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ECAS Highlight of the Week – Upgrading EU citizen participation to the digital era: ECAS position on the Conference on the Future of Europe

30 September 2020
The Conference on the Future of Europe was the “buzz word” in Brussels at the beginning of the year, setting up high expectations for getting citizens more engaged in EU policy making. But ongoing disagreements between the EU institutions on who to take over the chairmanship have been…a buzz kill.

The importance of choosing an “independent” person to lead the Conference should not be diminished, as it will help to limit political influence on the resulting debates. However, it does little in contributing to what should be the main focus – to effectively involve citizens and collect innovative ideas for shaping policies based on the “wisdom of the crowd”.

Que in digital democracy tools.

Upgrading citizen participation

Democracy is a two-way system, based on politics and citizen engagement. While a key element of the process, elections are not sufficient – politics also happen in between and citizens need effective methods to communicate their input in real-time. They have long dispelled doubts that they do not want to, or can not, engage meaningfully in policy debates. To meet this demand, citizen participation needs to be upgraded for the digital era. The Conference on the Future of Europe is not only a key opportunity for this, its success relies on it.

There are already many examples of democratic innovation, which rely predominantly on online collaboration. Latvia has an on-line platform – ManaBalss – for crowdsourcing legislation that is visited by over 70% of Latvian citizens annually, helping to shape the agenda of the Parliament. The Icelandic government has involved political parties, academia and civil society organisations in a multi-annual collaborative drafting with citizens of a new Icelandic Constitution, with a crowdsourcing forum ‘Better Iceland’ ensuring online deliberation and facilitating constructive suggestions on amendments, arguments, and votes for or against proposals.

On an EU level, the unique democratic innovation is undoubtedly the European Citizens’ Initiative as the first trans-national instrument of participatory democracy, which allows the European citizens to shape the EU policy agenda and its multilingual online collaborative platform (the Forum) supporting organisers in their journey.

These examples and many other should inspire the European institutions to innovate and take full advantage from the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in order to ensure that the Conference will be “a new public forum for an open, inclusive, transparent and structured debate with citizens”, using a multilingual digital platform to maximise participation, accessibility and transparency.

For broader involvement, online tools should be complimented with offline activities. Face-to-face consultations and public debates on a national level can complete the ‘vision’ of the type of European Union citizens want moving forward. The overall process could follow a divergent-convergent model, on the basis of which ECAS has outlined five phases we believe are essential to ensuring the success of the Conference:

Phase one – preparation and setting up 

This phase should consist of four main elements, to be carried out by the institutions in coordination with civil society organisations at EU level where relevant. 1. Clear, widespread communication at all levels on the objectives and process of the Conference, especially in order to manage people’s expectations on the outcomes. 2. Creation of common guidelines on how the process will be conducted (languages, tools, etc.) that should be applicable to all EU member states. 3. Securing the financial resources at EU, national and local level to ensure that the process will be implemented in a sound and meaningful manner. 4. Setting up the infrastructure of the online and offline consultation to be implemented in the next phases – crowdsourcing platforms, applications etc.

Phase two – identification (divergent)

Phase two should last about 8 months and should be open to receiving inputs from all citizens of EU member states and beyond where relevant, mainly by exploiting the potential of digital tools and platforms and the outreach and grassroots connections of civil society organisations in order to have the widest outreach possible in the most efficient way and removing obstacles caused by the digital divide.

In line with the objectives of the Conference, participating citizens and civil society organisations further representing citizens will be asked to submit their demands and concerns and to vote on priorities using user-friendly websites and mobile apps set-up during the preparation phase. The goal of this inclusive phase is to allow people to feel free to express their demands on issues that are not too technical (e.g. they would like to see the EU to have more competence on certain policies) or even to share the values that they would like to see better reflected in the current or future treaties.

Phase three – ideation

The third phase is the phase of ideation (first convergent phase) to include random representative samples of individual citizens, representatives of CSOs, and experts during ideally up to 8 months.

This phase will use a method called deliberative polling (introduced by Professor Fishkin) – where randomly selected citizens broadly representative for the EU population and citizens representing civil society organisations, are invited to discuss ideas to address the issues identified in the first phase, to select the most relevant ones and to formulate recommendations. This will take the form of multiple face-to-face citizens’ panels in different parts of the EU. CSOs and/or experts will be designated as moderators to guide the participants’ thinking, encourage them to ask more questions and provide them with answers about the EU if necessary.

The process, discussions and results of these events should be transparent and documented on online platforms for other citizens to see them (still safeguarding the identity of the citizens involved).

Phase four – evaluation

The phase of the evaluation (second convergent phase) and decision-making includes EU decision-makers (+ CSOs, experts) and lasts ideally up to 12 months. Depending on how clear the ideas of the third phase are, they can be assessed by citizens’/CSOs/expert/relevant stakeholders or directly by the decision-makers themselves.

Phase five – feedback and impact

The Conference on the Future of Europe must end with the EU’s clear communication to all citizens on what the impact of their contributions was and how the institutional actors have taken on the results.

You can view ECAS’s full position statement on the Conference on the Future of Europe, including further details on the five phases, here. The content was originally published by the ES Global magazine in Spanish.

*It is interesting to note that the upcoming European Week of Regions and Cities could serve as a ‘test trial’ for holding EU-wide debates online. Taking place annually, the event’s objective is to “discuss common challenges for European regions and cities and to exchange ideas on possible solutions by bringing together political representatives, decision-makers, experts and practitioners of regional policy, as well as stakeholders from business, banking, civil society organisations, academia, the EU institutions and the media”. Due to the Covid-19 epidemic, this year’s edition will be held entirely online over the span of three weeks.

The above concepts have fed into numerous other ECAS activities and recommendations for a successful Conference on the Future of Europe, as well as into ECAS’s contribution to the European Democracy Action Plan:

Recommendations for a successful and effective Conference on the Future of Europe

ECAS contributed to a set of civil society organisations (CSOs) recommendations, stressing the need for a divergent-convergent model, combining both online and offline methods for collecting input. As a first stage, EU citizens should be provided with the opportunity to express their concerns through online tools and platforms. In follow-up, randomly selected citizens and CSO representatives can propose concrete actions to address the identified challenges, using the method of deliberative polling. The full set of recommendations can be accessed here.

European Democracy Action Plan

In 2019, the European Union responded to troubling democracy trends with a promise for a new push for European democracy. This commitment put democracy at the heart of European Commission priorities for the 2019-2024 term and set the tone for a new EU-wide political initiative to improve and protect European democracy: the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP).

In early September, ECAS joined 45 other CSOs in calling for the ambition of the European Democracy Action Plan to match the magnitude of today’s challenges and build opportunities to innovative democracy. The statement lays out five demands, which can be viewed here.

ECAS also submitted its own contribution to the EDAP, heavily emphasising on the need to better fight disinformation. While harnessing the potential of digital tools, it is equally important to be aware and address the inevitable challenges that come along. The EU should promote a holistic approach with positive measures to address disinformation, such as investment in quality journalism, a plurality of information sources, the regulation of online manipulation business models, requirements for responsible platform design and support to fact checking organisations.

Different platforms employ different standards of transparency, fact-checking mechanisms and alert features. This results in an online environment in which some platforms are better equipped to flag disinformation and reporting sponsored content than others. We believe that it is necessary to put in place a series of recommendations and guidelines addressed to address the inconsistency between transparency, fact-checking mechanisms and alert features available across platforms. Such recommendations, or guidelines should be available for the platforms to implement more consistent policies across different social media platforms.