E-democracy conference, Strasbourg

Earlier this week I attended a Council of Europe conference on participation and electronic democracy. It was a very interesting event, attended by people from most Western European countries (no Central or Eastern Europe, although Estonia was mentioned as an example of good practice at the national level). The EU, EP and OECD were also represented, all of whom had their own worthy statement of ambitions, and occasionally promises of money.

Thoughts from the conference, in no particular order, after the jump.

  • The conference was about technologically-mediated participation, which is obviously only part of the story, and for some groups a very small part.
  • Someone once said that the foundations of revolution are laid in one generation, then come to fruition in the next. I got a strong feeling that we were reaching the end of the first generation when it came to participation, both on- and off-line. There were lots of ideas around, lots of different approaches from government agencies and NGOs, but it seemed to be at the start of a growth explosion phase, without any clear business models coming through from any of the participants.
  • Costs varied widely. None of the approaches showcased were profitable, it hardly needs saying, but the ‘burn rate’ – to use the old Internet jargon – was very different. Government-run projects were much more expensive (in cost per user terms) than NGO projects. Government-run projects cost from about €6 to €22 per user. One approach (from NL) even gave free video mobiles to teenagers – really taking coals to Newcastle. NGO projects, however, tended to be much better value for money, ranging from 2 to 20 cents per user. The only exception to this rule was cyber-budget, a fun engagement tool from the French Finance Ministry, that had had over 400k users – but it was much more a government-themed game rather than anything more traditionally about engagement.
  • There isn’t a common understanding about what e-democracy means. The approaches that we saw included support for elected representatives, information communication, consultation, online forums, political campaigning, specific tools (like TheyWorkForYou) and telecasting of council meetings. All of these are related, in very broad terms, but there was no sense that anyone was producing a ‘Swiss Army Knife’ or a unified platform.
  • The cheaper NGO solutions were built on existing free software like Joomla. The more expensive governmental solutions looked more custom-built.
  • Some of the local government solutions seemed more about ticking boxes or massaging mayoral egoes than actually producing wide-base results. Often, they had user numbers in the hundreds, or in one case just 75. At the cost per user they were incurring, it would have been much simpler to bribe people to come and read a consultation document.

Interesting presentations and exemplars:

  • The head honcho on e-Gov from the Commission gave a presentation that sets out the EU view, and mentions some forthcoming funding for electronic initiatives. Presentation
  • From the thinktank side, Politech (a Brussels based think tank on participation) gave a slightly breathless presentation. Interesting and fairly comprehensive overview, but some of the ‘hurrah’ optimism about ultra-new ideas like Second Life is very premature. Presentation
  • One of the larger-audience NGO solutions, although political campaigning rather than engagement per se, was http://www.hazteoir.org from Spain. It’s a fairly right-wing Catholic website and political movement. Presentation
  • There were a couple of interesting local government examples. Alcobendas, near Madrid, has a very comprehensive approach which is less about political communication than online access to citizen support and services. It also includes a well-used citizen card (take up 30% or so). Presentation. Issy-les-Molineaux, on the southern edge of Paris, in the Val du Seine IT hub, makes a big thing of its electronic approaches. They don’t do much on participation (though they have a citizens’ panel with online sign-up, and some citizen journalism) but they do have muni wi-fi, webcast council meetings (with live online questioning of councillors), a regular council podcast and RSS feeds for the council’s messages of the day. Presentation, in French.
  • Eurocities (the European network for 250k+ population cities) is running a project on e-participation, led by Bologna. The head guy from Bologna gave a presentation covering both his city’s work (under the IPOTECA brand) and the Emilia-Romagna regional e-democracy toolkit, Partecipa.net. Bologna are exploring Web 2.0 approaches – tagging, wikis, blogs, etc., for the next version of their work. Eurocities are also sponsoring a Charter of Citizen Rights for Knowledge Societies. Presentation
  • Cyber-budget, the French finance ministry tool, looks like good fun. It’s here but only in French.