So far, digital tools have only brought about very small changes in our democratic system. There is the potential promise, however, that online communication will engage the public more closely in public administration. We are just beginning to tap into the potential offered by the digitalisation of interaction.
In decision-making processes, there is a delicate balance between what elected representatives decide and what is left to the discretion of the public. This is all the more so when digitalisation increases the scale of citizen engagement. In that case, it is important to clarify the latitude for participation and discussion at an early stage, and to be transparent about what is done with the public’s input.
Digitalisation is not something that simply befalls us. There are many ways in which IT can promote communication between the municipal authority and local residents regarding governance and decisionmaking. Provided that they are used with due care in a well-structured process, digital tools are a valuable addition to the usual means of engaging the public more closely in municipal government.
This article is an adaptation of a chapter from the report Valuable digitalisation.
E-participation from citizens
From central to local democracy
Local democracy is undergoing major changes. The Dutch national government has undertaken a vast decentralisation operation in recent years and is transferring a wide range of tasks to the local level. One of the underlying ideas is that municipal authorities are better placed to carry out these tasks because they are in closer touch with people. But how close is the relationship between the municipal authority and local residents in reality?
Approximately half of those entitled to vote in municipal elections actually do so. According to the legitimiteitsmonitor, most people are reasonably satisfied with their local government, but barely give it a second thought. Even so, when opposing views and conflicting interests are at stake, direct engagement is often the most promising way to arrive at broadly accepted solutions to thorny issues.
This is often the case in spatial planning:should the local authority build houses, construct roads, clear trees, expand shopping centres, and so on. These are questions that call for a meticulous process, as it is imperative that even those inhabitants who are unhappy with the final decision should have confidence in how the authorities arrived at their decision.
People want to be heard
Support for municipal policy is based in part on the quality of the process leading up to that policy. A critical factor in this context is the direct engagement of stakeholders. People want to be heard, and they also want to know that they have been heard. The fact that government officials and political parties must maintain public support for their policies drives them to seek ways to invent democratic processes and to invite local residents in policymaking.
Recently, many municipal authorities have been thinking about how to enhance local democracy. Various initiatives are underway. They include the dozens of experiments that have been collected on the Democratic Challenge website, and the ‘Getting Started with Participation’ guides on the Local Democracy website.
The VNG (Association of Netherlands Municipalities) drew up a Local Democracy 2017-2022 development agenda providing for more public participation and control in decision-making and more scope for grassroots initiatives. It states the following: ‘We will ensure greater scope for public participation and control and for grassroots initiatives, both small-scale (playgrounds, rubbish containers) and large-scale (the arts and culture, safety). To reach out to those people who have withdrawn because they are dissatisfied or who do not (yet) feel a sense of engagement, we will look for new approaches, new ways to get them to participate.’
People want to be heard, and they also want to know that they have been heard.
The above evolution in the way local democracy functionsis happening against the backdrop of the digitalisation of communication. We are increasingly living our lives on the internet, including democratic interaction and social debate.
There are different aspects to be considered here. The digitalisation of information makes governance much more transparent. As Edwards & de Kool state, today, anyone with an internet connection can gain direct access to local government documents and budgets online (Edwards & De Kool, 2015). The internet also makes it possible for local residents to communicate about and organise themselves around particular policy issues – and can also lead to ‘Twitter democracy’. Local authorities can take advantage of this (government participation), but they can also use digital tools themselves to engage the public more closely in decision-making (citizen participation).
Many local authorities have experimented with various forms of citizen participation (top-down) and government participation (bottom-up) in recent years, but these have usually used ‘analogue’ tools: paper, discussions and meetings. Digital tools are now being added, in the form of e-participation (and this can mean engaging the public in municipal initiatives, but also getting local government to adopt citizen initiatives).
A European study has found that, in terms of the impact on political decision-making or agenda-setting, it did not necessarily matter whether an e-participation project was initiated by local government (citizen participation) or by the people themselves (government participation). What have these experiments taught us, and what lessons can we learn from them? That is the subject of this article.
Fore more information, read our report on e-democracy.
Technological trends and expectations
Since the 1960s, futurologists and scientists have been describing how new information and communication technology would transform existing practices of citizen-government communication about policy. These expectations were inspired by the way in which technology had changed one-way communication into two-way communication and thus enabled genuine interaction between the public on the one hand and local politicians and policy makers and civil servants on the other. Two-way communication, it was thought, had the potential to change democracies worldwide by fostering a new type of contact between voters and elected representatives and new forms of participation. Would that pave the way for direct democracy?
Such expectations were revived by the rise of the internet and, more recently, social media. After all, social media potentially offer everyone, public authorities and other stakeholders, the opportunity to make themselves heard, to communicate on a mass scale, and to mobilise like-minded people. That optimism led to a major role being attributed to the internet and mobile phones during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and to the popular uprisings in Moldova, and later in Iran and other countries, being seen as a ‘Twitter revolution’.
We have been living in the internet age for more than two decades now and we know that all kinds of changes have indeed taken place. The workings of public administration have become more transparent, there are many ways of addressing elected representatives online, and various instruments have been developed at home and abroad to engage people in politics and policy.
In the meantime, however, the world has become more complex and local government has expanded considerably. As a result, the gap that people feel between themselves and their local government has not diminished, despite the availability of digital means of communication.
It would be going too far to credit Twitter and Facebook with the revolutions themselves.
Opportunities for authorities
Politicians who are on Twitter mainly broadcast; they hardly ever engage in real conversations with voters. Even when government does organise (online) citizen participation, its efforts do not always have the desired effect. People do not feel that they are really being heard and the number joining political participation projects is often disappointing.
And those ‘Twitter revolutions’? While social media helped to increase the visibility of the uprisings in mainstream (foreign) media, it would be going too far to credit Twitter and Facebook with the revolutions themselves. What mobilised people was the cumulative pressure of political dissatisfaction, according to many commentators who would like to abandon the term ‘Twitter revolution’ altogether (see for example Van der Lubben, 2011).
According to this article by Rachel Gibson, to some extent this is because social media can also be exploited by those in power, for propaganda purposes, oppression or detection. The absence of radical transformation does not alter the fact that the advances in IT have brought about fundamental and relevant changes in (local) democracy and will continue to do so.
First of all, it is clear that various interest groups are now well-versed in the art of ‘digital campaigning’. People are taking advantage of the increase in transparency and have no trouble finding their political representatives online when an issue arises that concerns them directly. All sorts of people make effective use of the technology to immerse themselves into the political decision-making process:
- High school students across the Netherlands mobilised online in their battle against new rules on the number of lesson hours they were required to complete every year.
- A small group of Dutch university students launched an online campaign to collect enough signatures to force an advisory referendum on a new Intelligence and Security Services Act.
- At local level, the ‘Groninger Bodem Beweging’ – a community organisation set up to ‘defend the interests of people who suffer (financially and/or emotionally) [from] the causes (direct or indirect) of natural gas extraction in Groningen, Netherlands’ – has used its website to publish up-to-date data on extraction-induced earthquakes, to inform people about the decision-making process, and to mobilise them to take action.
- Another example is the online petition launched by residents of the town of Zutphen that revealed a critical lack of support for Loek Hermans – a former high profile politician – as interim mayor. Local representatives subsequently withdrew their support for this candidate.
We also see that past and future changes brought about by IT create new opportunitiesfor local authorities. Several local governments have themselves been proactive about using digital tools to engage people more closely in political and policy matters, for example by involving citizens in municipal budgeting or in developing a strategic agenda for their town or city as a whole. They consult local residents online about new plans, or offer them the chance to come up with their own citizen initiatives. A few municipal authorities in the Netherlands are also experimenting with digital democracy. A recent study (Korthagen et al., 2018), also looked at what can be learned from examples from abroad.
The people themselves get down to work
Opportunities for digital interaction and for following politics and policy news online are multiplying. According to Van Dijk, digitalisation’s most important contribution to democracy so far is that it has improved access to and facilitated the sharing of political information.
But digitalisation is creating other possibilities as well. People are now used to arranging all sorts of personal matters digitally and to speaking their minds online. They expect managing elected representatives and government officials to respond to that. People make their point in petitions, on their own websites, or on Twitter and use these means to try to influence politics. Sometimes they are successful; oftentimes, they are not. What do these new channels signify for public administration? We give a few examples below by way of illustration.
Following politics online
There are all sorts of online tools that help make government decision-making more transparent. For example, it is possible to livestream local council meetings and read relevant documents on municipal websites. Municipal councillors also report on their work on their personal websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.
Local government and political actors are largely in control of their communication by means of these channels. There are also websites that monitor politics, make documents available and in some cases make it possible to ask questions.
People are now used to arranging all sorts of personal matters digitally and to speaking their minds online.
2008 saw the launch of the website Watstemtmijnraad.nl, set up at the initiative of Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, which made it possible to track municipal councillors’ votes. The website did not survive, however. It saw too little traffic, especially among its real target group: ordinary citizens.
The website provided raw data on voting patterns in municipal councils, for example, but that meant users had to analyse the data themselves to answer such questions as ‘Is my representative consistent in what he says and how he votes?’ and ‘Is my party keeping its campaign promisesin the way it votes on issues?’ (Edwards & De Kool, 2015).
Since 2015, the Open State Foundation, VNG, KING and the Ministry of the Interior have once more been working with various local authorities to make reports, proposals, voting results and motions by municipal councils available online and to standardise this information openraadsinformatie. The aim is to give councillors, journalists, researchers, interest groups and local residents better tools for monitoring municipal councils and their activities.
Germany and the United Kingdom
Websites in other countries go even further and have added interactivity. One example is Germany’s Abgeordnetenwatch (Parliament Watch), which allows German citizens to question political representatives.
The website is a civic initiative that is meant to improve political transparency. The questions submitted are scanned by a team of moderators, who see to it that they are forwarded to the right politicians and who monitor whether they have been answered. The website has proved popular; in 2014, Germans submitted 174,000 questions (with a response rate of 80%). A similar civic initiative was undertaken in the United Kingdom, see www.theyworkforyou.com and www.writetothem.com.
While transparency is increasing steadily online, mobilisation via social media is more abrupt in nature. Edwards & de Kool show that the speed, scale and relative invisibility of internet and social media mobilisation can take politicians by surprise, more so than the demonstrations of the past.
One Dutch online channel that facilitates mobilisation is petities.nl, which welcomes no less than two million visitors a month. People collect signatures on this website on general issues (‘Stop unnecessary plastic packaging in the supermarket’) or local concerns (‘Give us back the train connection between Grou-Jirnsum, Akkrum and Wolvega’). The website is organised bottom up and not embedded in any official political channels.
Signing a petition is an easy way to voice an opinion. Those who do are sometimes referred to as ‘pyjama activists’. Activists who initiate petitions generally seek contact with the responsible politicians in due course and hand over the petition. But they seldom succeed in influencing politics. Merely submitting a long list of signatures is generally not enough. While politicians may politely accept the petition, they are not always willing or able to take action on it
The factory outlet that never happened
Another example is when the City of Zoetermeer wanted to involve local residents in the decision-making process for the ‘Holland Outlet Mall’ (HOM), a factory outlet centre to be constructed in the city centre.
Citizen engagement did not go as planned, however. It was unclear what the local authority was asking its citizens: the desirability of an outlet centre, or the conditions under which the mall would be built? The questions local people were asking were more specific than the local authority had envisaged answering in such an early stage of the project.
In his evaluation, Bakker stated that the public consultation process had no predefined purpose; as a result, certain groups did not feel that they had been heard, leading to dissatisfaction not only with the project but the process as well. Dissatisfied residents mobilised themselves, began lobbying, and publicised their grievances far and wide, including on websites and social media. The combination of online and offline communication and mobilisation strategies empowered the resistance. In the end, the property developer gave up and the local council voted to call a halt to the project.
The combination of online and offline communication and mobilisation strategies empowered the resistance.
As these examples show, the availability of digital tools and their use in communication between residents and local authorities (municipal councillors, mayors and alderpersons, civil servants) raises a series of questions:
- First of all, how can public authorities make citizen engagement a positive experience for local residents? The point is to show them that their input is valuable, even when it does not have an immediate, concrete impact. When interaction is poorly planned, there is a risk that it will lead to less trust from citizens in the public authorities.
- Second, how can public authorities define the parametersfor dialogue with residents about decision-making without trivialising citizen engagement? On the one hand, elected representatives must be in a position to shoulder their responsibilities; on the other, stakeholders should be heard and be taken seriously.
- Third, how do you ensure that elected representatives weigh up options objectively and take decisions autonomously, as the officials responsible, when public input and consultation processes (possibly also involving civil servants) have already led to consensus about what should happen? It can be difficult for municipal and alderpersons to oppose proposals stemming from interaction between the local residents involved, even though they often represent specific interests and are not representative of the entire population.
These three issues are not only relevant when communication between local residents and local government goes through digital channels but also when it only predominantly occurs offline. Online tools make these questions more pressing, however, because they have the potential to broaden and intensify interaction between residents and government.
A well-designed digital participation process can address these issues to some extent. In the next section we explain what kind of digital tools are available and what lessons we can learn from real-world situations in which they have been applied.
Digital democracy in practice
Some local authorities are themselves taking steps to encourage digital citizen engagement in politics and policymaking by attempting to collect local residents’ digital ‘stories’ (proposals, votes, opinions and so on). Although we do not have a complete overview of such efforts, there do not appear to be very many in the Netherlands. In our international study, however, we observed a wide range of digital tools that make it possible to engage people in decision-making in different ways and at different times.
Many different tools have now been developed in support of e-participation, and they are being deployed in varying political contexts. Although e-participation is uncharted territory for many Dutch municipalities, there is no need for them to reinvent the wheel. In fact, they can learn from others who have already tested these tools and draw on their experience to organise better eparticipation processes.
Tools for digital democracy are available in every shape and size. Below are a number that we have observed being used in the Netherlands and abroad:
1. First of all, there are digital citizen initiatives. In Finland, members of the public have the right to submit bills to the Finnish Parliament. If they collect 50,000 signatures in support of the bill, Parliament treats it like any other piece of draft legislation.
2. Another example concerns online public consultations, such as the internetconsultatie used in the Netherlands. Individuals and organisations can retrieve information about draft legislation in this way and make suggestions on how to improve the quality and practical feasibility of the legislation.
3. The third example involves inviting the public to help write policy documents online through a wiki-based website. The City of Melbourne organised a participation process aimed at developing a shared strategic planning agenda. Local residents and other stakeholders were able to work on the municipal strategic planning document online. They could also discuss their ideas at meetings with policymakers, who added them to the online document later.
4. The final example is participatory budgeting. In this case, the public is asked to share their thoughts on how to spend part of the government budget. The Netherlands is certainly not in the lead in this regard (Hofman, 2011), but a few local authorities are experimenting with participatory budgeting online, for example the City of Breda and the Town of Oss. Rotterdam used to have a basic version in which local residents were asked to vote (online) on a series of initiatives, with the city’s new skating rink being one of the winning proposals. Much more progress has been made in online participatory budgeting in other countries, including Brazil, Germany and France.
There are also experiments under way with online elections or online opinion-formation and opinion polls (for example through Argu. It is important to examine needs and requirements and phase of decision-making when choosing a digital tool to ensure the best match.
No quick-fix solution
It is far from easy to use digital tools to engage local residents in policymaking and political debate. Digital tools are certainly no ‘quick fix’ solution to all the issues we raised earlier. There are many examples of government-led digital engagement that ultimately had very little influence on decision-making.
For example, policymakers or politicians may find it difficult to actually take action on the outcomes because they are too general in nature and/or too far removed from the actual policy agenda.
As a result, people often become disillusioned. In addition, the people who participate usually do not represents all the various interests at stake, and politicians are understandably hesitant to simply adopt their input. The crux of digital democracy lies in embedding digital participation properly in formal decision-making. Below, we share lessons learned based on our international study.
A systematic comparison of 22 cases shows that six factors can help ensure that e-participation will have a substantial impact on policy or politics. These factors help e-participation make a genuine difference in decision-making and therefore add value for politicians, policymakers and the public alike. As the lessons in this section reveal, success depends on more than the technology being used; the bottom line is the interaction between the digital tool and offline decision-making process.
1. Link e-participation to a specific agenda or decision
The impact of e-participation depends on linking the participation process to a policy or political agenda or decision. Interactions between participants and policymakers can reinforce this link (whether online or offline).
The wiki-based participation process concerning the future of Melbourne (see the ‘Practical approach’ box above) created that link by putting the city’s strategic planning agenda in the public domain. Local residents and stakeholders worked on the official document online or discussed their ideas during meetings with policymakers. The latter would then amend the official document in accordance with this input. The interactions between policymaker and participants strengthened the link between the participation process and the formal policymaking process.
2. Be clear about the process and the aim
It should be clear right from the start how people can participate, for what purpose, how they can contribute to decision-making, and who is responsible for what. That way everyone knows what to expect. One approach would be to issue a set of clearly worded, low-threshold infographics or FAQs. The City of Paris uses these on its website to explain how and when people can get involved in distributing part of the municipal budget, for example by submitting proposals and voting on them, and by working with civil servants to make their plans more feasible.
3. Give feedback
Let participants know what is being done with their input. Feedback is an indicator of a well-organised, transparent process and an important form of accountability. That is especially true when the final decision deviates from the outcome of the participation process. It is very easy to build in digital feedback mechanisms. The Berlin-Lichtenberg district reports decisions on budget proposals by giving a brief explanation in the form of a simple ‘traffic light’ system: green= accepted, orange = under consideration, red = rejected. In Reykjavik, participants can track decision-making on a website; they also receive e-mails with relevant updates.
4. Do more than collect signatures
Online tools are an easy way for people to express – and monitor – the level of support for a particular cause. However, digital signatures send out a less powerful signal than voting for or prioritising proposals, for example in participatory budgeting. That is in part because of the specific nature of the plans themselves and how participation is linked to the formal decision making process. There is also some interest in combining online deliberation and voting. Deliberation can help participants reach informed opinions, and votes indicate support for their propositions.
5. Customise mobilisation, online and offline
Awareness of a digital tool is crucial to reaching the largest and most representative group possible. An effective communication and mobilisation strategy consists of several tools that are customised to reach different target groups. Many participation processes are unsuccessful in this regard, or the tool’s reach is left unmeasured. Digital participation need not be limited to existing media such as Facebook or Twitter, each of which hasits own features and limited user base. Combining online and offline participatory options is one way to customise mobilisation. Berlin-Lichtenberg publicised participatory budgeting on social media, in leaflets and letters, and at community centres. The organisers say that each channel generated a different set of participants.
6. Repeat and improve
Digital participation is a learning process. A repeat participation process is more likely to have an impact than a one-off. It is easier to make processes and digital tools more user-friendly and to embed them more firmly in existing decision-making when they are used repeatedly.
It is also a good idea to measure the level of satisfaction with the tools and outcomes. That was a notable deficiency in the projects that we studied, but one exception is the European Commission’s Futurium public consultation website, which is being improved based on input shared by participants and stakeholders during workshops.
Another exception is the process of participatory budgeting in Paris. The process itself has been amended time and again to meet the requirements of the public and the municipal authorities. At first the authorities themselves came up with proposals, but it soon became clear that Parisians wanted to submit their own plans. They were given the opportunity to do so the following year, but their plans did not always line up with the municipal agenda (in some cases, the City was already working on a similar project) or were not professional enough to be useful.
Thereafter, the process was broken down into three phases: the public and organisations draw up their own project proposals; participants and civil servants then work together to improve the technical and legal aspects of the proposals and to bring them into line with the municipal agenda (‘co-creation’); the proposals are put to the vote (online and offline).
 The Democratic Challenge is a three-year BZK/VNG-programme (2015-2017): http://democraticchallenge.nl/.
 The website Lokale Democratie is an initiative of the VNG and BZK: zie https://www.lokale-democratie.nl/aan-de-slag-met/participatie.
 Aichholzer, G., G. Rose, L. Hennen, R. Lindner, K. Goos, I. Korthagen, O. van Keulen & R. Ojvind Nielsen (2018), Prospects for e-democracy in Europe. Literature review. Brussels, European Union: STOA.
 See Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau 2016, p. 225-229, on the negative correlation between the size of a municipality and citizen participation. There have been various publications in recent years addressing the gap between the people and government, including by the VNG Committee on Forward-looking Governance (2016), the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) (2012) and the Council for Public Administration (ROB) (2012)
 See also the reports about the role of social media in the violence perpetrated against the Rohingya in Myanmar (https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKCN1GO2PF) and the Philippine government’s use of Facebook:‘What Happens When the Government Uses Facebook as a Weapon?’ (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2017-12-07/ how-rodrigo-duterte-turned-facebook-into-a-weapon-with-a-little-help-from-facebook)
 For examples of e-democracy initiatives, see http://democraticchallenge.nl/ edemocratie/ and https://depilotstarter.vng.nl/projecten?thema=22.
 See for example: http://www.homzoetermeer.nl/ and http://www.doenietzomall.nl/.
 Examples can be found in the Dutch towns of Ede, where residents are involved in the redesign of the market square (https://www.doe-ede.nl/); in Losser, where the public has had input into the policy on dogs and litter (https://www.civocracy.org/discussions/67/ learn and https://www.civocracy.org/discussions/74/learn); and in Zoetermeer, where residents are regularly asked to contribute ideas about various projects and initiatives (https:// doemee.zoetermeer.nl/default.aspx). Many municipal authorities use their websites to invite residents to submit ideas and participate in decision-making more generally, including The Hague (https://www.denhaag.nl/nl/in-de-stad/denk-mee.htm) and Leiden (https://gemeente.leiden.nl/bestuur/denk-mee/).