World Forum for Democracy - "Re-wiring Democracy: connecting institutions and citizens in the digital age"
23-29 November 2013, Strasbourg, France
LAB 8 - VIRTUAL AGORA
Moderator: Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
Local democracy online: prospects and limitations of the “virtual agora”
Strasbourg, 28 November 2013 – Many European towns are establishing websites to reach the citizens, hold dialogue with them, and elicit their opinions. A theme of one of the “Labs” of the World Forum for Democracy, the ” virtual agora” concept is a new tool for local democracy but also carries rules and constraints for municipalities and citizens alike.
Wishing to have more regular dialogue with its residents, Lewes District Council (United Kingdom) has developed tools for consultation with them, both via the new technologies and through forums and traditional encounters. These have revealed that the population was ready to involve itself in matters of real concern to it, such as refuse recycling and combating food wastage, and as a result numerous initiatives were proposed by the population. Enlisting people’s support on subjects that interest them is conducive to citizen involvement, and contributes to an improved quality of service delivery, Jennifer Rowlands, the Chief Executive of Lewes District Council, pointed out when presenting this activity at the Forum.
In Iceland, the website “Better Reykjavik” is a private initiative launched in 2008. Its founders, Gunnar Grimsson and Robert Bjarnason, explained how the site, which came into being at the height of the economic recession, has succeeded in reopening political dialogue and today enables residents of the capital to express themselves on all topics relating to local life and their surroundings. The Reykjavik local authority and the promoters of the site are furthermore preparing to replicate its principle in several cities in the Balkans, in order to stimulate political dialogue at local level and take into account the real needs and priorities of citizens.
These initiatives, promising and useful to local democracy, nonetheless call for sound organisation to be successful. The completely open sites enable everyone to express themselves but, as noted by Moroccan and Montenegrin participants in particular, “E-democracy” is still reserved for citizens equipped with computers, which is of course the rule in the richer countries but not necessarily elsewhere. However, participants noticed that the use of smartphones to connect to the Internet is more widespread than connection by computer. Moreover, several speakers said, it is important to make sure the net, even at local level, remains a democratic tool and is not misused for partisan or worse, totalitarian ends.
The concept of an open Internet should also be adapted to the realities of the local level. As Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe observed, if everyone can express an opinion on the web, the citizens of a town or neighbourhood should be the only ones to be consulted when the subject concerns their town: “I can hardly imagine the inhabitants of Bordeaux or Lille influencing a consultation on the urban development of Strasbourg”, he commented, and in this case identification procedures would no doubt need to be provided. Besides, the ideas put forward in forums should genuinely serve to optimise the action of local and regional representatives: “It is useless to ask people their opinion if nothing can change,” he added.
Another inadequacy discerned by Internet users is younger people’s disinclination to participate in debates on local life, although they are far better connected than the mainstream population. In Reykjavik, there are as many under 25s on “Better Reykjavik” as over 65s, and all the debates are dominated by people aged 30 to 50. A real challenge for the advocates of a truly participative society, especially as the situation on the Internet often mirrors the situation in real life.
The projects presented in LAB 8 were supported by more than 80 % of the voting participants in the Forum.