One of the most promising yet problematic issues for deepening democracy is the use of the so-called new information and communication technologies (ICT). On the one hand, computerbased networking can theoretically support not only a great deal of information but also the kind of active exchange and deliberations which should be part of any highly developed democratic decision-making process. On the other hand, lack of digital literacy, different degrees of access and many other circumstances can prove to be objective obstacles for many people.
To what extent and in what ways is ICT providing means for real participatory democracy (PD)? What are the strategies, if any, developed to bridge the ‘digital divide’? To learn about this is the general goal of the ePOLIS project which will be proposed to the EC in September by a consortium of institutions comprising Transform!
The project, coordinated by the Transnational Institute, will conduct research on the concrete experience of participatory budgeting in cities and towns all over Europe and on the use of ICT in each case. The research consortium is composed of academic institutions, NGOs and local authorities in Austria, Bulgaria, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Norway, Portugal, Spain and the UK on the one hand, and in Argentina and Brazil on the other. Transform! is the only multinational member of the consortium.
The composition of the consortium is in itself innovative as there are different kinds of institutions involved, ranging from universities and formal research institutes to activists’ networks and local governments. A challenging aspect of the project is the bringing together of all these different kinds of expertise and knowledge in an intelligent way that does more than simply collect the data. The work programme also expects to have cooperation at the local level from real participants in the processes being studied. A large amount of the work will be devoted to meetings and debates with citizens. Cross bench-marking of existing applications and packages is also part of the research work that will be done at the local level.
Based on this, ePOLIS will develop web-based systems and tools for e-participatory budgeting (e-PB). These e-PB applications will be tested in real-life European contexts, in order to identify their impacts on decision-making procedures, and assess their possibilities for replication beyond their original local context. Through its digital repository of e-PB applications, ePOLIS will host the tested applications in the project’s website, including detailed explanation of the results of the tests and observations regarding potential sustainability and replicability.
The innovative approach of the project, linking e-participation with the budgetary processes of local authorities, may increase the practical relevance, public interest and thus the legitimacy of e-participation. A European symposium will be held at which the preliminary research findings will be presented, and a final seminar will address the academic community, CSOs, local authorities, Commission DGs, national legislators and MEPs interested in the issues covered by ePOLIS. The cooperative research and dissemination measures of ePOLIS aim at more informed debates in Europe on the relevance, current and potential, of e-participation and participatory budgeting in Europe. ePOLIS is exploring the terrain for increased evidence-based legitimacy of e-participation.
ePOLIS is a first step in developing a general approach for Transform!’s work on participatory democracy. Although it focuses on the intersection of two ‘hot spots’, i.e. democracy and participatory democracy, this is not by any means the only issue of interest. At least two more aspects will, hopefully, demand our attention in the immediate future. First, we will try to provide greater communication and exchange between cities and towns already engaged in PD experiments in countries with Transform! members. Our aim is to develop a common understanding of which kind of PD practices really make sense in a transformative way as opposed to those which merely represent techniques to legitimise of what already exists – including cuts in public spending. Our frame of reference will be already existing criteria such as those adopted by the Local Authorities Forum work group subsequent to the Nairobi WSF. Thus we expect to contribute to a common European left policy at the local government level.
The second area of work will involve exploration of the theoretical aspects of state transformation and democracy. A major issue for the left in overcoming capitalism is the working out of a non-statist strategy for social transformation taking into account the complexities of a highly interdependent world. PD can shed light on micro-level questions such as division of labour, building collective knowledge, delegation and representation ... In a world in which privatisation is presented as the only alternative to bureaucratic paralysis, PD also has something to say about giving citizens power over the public sector. Another pressing problem is how to transcend the local level, since most PD experiences have been purely local until now.
This is thus a field of great interest intimately bound up with contemporary challenges for the left, not least of all because modern flexible, networked capital is well aware of the social creativity that is present in participation and all too eager to use it as a fresh input to the never-ending accumulation process. The challenge is to channel this use of social power and knowledge in an emancipatory direction.