Last week I had the honor of being on a panel at the launch of the European Citizens Initiative (ECI). The ECI represents an innovation in the relationship between citizens, the government and representative democracy. Social media is at the center of the initiative representing one of the first formal ways in which social media technology is recognized in legislative process.
The ECI provides European Citizens the ability to present legislative initiatives directly to the European Commission provided they have a million signatures from EU citizens in a representative set of countries. Links at the end of this post provide the details.
Rather than creating a large and complex program, the ECI’s basic structure revolves around open source software supporting registering an initiative and submitting signatures for validation. That may not sound like much, but in an environment of social media and technology it gives EU citizens the basic interfaces to engage the formal structures of the European Commission and the rest is up to them.
In preparing for and participating in the panel a number of thoughts came to mind on the nature of technology, public policy and the future of direct citizen participation.
- The ECI is correct in conceiving of social media as the ‘technology’ for creating an environment for the initiative. Incorporating social media into the citizen centric strategy not only recognizes the reality of social media in society, but also encourages direct citizen action and innovation without prescribing a platform or approach.
- Social media platforms, like Face Book, Google, Twitter, etc. provide a platform with the scale and reach necessary to engage the large and diverse EU citizenry.
- Social media’s communications capabilities are well suited for sharing the depth of information associated with a strong citizen initiative. I can imagine these sites holding more than just calls for support. These sites can become key educational, documentation and discussion sites. Imagine video’s that document conditions and situations, position papers that outline aspects of the initiative and debates where the community forms and reforms the initiative prior to its submission. Those are the types of collaborative capabilities that can drive strong, positive and participatory policies and initiatives.
The open, participatory and self initiated aspects of social media tools match up well with the principles associated with the ECI. These same aspects have the potential to change the nature of public discourse, government transparency and the like. A few thoughts in these areas include:
- Social media in public policy can change the nature of policy development toward building solutions rather than supporting stances. This creates the potential to shift the policy development process from a basis of exchanging single issues or interests based views to multi-lateral working discussions to craft an initiative prior to the ECI process. This has the potential to change the nature of NGO’s and other policy influencers moving them away from advocacy for a position toward collaborating to solve a problem. Call me naïve, but if all social media does is raise the volume of single interest, single views then we are poorer for it.
- Changing the level of transparency and participation in EC/EU deliberations concerning successful initiatives. The current process, as I understand it, involves closed deliberation and consideration of initiatives that complete the ECI process. I believe that the participation and transparency required for the front part of the ECI process, will lead to similar requirements in the deliberation and decision making of policy makers to not only use the content generated in the initiative process but also to engage the community in deliberations and discussions. It is hard to open the front end of a process and make it more transparent and keep the back end closed.
- The ECI can be seen as part of a range of legislative processes and approaches. Viewed in this context, the ECI plays an important role in submitting initiatives that should compliment rather than compete with other approaches and channels. Recognizing the uniqueness of the ECI process should allow it to have different features and performance expectations as not every process is best to address all policy challenges and issues.
- Much of the ECI process will be ‘do it yourself’ in terms of citizens taking direct responsibility to organize, discuss, debate and develop their initiatives and tools. There are few prescribed rules for the ECI, which opens the door for creativity and innovation in the policy development and debate process. Sure it would be nice to have prescribed content policies, platforms, and premade tools as some at the meeting asked for, but such pre-structuring of the environment can also pre-structure the nature of the debate and set operational limits. A practical and innovative way of being neutral is to be open and lay down a few clear rules, processes and tools which the ECI has done.
The ECI has many of the characteristics associated with successful mass collaboration. We identified these characteristics in researching how large organizations apply social media to achieve meaningful results for the book, The Social Organization. Having a compelling purpose, just enough structure and the right level of sponsorship are all critical for success.
The launch of the ECI last week represents the first mile in a new approach to direct citizen involvement in the legislative process. Submitting legislation is also the last mile for many in the policy arena as ideas turn into proposed rules and laws. How these two connect and collaborate using social media is something I look forward to observing in the future.