As the European Union moves towards elections to the European Parliament in June 2009, there is a chance to reflect on the status of democracy and participation across the continent. Never before have there been such contradictory and auspicious developments in thinking about how all sections of European society can engage in policy making and political debate. On the one hand, it is clear that many have disengaged from formal politics, voter turnout is falling, membership of political parties is declining, and there is a widespread sense of a loss of trust in government and politicians. On the other hand, there is a surge of grass-root, often single issue engagement in policy making, people generally are more aware of public policy issues, and there are more outlets and channels enabling participation. Much of this is supported, and in fact driven forward, by new ICT tools. These range from the more traditional emails and electronic forums, to the Web 2.0 phenomenon of social networking, and applications which enable users to upload their own content and manipulate the content of others, as well as facilitate deliberation and debate. Indeed, many commentators have hailed President Obama as the world's first truly Internet politician, and there is no doubt that his intelligent use of ICT in political fundraising and campaigning has opened a new chapter in eParticipation.
One issue for Europe is, of course, can the established political institutions grasp and learn from such opportunities, or will traditional mindsets and structures resist change? Will eParticipation in Europe remain something done largely outside the formal governance sphere? How can we in Europe use the new tools beneficially, whilst guarding against the undoubted threats posed by the hijacking of participation processes by the already politically and digitally enfranchised? These are some of the questions addressed in this eParticipation edition of the European Journal of ePractice. Accordingly three main themes are examined in the eight articles for which there is space in this edition.
First, two articles examine eParticipation issues at the European level and what is happening in response. Simon Smith and Effie Dalakiouridou contextualise public eParticipation in the governance of the EU by looking at the historical development of legislative and policy initiatives at this level, and relating this to Europe's prevailing governance framework. They find some gap between rhetoric and reality, so that eParticipation is still conceived rather one-dimensionally through its bias towards established structures and actors, but that there is scope to broaden eParticipation in a more inclusive and truly bottom-up manner. Within this context, Eleni Panopoulou and her colleagues provide an overview of how Europe is actually progressing. Most eParticipation initiatives do take place at sub-national and national level, with only 24% of 255 surveyed initiatives having a Europe-wide or transnational character. However, Europe is playing an increasingly important role as many of the successful national initiatives have significant European funding, and the number of trans-national projects is increasing. The challenge is that the larger the scale of eParticipation the more likely it is to be purely one-way information flow rather than genuine two-way engagement. So European institutions do still need to learn from small-scale experiences and to start to embrace the potential of truly mass collaboration which is already making its mark in non-government contexts.
The second theme addressed is how to evaluate eParticipation projects, both as successful initiatives and also, and probably more importantly, in terms of their wider impacts on political discourse and democracy. Georg Aichholzer and Hilmar Westholm present a layered model for evaluating eParticipation projects, mainly in the areas of consultation and deliberation. They stress the need for greater precision and objectivity through more robust methods and indicators, the challenges of combining theory with practice, and to take direct account of the user perspective which can still be neglected in many projects. They conclude that better evaluation is required of the links between eParticipation initiatives and democracy in the wider society. Jordanka Tomkova attempts to take up this challenge by evaluating how eConsultation is being increasingly employed by political institutions, but so far with very mixed and nebulous results.Â Although citizens are now being invited to the policy-making table more than ever before, which is creating new forms of debate, their real impact on reciprocal (government-citizen) learning and policy outputs appears low, and is often not recognised by politicians or civil servants. The question is raised whether such eConsultation does mark a new beginning or whether it serves only as a façade for political correctness.
The third main theme in this edition of the Journal is on examples of practical applications of eParticipation. This is addressed by four articles each of which shows how eParticipation initiatives can make a significant difference to the way politics is conducted and the quality of policy debate within their own specific context. First, Tiago Peixoto shows how using ICT to help citizens participate in the process of allocating budgets to public projects in Brazil can have positive impacts. For example, the level of participation using ICT was seven times higher than the traditional process, and the cost was much lower. However, other factors were also critical, including the fact that more public projects could be examined over a longer timeframe which increased the incentive to participate, and that citizens were told their inputs would have a binding effect on the final decision. In contrast, Birgit Hohberg and her colleagues report on initiatives in Hamburg, Berlin and Munich to create an Internet dialogue with citizens about what family-friendly living in each city should be. The success of each initiative illustrates both how politicians can harness expert local knowledge which otherwise remains hidden, and how women as a group typically not using eParticipation can be strongly motivated to engage in even larger numbers than men.
The article by Gerard Cervelló describes how in 2000 the Swiss government funded initiatives in three Cantons to test the effectiveness of eParticipation in the periodic consultative processes carried out across the country, specifically the use of legally binding eVoting in live elections. The initiatives commissioned different ICT tools and tested inter alia both their technical functionality and impact on voter turnout. Results showed that it is possible to design and employ highly robust, simple to use and secure systems. It is also clear that, with carefully designed processes and presentation, the Internet can both increase and stabilise turnout over time. Finally, Sabrina Scherer and colleagues describe the importance of usability engineering in designing eParticipation applications, and illustrate this through the VoiceE project which promotes dialogue between two European regions and policy makers in the European Parliament. The methodology used is based on a structured lifecycle, which helps to ensure the overall usability, and thus impact of, eParticipation applications. The important conclusio