its own “institutional needs”. Right now, EC doesn’t even need to be that much inventive for the e-Governance field. They could get inspired by existing initiatives, like “Code for America”.

    - They need to find ways to add flexibility while keeping accountability. Not necessarily “bureaucracy” is the best way to avoid corruption and red-tape. For example: giving smaller, incremental grants, which are subject to regular impact evaluations (as described in the paper)… is an alternative way that EC should definitely explore. By reducing a grant from 2.000.000 to 20.000, the risk is automatically reduced.

    - Finally: I am aware of the achievements that have been got. But we have to be measured by the context in which we operate. And things are moving very quick out there. We have to make us though questions, like: What is the field demanding from me?, and, ARE OUR ACHIEVEMENTS ENOUGH? Is the value we are getting for the investment we have done, enough?
    And I am afraid that, for the field of eParticipation, the answer is “NO”. :-( Too many millons for very few significant answers.
    Well, this is the way that innovation works, but… let’s try harder!! :-)

  10. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Aug 4, 2011

    By the way: I’ll try to stop talking/writing for a while. ;-) I don’t want to make this like “1 on 1″ chats with the authors. It would actually be much more interesting if the conversation happened without me.
    So… PLEASE anybody feel free to respond to anyone’s comments.
    On my part, I’ll try to refrain, and at least answer with some delay. :-)

  11. By fraser on Aug 10, 2011

    Ok, I’ll admit – I only read the summary.

    There’s an element of truth about the role of the EC in all of this. From my experience there has been little follow-up or follow-through on any of the preparatory action achievements. Personally I think this is down to resource.

    For example, it’s very difficult to design a pan-European petition facility without the buy-in of the petition committee! Likewise, a lot of EC funded eParticipation projects have very little contact with MEPs.

    I also agree that the funding is too high. I think if you bring down funding to a modest level and you’d get better quality outcomes.

    Let’s fact it, participation works best on the local level. What about the role of individual governments to stimualte the marketplace? There are many examples of excellent national and regional initiatives here in the UK.

    There **is** an impact analysis of the 20 odd EC funded eParticipation projects – it’s just not in the public domain. There **are** some gains too as long as the lessons get learned.

    This blog is a result of modest EU funding. On the whole, while I am shocked at how the money was/is spent, it’s better than nothing.

  12. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Aug 11, 2011

    Hi Fraser, thanks for your comments.

    I agree that sustainable participation works better at the local level (but actually, even there we haven’t really managed to make it work). So… why should we invest so much money in projects which are not going to add value or advance the field? Just because we have the money available?

    But I don’t really understand why you say that the lack of evaluation and follow up is due to lack of resources. Specially when you say that projects would have got better outcomes if they had received less money. Evaluation or not is, indeed, a “political” decission. If you do not have much money for it, you can always choose to finance some projects less and do proper evaluation for the rest. And the EC seems to have chosen not to really evaluate.

    I’m also surprised that you say that “there is” an impact analyisis, but it is not in the public domain. Why it isn’t in the public domain? It is a pitty that it is not available, because lack of transparency makes it very difficult to learn about mistakes.

    But… well, now “there is an impact analysis in the public domain”. This paper. It analyses 10 years of EU-funding in the field and what it says is that the impact in this vibrant field was… very, very low.
    This should be embarrasying for us all! :-( Because of the lack of impact, and because of the lack of self-criticism and learning.

    Finally. I agree: this blog is actually one of the best things that have happened with EU eParticipation funding. If I am not wrong, it is the “smallest” eParticipation project the EC funded. EU funding can, for sure, be well used.
    But also: as we can see… even here, conversation and exchange are quite modest.

    PS: Conversation is now also happening, in even more polemic terms :) , at: https://www.cottica.net/2011/08/10/il-fiasco-inevitabile-dell-e-participation-unavoidable/

  13. By Rolf Luehrs on Aug 11, 2011

    e-participation = social media 4 public sector?

    In your paper you stated that projects should “attempt to take advantage of citizens’ interactions in the existing social networking services –like Facebook– to support the policy formulation processes, instead of inviting them to visit government websites”. This myth has often been told and sounds reasonable.

    However, I do not think that social networks could keep up with these expectations. As W. Dutton (OII) recently pointed out, SN are very good in starting a campaign but not good at all for consultations. And that is the reason why it makes sense for govt to provide dedicated discussion spaces (see also John’s post “There’s more to eParticipation than Facebook” about the research at the University of Westminster, https://tinyurl.com/3rzpxjh.)

    FB groups tend to just attract like-minded people and are usually failing to manage a dialogue between opponents or between government and citizens. The latter is something that has to be facilitated and that is exactly what the EU funding is aiming at. But – I agree with Fraser – this dialogue is more likely to be successful at the local level and this should be taken into account for the distribution of funds.

  14. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Aug 11, 2011

    Hi Rolf, I totally agree with what you say.

    But I’d like to explain that the paper doesn’t really say that ‘projects SHOULD “attempt to take advantage of citizens’ interactions in the existing social networking services –like Facebook– to support the policy formulation processes, instead of inviting them to visit government websites’.

    What the paper says is “Current projects pay indeed much more attention to scalability and attempt to take advantage of citizens’ interactions in the existing social networking services –like Facebook– to support the policy formulation processes, instead of inviting them to visit government websites.” It is thus referring to the common denominators of the new eParticipation projects financed by the EU, like Cockpit (https://www.cockpit-project.eu), WeGov (https://wegov-project.eu) and +Spaces (https://www.positivespaces.eu/).

    My personal impression, aligned with your reflections, is that this approach is still “missing the point”.
    That there is again too much “buzzwords and marketing” replacing research and innovation. But… maybe I am wrong: time will show us.

  15. By ReindeR Rustema on Aug 12, 2011

    When I write a chapter about my project petitions.nl for the “Sustainable eParticipation” book I would like to react to this paper. I think my project can confirm some of the arguments made in the paper more than it will contradict. Some examples. For starters, I got the first funding in 2004 by writing a few hundred words in a web-form. Written 20 minutes before the deadline! The project received several rounds of funding the years after. Peanuts compared to EU-funding. A dedicated eParticipation civil servant in the ministry would find some 10.000 here or there… I hooked up with the EuroPetition project although I did not receive anything for it (except for a few hundred euro for my travel expenses).

    Scale of my project? I now count some 2,5 million confirmed e-mail addresses in the database for about 1000 petitions. Just national petitions in a country with 16 million inhabitants.

    Social networks? Hardly. There is some twitter visible next to petitions but there are no Facebook buttons to ‘like’ a petition or send it to that parallel universe. E-mail is the most powerful way to spread a petition still.

    Cooperation by (members of) the national parliament? Zero. Although a dozen of them signed a petition to get Neelie Kroes in her current position as EU commissioner…

    I might respond later after reading more than just the summary.

  16. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Aug 14, 2011

    Dear Reinder,
    the case of petities.nl is certainly very interesting. It’s working in the Netherlands, and it would be quite easy to leverage it and extend its use to other countries in Europe with a minimal cost and risk. Why are these kind of projects not being supported? I think this is a legitimate question.
    Regarding the “like” button… maybe you should think of integrating it. I’m not a fan of facebook, but I think one should not take design decission just based on what one likes or not. In this case, I think there is something that is more powerful than “e-mail” to spread a petition. And it is “e-mail…+facebook+twitter+etc” :-) .
    Avaaz, for example, has integrated very well all these tools… and my impression is that they are helping much to give visibility to their actions.

  17. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Aug 31, 2011

    The Information Society Technologies Advisory Group (ISTAG) has issued its 10 key recommendation to the Commission on the orientation for EU ICT R&D and Innovation beyond 2013.
    It’s interesting to note that some of their recommendations are quite aligned with the proposal’s of our paper.
    For example, the recommendations:
    2. Aim at global leadership in Social Innovation and create a ‘Balanced Progress’ framework
    3. Enlarge the stakeholder community as new, non-conventional actors become increasingly important
    7. Create open fast-track schemes for innovation detection, amplification, and acceleration
    10. Embrace ambiguity and unpredictability and enable a dynamic agenda

    The report can be downloaded at:

  18. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Sep 6, 2011

    One additional related resource, which could be of your interests.
    The Proceedings of the last CeDEM Conference on eDemocracy and Open Government, which took place in Krems last may, have been released and can be consulted HERE.

    The paper Institutionalising eParticipation in Europe. Policy challenges and a way forward, from Francesco Molinari, also analyses the European eParticipatory Action to propose how to move forward.
    Our analysis are significantly different -you could say they are “complementary”-, but it is interesting to note that Francesco also concludes that we need to pay much more atention to Sustainability Scalability and Instutionalization, move away from “one-off” small projects, and improve the “Monitoring and measuring” of all eParticipation endeavours.

    This is the abstract of Francesco’s paper:

    Institutionalisation of eParticipation is the next big challenge of the forthcoming years for Europe as a whole. After the wave of demonstration projects funded under the joint (EU Parliament and Commission) Preparatory Action on eParticipation, it is important to make one step forward by taking stock of the positive and getting rid of the negative outcomes, to avoid reinventing the wheel every time and to channel (presumably decreasing) resources towards future initiatives that really make a difference and have long term impact. To this end, it is recommended that the European Commission and Member States should focus more and more on technological (scaling-up) and institutional (sustainable change) aspects, particularly in the framework of the new eGovernment Action Plan‘s implementation process.

  19. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Nov 3, 2011

    Tom Steinberg, founder of MySociety -one of the most successful organizations in the eParticipation landscape-, was keynote speaker at the Open Government Data Camp in Warsaw (PL), the 21st of October.
    To our surprise, he used some of the analysis from our paper to “make a case for a radical overhaul of the way the EU tries and fails to support digital innovation for social and democratic purposes.”

    His presentation can be watched at the Open Knowledge Foundation‘s Vimeo channel, at:

    [OGDCamp2011] Tom Steinberg.

    As a result of this talk, a very interesting conversation was started with Carl-Christian Buhr, responsible for “Research and innovation policy” in the cabinet of Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission that is in charge for the Digitan Agenda for Europe.

    Which means that… our objective was reached! We hope that our reflections and analysis will help the EC in their attempts to continue improving their Innovation Support Programmes.

  1. 2 Trackback(s)

  2. Aug 10, 2011: 550 euro per un post: il fiasco inevitabile dell’e-participation » Contrordine compagni
  3. Aug 22, 2011: Nuestro artículo sobre la (e)Participación de la EU despierta reflexiones en PeP-NET (Asoc. Ciudades Kyosei) La participación ciudadana como puede ser

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