The ECI: only mediocre marks for citizen-friendliness

January 28, 2013 News

The European Citizens’ Initiative “30 km/h – making the streets liveable!” has given a very valuable résumé on its first experiences with the ECI process. It also includes helpful suggestions how to improve the ECI instrument in general. Read the report by Heike Aghte. (Special thanks goes to Paul Carline for the translation).

This is the first system of its kind anywhere in the world, so it’s unique …. Such a pity that promises were made – and hopes raised in many people – which have not (so far) been honoured.

I. The Online Collection System (OCS)

The OCS is unnecessarily complex, and to begin with it was plagued by major programming faults – far more than would normally be expected. This presented a serious obstacle for ECI organisers, who have little in the way of financial or staff resources.

Specific elements which are obstacles to a citizen-friendly ECI:

1) Increased costs due to the software problems could make it difficult or impossible to carry out the signature collection in its intended full scope.

The excessively long installation time and susceptibility to failure has greatly increased costs for us organisers of the ECI: “30 km/h – make the roads liveable”. We don’t have enough money for the collection phase and we don’t know if we can cope with the extra costs (estimated at around 7000 Euro).

1. It took 5 months just to install the software system (including correcting faults and waiting for EC support) – during which time we had to pay the rent for our own server, which we were obliged to have.

2. On top of this, far more staff time had to be spent than we had originally estimated.

3. Later on, at the beginning of the collection period, it took another month for the extra language versions to be uploaded – meaning we had lots of extra work hours to finance.

(This delay was also caused by faults in the software – and also by the fact that we had to put a lot of pressure on the Commission before a technician started to take a serious interest in the problem; this happened only after posting two messages to Commissioner Sefkovic’s Twitter account and after sending a formal letter of complaint to the Commissioner by email).

Possible solutions:

–  the organisers of the first ECIs, who are forced to use the Commission’s flawed software and thus have to endure all its problems and spend time and money resolving them, must have the incurred costs refunded (e.g. considerably more staff time and excessive rental periods for the server).

–  the EU Commission would have to immediately engage more technical support staff in order to correct faults more quickly and not continue to leave it to the organisers to deal with the problems. Once it was up and running, the technical support was very professional, but clearly there is a lack of adequate numbers of support staff in all areas.

2) The error-proneness of the OCS distorts the number of signatures which could actually be collected by the organisers.

The potential number of signatures is distorted by the problems with the OCS because there were outages of several weeks’ duration when signature collection was severely restricted. The reduction in the overall collecting time means that it might not be possible to achieve the goal of 1 million signatures.

Conclusion:

For the pioneer phase, in which the envisaged preconditions have not yet been met in practice, there must therefore be either a reduction in the number of signatures required and/or an extension of the permitted collection period.

An intensive period of collection restricted to one year, and the full tally of 1 million signatures, can only be demanded after the software has been shown to be fully functional.

3) Poor access for organisers exacerbates the problem of dealing with software faults

The necessary technical remediation of the OCS software is hindered by the fact that organisers have access to the software only after registration – and also by the fact that there is no provision for test runs. That would be problematic even if the software were tried and tested.

Conclusions:

It must be made technically possible for organisers to have access to the software several days before their ECI is formally registered in order for them to carry out test runs.

For the signature collection period itself, there must likewise be the possibility for organisers to carry out test runs. This could be achieved, for example, by having a “dummy supporter” enter its signature in the online collection system. The same “dummy” could be used by all ECI organisers. The “dummy’s” data would afterwards be deleted and its signature not counted.

 A question relating to a possible revision of the directive

It is questionable whether the principle of making the organisers themselves responsible for the software should be preserved. In addition to the servicing costs – which exclude “ordinary” citizens – this principle is problematic also from the point of view of inherent security problems: if several different people in several countries are collaborating, it follows that the highly complex encrypted passwords have to be stored on several (or many) computers, automatically increasing the security risks.

It would be better if all up-and-running ECIs were handled by a central server owned and managed by the EU. The passwords would then not have to be stored on external computers and administrator access would be sufficient for the organisers. This would also contribute to reducing the security risks.

As decisions on these issues will presumably have to wait for the revision of the directive in 2015, the immediate improvements suggested here ought to be put in place for the current period up to the revision.

II. Printed signature forms

1. So much text has been prescribed for the printed signature forms that it is impossible to design a form that meets the EU’s accessibility requirements.

2. The information required of the signatories does not fit into the relevant boxes – because they are too small. If someone tries to fit the data into the boxes by reducing the size of their writing, the data can become unreadable and therefore invalid.

3. Despite the small size of the data boxes, very few signatures can be collected on a single sheet – meaning that those who wish to collect signatures in this way will be forced to use large quantities of paper.

4. The prescribed text contains a number of confusing statements (“Signature not mandatory when form is submitted electronically without electronic signature” – this has led some people to mail unsigned forms, saved as PDF documents, to our coordination office; such forms are invalid).

Possible solutions:

The prescribed text should be reduced to only what is absolutely essential. The decisive considerations ought to be practicability and user-friendliness – and above all the goal of unhindered access. This could be achieved by a reworking of Annex IIIa.

The confusing statement (cf. point 4) should be removed from Annex III. It is not relevant to printed forms.

An addition to Annex III should make it clear that the reverse side of a printed collection form can also be used for signatures – but the text would not need to be printed again. This would reduce the problem of the lack of space and collection would be more environmentally friendly.

III. Discrimination in the online collection system against EU citizens who live outside the EU

It is very difficult for EU citizens who live outside the EU – in Switzerland or Norway, for example – to register their statements of support online. The software does not provide for a place of (current) residence outside the EU. Such persons are thus rejected at the outset as potential signatories.

This is due to the fact that the first piece of information requested (“Select your country”) is not clearly formulated. For example, a German citizen resident in Switzerland might believe that they cannot name “Germany” as “their country”.

Possible solutions:

To enable EU citizens living outside the EU to take part in the online collection without having to scratch their heads in puzzlement, the request to “Select your country” should be reformulated so that it is clear to which jurisdiction the signature should be assigned (i.e. the country of the person’s nationality in the above example – thus either place of residence or nationality, as long as it is within the EU).

There would be no need to change Directive 211/2011 to achieve this.

1. The formulation “Select your country” should instead read: “Select the country in which you live/are resident”. The list of countries should include all countries. The statement of nationality in the following entry then allows eligibility to be fully verified.

2. Some countries (e.g. Austria) do not recognise the votes of their expatriate citizens. In this instance, the software should be programmed to immediately identify such expatriate citizens when they give one of these countries as their place of residence and tell them that they can use the relevant alternative page for their data entry.

For example, an entry “resident in Austria” in combination with French nationality would inform the person that they should use the French page.

IV. Translations

The translations into different languages cost a great deal of time – including for the Commission’s translators, who sometimes had to make repeat corrections. In view of the high value of an ECI for civil society consideration should in any case be given to rating an ECI as a document of major significance. From this we could assume that the EU Commission ought to accept the responsibility for providing translations of the texts into all the official languages.

Possible solution

The Commission should test the practicability of a procedure according to which a submitted ECI text would be officially translated (by the Commission‘s translators) into all the official languages as soon as it becomes clear that the ECI will be registered (this would be after about 4 weeks – around halfway through the validation process).

This would mean that upon registration the text would be available in all the official languages. The team of translators would be able to work less stressfully – and would probably have less to do overall than under the present circumstances, when the translators have to make repeated corrections. (We are only talking about some 800 characters for the essential text).

The Commission should check the practicability of the procedure – for example, what the total expenditure for translation would be, and whether – and, if so, by how much – the costs would be greater than with the present procedure. The results would then be used as part of the process for the revision of the Directive 211/2011 in 2015.

V. Precise duration of the collection period

In any campaign the central phases in terms of publicity and public relations are the start-up and closing phases. It is important both for the media and for interested supporters that they have full access to all the relevant content and all necessary information at the pre-announced time.

Start-up phase:

Head space for the organisers is of decisive importance for these phases if the campaign is not to be unnecessarily weakened. But the current rules work against this, because too many activities have to be concentrated into the first few days: at the same precise time as the commencement of signature collection, the organisers have to: submit new languages, download and layout signature forms, get the software up and running etc. There’s no time left for the really important and necessary media work.

Closing phase of collection:

It needs to be made clearer and more specific exactly how submission of signatures is to take place. It should be possible for signatures to be collected both online and offline also on the final day.

Conclusion

None of this comes as a surprise. That is why we are urgently demanding that the system be improved/upgraded. We have set out a number of ways in which this could be done, and worthwhile suggestions are also to be found in the European Parliament debates before the Directive was agreed.

In addition to the need for greater staff numbers, we recommend creating possibilities for close contact with intermediate (civil service) levels between the Commission and the ECI organising teams so that signature collection (in all languages) can really begin as soon as registration is confirmed.