The 2016 AER General Assembly and Spring Bureau kicked-off with the discussion on (R)e-inventing democracy and the disruptive nature of technology.
We have all been confronted with the ephemeral feeling of confusion and frustration when faced with the updates of our applications, programmes, software, phones (etc.) and any other day-to-day ICT; we tend to rely heavily on habits when using such technology but luckily individual habits are (somewhat) easily changed. As difficult as this adaptation might be on an individual level, it is exponential when set up in the wider framework of a public administration. Innovation in the public sector is or should be a high priority for any public administration which are more and more pressed for efficiency and transparency.
Setting the scene with Pia Mancini (TED video) on how our 21st century democracy is in danger as it is stuck in the 18th century so far as the process and in the 15th century so far as the information technology tools it uses. Helpful food for thought to introduce the issue at hand.
Participation in democracy beyond the ballot boxes
If we are making such a fuss about innovation in the public sector and e-democracy, it is because we are thinking way beyond the electronic vote which may first come to mind when referring to technology in the organisation of our democracy. But above the actual tools that are used, there needs to be a shift in the way territories are managed and developed. Services need to be designed so that they respond to needs, but also to enable citizens to contribute repeatedly and in many different ways to the collective good. Participation should not be restricted to elections, opinion polls and social media. The dialogue needs to be two-way and not limited to asking the citizens for input on issues defined by the authority.
Esa Kokkonen, Director, The Baltic Institute of Finland set the scene and introduced the strategy developed by the region of Tampere (FI). He mentioned three key factors at the core of the strategy: 1) open innovation platform, 2) open data and interfaces, 3) open participation. These are applied to many domains, including healthcare services, environment protection, energy efficiency, local transportation and business development.
Improvement or threat?
Guardian of the principle of democracy in Europe, the Council of Europe presented the regulatory framework that the Council strives to improve for more and better e-democracy and a democracy that is centered around the needs of the citizens rather than the needs of the government. Mr Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe presented the most relevant Congress and selected Council of Europe documents on e-democracy and e-governance as well as on local and regional governance in general. Answering a question on the expectations of citizens on the immediate nature of democracy with social media he stated, “we certainly need to add new elements to our representative democracy but we have to have a realistic approach and cannot expect a minute to minute democracy”.
Great expectations of the “digital natives”
Traditionally, young people are quite distant from politics. This of course is counter-productive as they are tomorrow’s leaders. On the other hand, young people today are digital natives; born in the digital era they have not known the days without Internet and being socially connected is the only way to be, irrespective of social classe or culture. Aware of the great potential of technology, young people can pressure public authorities to improve eDemocracy.
Gloria Vitaly, President of the AER Youth Regional Network quoted Hillary Clinton on the freedom to connect, equivalent to the freedom to assemble, only in cyberspace. Ms Vitaly stated “I believe that we can revitalize and strengthen our democracies through internet. But that does not mean that we should not interfere in the process of internet development. We need to keep a steady hand on the wheel or else it can turn to a bumpy road, which does to increase our democracy, but rather reduce the debate and make it more polarised.” She called upon politicians and citizens to support young people, to allow them to express themselves and to protect them against those that harm them by expressing extreme views.
The regional stories
3 regions shared their experience with concrete examples of how new technologies can offer solutions to the problems of the regions and its citizens, or how new technologies open new opportunities for participation in democracy. Maurice Ropraz, Councillor of State, Fribourg (CH) spoke about their “building consents” e-government project and its benefits: better quality; clear rules for formal and physical inspection of application; process more transparent; better tracking; establish accurate statistics; enhanced information collected. Ana Verushi, President, Korça (AL) presented the many initiatives in her region and Albania and Marta Vilalta, Director General for Youth, Catalunya (ES) insisted on the initiatives developed to increase youth participation in Catalonia.
All presentations are available on our event page.
Ida Pinnerød, Mayor of Bodø
Hande Özsan Bozatli, President of the Assembly of European Regions
Esa Kokkonen, Director, The Baltic Institute of Finland
Gloria Vitaly, President of the AER Youth Regional Network
Andreas Kiefer, Secretary General of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe
Daniel Bjarmann Simonsen, Project leader, the Smart Bodø Programme
Maurice Ropraz, Councillor of State, Fribourg (CH)
Ana Verushi, President, Korça (AL)
Marta Vilalta, Director General for Youth, Catalunya (ES)
The exchange of ideas and debate led the way to the adoption of a political declaration. The declaration will be useful to:
- highlight the fact that regions are aware and active of these issues
- declare that interregional cooperation is a tool to fast track innovation in the public sector
- recognise there is a need for a deep change in the way governments design their services and the way they collaborate with citizens, which has impacts in terms of time and money savings as well as engagement of citizens and legitimacy for governments
- list a series of recommendations on topics which AER members are or have been working on in the framework of the Committees