How to Design an Efficient Online ECI Collaborative Platform? It should be co-created with stakeholders

2017-05-02 News, Opinion

The Collaborative Platform for the European Citizens’ Initiative being proposed by the European Commission should not just become another online forum but provide the technical infrastructure to actually reach out to citizens across Europe as broad as possible. It shall facilitate large-scale outreach to European citizens by providing the most modern platform technology for efficient online communication; and by genuinely simplifying the current online signature collection system (OCS). Furthermore, if it is to be genuinely successful, participatory methods should be applied to this participatory platform i.e. it should be co-created and co-managed together with civil society stakeholders waiting at the starting line.

By Carsten Berg, Director of The ECI Campaign

Europe has the potential to transform politics with the help of the internet and become a driving force for digital and participatory democracy in the world. By providing the legal basis for a European Citizens’ Initiative right (Art. 11.4 of the Treaty of Lisbon), Europe has become the location of the world’s first tool of participatory, transnational and digital democracy.

However, the promise of transnational electronic participation has not yet been fulfilled, due to technical and political problems which endanger the effectiveness of the new democratic instrument as a whole. The Commission’s proposal for a new “Collaborative Platform for the European Citizens’ Initiative” (hereafter described as the ECI Platform) is a genuine chance to change this. This new platform ought to serve as a “citizen participation infrastructure” that is open to and supportive of registered and future ECIs, as well as all interested European citizens, by facilitating the infrastructure for “efficient online campaigning”. The latter is the major need, which in my view is still not sufficiently highlighted in the Commission’s survey on the platform. We need general facilitation of efficient online campaigning, not just a pooling of the advisory tools.

Online platforms are the most important technical innovation in the history of civic engagement as they make political campaigning scalable and rapid and enormously increase the potential outreach. While “rapid” and “increased outreach” are self-explanatory, “scalable” here means that once a platform has been created, it costs very little to reproduce its services. It is thus very much worthwhile to make an adequate investment in such a platform.

The ECI Platform’s key goal should be awareness raising

Among these three interdependent aspects the most important one refers to functions that increase the outreach to citizens. This is the biggest challenge at the European level; the one that makes the ECI so difficult to use. Most European citizens are still largely unaware of the ECI. How can we inform as many potentially interested European citizens as possible about their right to sign – or launch – a new ECI? How can we ensure that citizens are being notified about the ECI as a participatory tool? Politically neutral user-driven petition platforms like openPetition (but also public petition platforms) are the online campaigning platforms from which we can learn the most for the ECI. Such platforms send newsletters to millions of citizens who have previously indicated their interest in certain topics (while they confirmed their email address).

The key question, therefore, is how to guarantee a wide outreach to citizens across Europe who are potentially interested in signing an ECI. Can existing online platforms contribute to that? If so, how can we disseminate the message, so that as many existing platforms as possible from across Europe could contribute to the emergence of an ECI Platform? This would need to be evaluated together with the stakeholders in direct meetings and consultations. In fact, we started to co-facilitate that process years ago, as we relate below.

Creating a specific “ECI platform database” that recruits its data from ongoing ECIs seems essential for the success of any future ECI platform. The recruitment of interested citizens could and should happen by providing an optional tick box in the official signature form to indicate: “I want to be informed about future ECIs”. This data could then be used for an “ECI Platform newsletter”.

This feature is the key to making such a platform really useful and impactful. It is the most promising way to avoid ‘losing’ interested citizens as has happened so often with the ECIs in the first five years. The reason for this can be found in the overly strict ECI Regulation 211/2011. According to the current interpretation of Art. 6.4 (b) by the EU and Member State institutions, the option to indicate the willingness of a signatory to be placed on a contact list and thus allow for a compilation of contact information is precluded. We therefore suggest that this article be revised. Even on an optional basis one cannot ask the supporter if he or she wishes to be informed about the further development of an ECI. The current system only allows signatories to be redirected – in a second step – to a signup form on another web page completely distinct from the official signing form. This second step is unnecessary and confusing. User break up at this stage happens too often and further communication with citizens is prevented. In fact, this has been one of the most recurring complaints of past ECI organizers. If ECI supporters cannot directly opt in for updates, then too many of them will fall by the wayside.

The implication is that the debate on the ECI platform should be closely connected with the debate on the revision of the ECI regulation. This also should lead to the creation of a single centralized system for the Online Collection System (OCS) that would be provided through such a platform. There have been too many OCS related problems and costs both for ECI organizers and public authorities, which currently need to certify each and every OCS for each new ECI. These are all problems which an organizer of an ECI should not need to be concerned with.  She/he should instead be free to operate in the most efficient manner on the specific ECI campaign – already a huge challenge in itself.

Let’s use Participatory Methods

In parallel it would be enormously beneficial to connect with the databases of existing online platforms (public and private ones) and draw on their expertise and experience (see our first overview of online campaigning platforms as presented at the ECI DAY conference). We therefore recommend applying a participatory approach to co-creating this platform for the ECI with such players and stakeholders.

In recent years we have done this with the EESC on several occasions in order to co-create not only an ECI platform, but as a first step a new ECI Online Collection Software, with the participation of diverse online campaigning platforms (openPetition, Campact, Avaaz, as well as with Commission and EP staffers, see here. This has led to the currently most frequently used OCS software OpenECI.

We continued this debate on the ECI’s digital dimension at our 2015 ECI Conference with the Council of the EU in cooperation with the EU Presidency and member state governments, (watch the video here) where the conclusion was: if you want to succeed in creating a participatory instrument you have to apply participatory methods. This means: let digital tools evolve in tandem with technical changes and be developed by citizen technologists – something which bureaucracies always try to resist as they are technocratic by nature. However, bureaucracies are increasingly addressing this problem. For example, co-creation was one of the key methodological proposals presented at the eGOV conference during the 2015 Luxembourgish EU Presidency in which we as a civil society organization and governments already made concrete proposals for an ECI digital platform.

It is also worth remembering that we have not seen a single successful ECI since 2013 and the only one currently likely to reach a million supporters, ECI Ban Glyphosate, is being co-organized by experienced online campaigning platforms which make use of the best technologies available. In fact, there was a registered ECI in 2012 calling for an ECI online platform (see also their report in our publication “An ECI that works – Learning from the first two years with the ECI”). Beyond that there have been previous attempts in the European Parliament to create such an ECI platform, which however failed due to insufficient funding and the lack of participatory methods of co-creating the platform. We consider this latter aspect to be of the main methodological needs for the successful emergence of this platform project.

In our view this also means that the platform ought not to be run by the Commission alone, but instead be co-created and managed by and with NGOs and foundations active in the field of EU democracy. This is also the best way to create genuine co-ownership of and responsibility for the new ECI online platform, and thus ensure its success.

Credit picture: CC