Citizens Consider Launch of Campaign Friendly OCS
The ECI, Europe’s first step toward participatory democracy, has been in place now for more than ten months, but the instrument’s usability is disputable. ECI organizers continue to report that the new instrument is not yet working as expected because the online infrastructure has not been sufficiently developed (see earlier posts here and here). Unfortunately, this has already led to a considerable loss of online signatures.
As a result of unyielding obstacles connected to the online collection system (OCS), IT specialists, ECI organizers and civil society activists met at a well-attended stakeholders meeting in the European Economic and Social Committee on Jan 25th in order to explore the possibility of developing a low-barrier, working online collection tool. One IT specialist attended on behalf of the European Commission.
The discussion began with participants presenting their experiences with the Commission-sponsored OCS. All the ECI organizers in attendance agreed that the platform was unsatisfactory: it was particularly deficient in terms of accessibility and possessed design flaws that have led to sizeable signature losses for the organizers. EC Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič’s March of 2012 statement that “collecting one million signatures will be super-easy given the online dimension” was vigorously disputed by Pablo Sanchez, campaign manager of the right2water ECI—the most successful ECI so far, with a total of about 800 000 signatures. “This is the first instrument of its kind anywhere in the world, so it’s unique …. It is a pity that promises were made—and hopes raised for many people—which have not (yet) been honored” said Heike Aghte, representing the European Citizens’ Initiative “30 km/h – making the streets liveable!”. In order to resolve the wide array of problems some of the participating IT-specialists even decided to establish an ECI for a user-friendly central public online collection platform for the ECI.
A well designed alternative system would fulfill the needs of campaigners and serve the interest of Member State authorities at the same time, since certification would be required only once rather than an indefinite number of times (for every new ECI).
Campaigners Identify Major Shortcomings in Current OCS
Xavier Dutoit, who set up the OCS for right2water, pointed out the bugs in the current OCS and detailed the major shortcomings of the Commission’s software design choices—shortcomings significant enough to determine the success or failure of a campaign. To illustrate, he contrasted the official ECI signature collection site with a typical Avaaz campaign site, which provides visitors with a simple interface that communicates information clearly. Its layout facilitates navigability and its user-centric design communicates visually, making it easier for the user to sign. This stood in stark contrast to the lackluster design currently available to ECI organizers. The absence of font variation, graphics or the possibility for campaign promotion were some of the problems observed; dead ends and error messages that fail to indicate the problem have led to thousands of e-mail complaints each month for some organizers. Perhaps even worse, some are prevented from signing at all, either for technical reasons (when a compulsory ID is misread as not corresponding to the expected format) or for legal reasons (when EU citizens living abroad are prevented from signing an ECI).
ECI organizers and their support networks agree: if stakeholders had been consulted at some stage in the development of the online collection tool, this outcome could have easily been prevented.
Concrete Proposals for Improvement
Indispensable for a future OCS site is a non-mandatory field that says: “If you wish to be informed about the further progress of this initiative, enter your email address here.” Staying in touch with supporters and building up a European network is particularly important for effective campaign management. Luis Morago, Campaign Director of avaaz.org, said that their web movement thoroughly examines every design aspect of their campaign pages in order to maximize continued support and encourage a ‘snowball effect’. IT specialists say that the model currently offered by the EC requires major upgrades and has a long road ahead in terms of improvements; the current design cannot even be modified without developing new software and certainly does not correspond to 21st century user expectations.
In a second phase ECI organizers and IT specialists discussed the concept of ECI in a box proposed by Xavier Dutoit which consists of development plans for the creation of an OCS that could become available for all future ECI organizers. In an ideal scenario such a system set up would be offered at reduced cost.
A number of organizers said that the Commission has offered a degree of assistance, for example, by providing servers for a hosting environment (more here); some expressed the opinion that it is the Commission that should be funding the ECI in a box service. The EC, however, continues to maintain that their assistance is not compulsory and only temporary.
Pursuing a Two-Track Strategy
It was decided at the meeting to adopt a two-track approach to resolving the issues that were raised. The first objective is to improve the current EC OCS platform and lobby to have the Commission offer services that are not “exceptional” and temporary, but permanent. The second is to set up an independently developed serviceable OCS. The ECI in a box (OCS 2.0) concept entails a needs-based design that will reduce to a minimum the legal and technical barriers for organizers.
In order to address these issues stakeholders decided to create two taskforces: the first will enumerate for the Commission what is required to tackle the most pressing problems of the OCS. The second will work on the planning and setup of a new user and campaign-friendly online collection software.
Participants were of one voice in saying that the ECI needs to be improved in order to be able to empower European citizens and encourage democratic participation. ECI campaigners, stakeholders and civil society activists will meet again to follow up on January 25th meeting and continue to campaign for a user-friendly European Citizens’ Initiative.
Persons contributing to the emergence of this article: Christiana Mauro, Jerry Weyer and Carsten Berg.
This event has been organized by the ECI Campaign – a grassroots coalition of democracy advocates and European NGOs dedicated to the creation and successful implementation of a European citizens’ initiative right. The event has been organized with the support of www.citizensforeurope.eu.