Empowering open and collaborative governance

Greek academics, Assistant Professor Yannis Charalabidis and Sotirios Koussouris, have teamed up to edit a new compilation of papers on e-participation and e-governance, Empowering Open and Collaborative Governance: Technologies and Methods for Online Citizen Engagement in Public Policy Making.

Ann Macintosh, Professor of Digital Governance, at the University of Leeds notes in the fist of two forewords that:

This book provides a comprehensive account of the use of digital media and supporting methods to facilitate participatory democracy, thereby forming a valuable reference for those engaged in researching eParticipation.

She goes on to state that:

Public legitimisation and acceptance of decisions is a key part of good governance and, as such, eParticipation research has the potential to foster open and transparent decision processes.

Fundamentally, the research results are concerned with benefiting all stakeholders and bringing to bear relevant views and evidence to support workable policy development.

I couldn’t agree more!

David Osimo, Managing partner at Tech4i2 makes the following statement in the second of the two forewords:

Online engagement of citizens is certainly not a new theme: it has been on the research and policy agenda for more than a decade under the different names of eDemocracy, eParticipation, Online Engagement, and Online Deliberation. For many years it has been clear that the Internet would radically change democracy, and that citizens would take a more proactive role in politics. Underlying the discussion was the hidden assumption that eDemocracy would basically correspond to increased opportunities for self-determination and decision-making by citizens.

Yet the impact has been far less dramatic than expected. Governments still struggle to engage truly in policy-making with citizens, and when they do so they often fail to generate the expected degree of engagement. eDemocracy and eParticipation projects have largely remained confined to the experimentation level and have been deployed in only very few cases.

While I agree with David when he says that many Governments are still struggling to engage citizens in meaningful policy dialogues, as a practitioner working in the space, it’s perhaps not surprising that I do believe that there are some very good examples of where this is happening well. In my view it is a matter of a combination of good practice, good technology and the right preconditions (or context) to drive participation. Many of our clients have gone well beyond experimentation and implemented online community engagement as a integral part of their community engagement practices.

David goes on to note with concern that:

After 15 years of eParticipation we still cannot answer the very basic question of policy makers: how can I have a civilized and fruitful debate with millions of citizens?

I’m not entirely convinced that this is a valid question to be asking. In my experience over the past five years looking at many hundreds of only discussions, I would contend that the better quality, if you like the more “fruitful and civilised” debates (or dialogues), are more often than not between smaller groups of people with a deep understanding of the issues. This is in contrast to mass participation exercises through “ideation” style platforms that are designed to gather a lot of ideas but cannot hope to achieve well managed deep interogation of the complexity of public policy issues.

David and I also part ways when he states that:

The key determinants of eParticipation are social and psychological rather than technological.

I couldn’t disagree more. Why would I otherwise spend my days trying to design software that enables more people to get involved in higher quality e-participation processes. To dismiss the importance of the quality of the technology as an enabler or barrier to participation with the wave of a hand is akin to saying that it makes no difference to your experience whether you drive a 1974 Datsun 120Y from Sydney to Perth or a Bugatti. Yes, it is critical to understand the social and psychological contexts of the policy issues and the stakeholders in order to drive participation rates. But it is just as critical to ensure they have a good experience once they arrive at you consultation portal. In face to face engagement it is the equivalent of the difference between a well designed process and a free-for-all.

The book’s editors state in the preface:

This book aims to provide the latest research findings such as theoretical foundations, principles, methodologies, architectures, technical frameworks, cases and lessons learnt within the domain of open governance and on-line citizen engagement. This constitutes a new approach to addressing the issue of implementing open collaborative governance solutions and initiatives, providing both research and practical results. Unique characteristics that distinguish this book from existing titles are the systematic analysis of the domain, the all-around view of political, legal, technical and user-oriented aspects and the inclusion of reviews, case reports and evaluation of international initiatives.

The book is composed of 14 chapters, structured in 3 parts as follows.

Part I is entitled “Public Policy Debate Foundations”, and includes six chapters laying the foundations regarding processes and methods for scoping, planning, evaluating and transforming citizen engagement.

Part II is “Information and Communication Technologies for Citizens’ Participation” and includes five chapters with more practical approaches to designing and building collaborative governance infra- structures and citizens participation for businesses and administrations.

Part III on “Future Research Directions of Open, Collaborative ICT-Enabled Governance” consists of three chapters and presents a review of the current domain, providing constructive critique on the developments of the past, and laying out perspectives regarding the future challenges and research direction.

Naturally enough the case studies have a very strong EU focus, but if your an academic interested in the space or a senior practitioner or e-participation policy wonk, then it is worth a look.

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