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E-participation enables political participation by electronic means

The internet has established itself as an instrument of political participation. People are empowered in a true sense of sustainable democracy to help shape political decision-making through social networks, in discussion forums, or simply on the websites of organisations. What opportunities – but also what risks – does e-participation hold?

According to a 2013 study conducted by the German Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media (BITKOM), most users perceive the internet to be an instrument for promoting democracy. Every third citizen participates in the election campaign via the internet, and even sixty-four percent of the young people aged 18 to 29 years choose this medium. Approximately half (44 percent) of the Germans expressed interest in political participation via the internet.

The term ‘e-participation’ is short for electronic participation, i.e. political participation by electronic means. In 2008 during the transition period to his presidency, the American President-elect Barack Obama showed what this is all about in exemplary fashion when he made multiple electronic participation opportunities available on the portal change.gov, such as a discussion forum and the Citizens’ Briefing Book. Everyone could publish their opinion on any political issues they wished to address, and comment on the opinions of others. The opinions and comments on those issues that sparked the most input were forwarded on printouts directly to the President. People today can of course still ask questions and express their opinions on the White House website.

E-participation in Germany: e-petitions

One good example of e-participation in Germany are the so-called e-petitions that, since 2005, can be submitted online to German Parliament . All you have to do is complete an online form and submit your petition. What is more, you can join in the online discussion about e-petitions that have been published, or even electronically co-sign a petition, expressing your support by making the appropriate entry in the dedicated list. Two prerequisites for any e-petition are that the cause addressed be of general public interest, which means it may not contain any personal requests or complaints, and that the German Parliament must be responsible for the given issue.

It may sometimes be local or national or even international issues in which citizens can participate. This is why the topic of e-participation is also one of growing importance in the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections in May 2014: The internet will be utilised as a channel to reach and motivate young voters in particular who show little interest in politics, in an effort to awaken their enthusiasm for European issues.

Promoting political participation of youth around the world

Young people are seldom included in political decision making. Around the world, organisations are asking themselves how they can tap into the potential of the youth and promote their political participation in this age of the digital society.

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Opportunities for e-participation: Citizen participation, communication and transparency

Another example of what form e-participation may take is the ‘Live+Gov’ project, the objective of which is to promote ‘citizen-oriented dialogue’ with the aid of mobile technologies such as smartphones. Citizens are called upon to report problems or discuss issues with elected officials and public administration servants via their mobile devices. Participants in the project include the University of Koblenz-Landau and businesses in several European countries. The advantages such projects bring, besides enhancing transparency, include a greater trust in elected representatives, more sustainable decision-making, and a stronger sense of self-responsibility among citizens.

Citizen participation is particularly closely oriented to the man and woman on the street at the local level, in the cities, towns and communities. For it is here especially, where the people live, that the greatest room for creative manoeuvring can be found, such as in school systems, day-care centres and hospitals. As Dr Anke Knopp, spokesperson for the citizens’ action group ‘Demokratie wagen!’ (Dare to be democratic!) in the German city of Gütersloh, puts it, ‘The internet has given every citizen a voice.’

Information is the basis for any form of participation. According to Knopp, the expanding forms of digital information and the growing opportunities for participation will change the political culture even further over the long term, and ‘create a level playing field between citizens, public administration and elected policy-makers.’ This could also present chances for reversing the public’s disenchantment with politics.

Video: National Constitution Center – The Rise of Digital Democracy

Risks of e-participation: The digital divide

As much as e-participation motivates dialogue, all those with no access to the internet remain excluded from the discussion. And this disconnect is not just about technical access to the internet: for even if e-participation has become standard practice in countries like Germany, people have to learn or be trained in how to use the internet as a tool. Moreover, the Deutsche Städtetag (German Association of Cities) finds it problematic that opportunities to participate are perceived and acted on in very different ways by different people: ‘To date it has always been the case that young people, migrants and undereducated segments of society participate significantly less than others in the political process.’

Media scholar Professor Gerhard Vowe of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf notes that the education gap is reflected in this trend. In an interview with e-Demokratie.org he explains that, in his experience, it is the primarily the highly educated who utilise the internet in their political interest. Political messages cannot reach  less educated persons through this channel.

February 2014

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