My role was to listen to two of the keynote speeches and then lead into a Q&A session. Panelists were Thanassis Chrissafis from the European Commission, who follows the EC initiatives on e-participation as part of programs like FP7 and CIP, and Morten Meyerhoff Nielsen, from the National IT and Telecom Agency in Denmark
Thanassis illustrated how and through which programs and measures the EC funded research on this topic, while Morten showed the results of a quite interesting report about e-participation and uptake of web 2.0 technologies in the public sector (here is an earlier version, I believe)
Two facts struck me as quite revealing of how difficult and tricky a topic this is.
The first one is that, while participation is clearly more relevant and expected by citizens at the local government level, then at national and then at European level , funding seems to go the other way around, i.e. more money for European than for local initiatives.
The second one is that, in spite of the many bright and enthusiastic people working in this field, they form a self-serving community that works on the assumption that e-participation is an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve better and more sustainable governance.
In my humble opinion, the latter is a far bigger problem that the former. After many years of investments and effort on electronic petitions, democracy, participation, and so forth, there seems to be still little evidence that anything substantial is being achieved.
Of course opening additional channels to citizens to intervene more effectively in the policy-making process makes a great deal of sense.
The problem remains of whether this is exactly what people are looking for. In a democracy each of us expects to outsource policy making and participation to one or several democratically elected representatives. While putting us in closer touch with our representatives is a valid objective, so that they get a better feel about our wants and needs is essential, the value of enhancing our individual ability to directly influence parliamentary processes is more questionable.
Besides opening the debate about whether we should contemplate a move from representative to direct democracies, there is not much that e-participation can achieve without creating two pretty evident problems. The first one is the disenfranchisement of elected representatives and organizations like parliaments themselves. The second one is the total cost of ownership of e-participation: suggestions, comments, petitions need to be processed, and the lower the cost of the participation channel, the higher the costs incurred to handle, moderate, synthesize and act upon citizen contributions.
The audience of e-participation experts seemed immune to any cost-related consideration. Somebody raised the cost issue as well as the impact of the economic downturn and global financial crisis, trying to get a reaction that would indicate a change of course or at least a realization that even e-participation will be closely scrutinized in terms of value for money. Attendees did not balk.
There seems to be an immutability in how they behave, a strongly-held belief that what they are doing is just, and there will always be room for this topic.
I wish them to be right, since the way I see priorities shift across the European public sector tells me something different. Affordability of government services and processes and their sustainability over time become top concerns, and I suspect that also e-participation efforts will have to demonstrate how they measurably contribute to help government produce the outcomes that society demands, with less, much less resources