Opinion & Analysis

Prospects for e-democracy in Europe

Executive summary

‘There exist more opportunities than ever before for citizens wishing to have their say, via the media or directly to local and national governments, but there is a more pervasive sense of disappointment than ever before that citizens are outside the citadels of power, and that those within do not know how to listen to them.’ (Coleman and Moss 2012: 4)

According to the UN’s e-participation index (UN, 2016) e-participation is expanding all over the world. The index measures e-participation according to a three-level model of participation including: 1) einformation (the provision of information on the internet), 2) e-consultation (organising public consultations online), and 3) e-decision making (involving citizens directly in decision processes) (UN, 2016: 54). In the present report, the term ‘e-participation’ is reserved for all forms of political participation making use of digital media, including both formally institutionalised mechanisms and informal civic engagement.

The drivers behind e-participation are digitalisation, the development of digital tools that can be used for citizen involvement – social media, deliberative software, e-voting systems, etc. – and growing access to the internet. In European countries, especially those that rank prominently among the top 50 performers, citizens have more and more opportunities to have their say in government and politics. According to the UN, the largest share of e-participation initiatives relates to central and local governments giving access to public sector information and public consultation via digital tools. Recently there has been a growing focus on citizen involvement in policy making, although progress in this field has been modest so far.

A democratic deficit

However, it is not only digitalisation that has been advancing e-participation. Nowadays many European citizens are invited, especially by their local governments, to be more involved. Because of the economic recession and budget cuts, civil service reform and de-centralisation of public tasks, citizens are now expected to be more self-sufficient (i.e. taking over activities that were formerly public services). At the same time, citizens themselves actually want to be more involved. The UN report (2016: 3) states that ‘advances in e-participation today are driven more by civic activism of people seeking to have more control over their lives’. This is confirmed by surveys such as the European Value Studies (2008) where the majority of European citizens indicate they want to be more involved in political decision making.

From other surveys it is clear that many European citizens do not feel as if their voice counts or their concerns are taken into consideration. For example, in the European Social Survey (2014), the majority of respondents gave a negative reaction to the question ‘How much would you say the political system in your country allows people like you to have a say in what the government does?’. The same holds true for the question: ‘And how much would you say that the political system in your country allows people like you to have an influence on politics?’. When it comes to the EU, the Eurobarometer reveals that exactly half of EU citizens disagree with the statement that their voice counts in the EU. Furthermore, in almost all European countries an increased number of respondents disagreed with the statement that the European Parliament takes the concerns of European citizens into consideration. In general, a majority of 54 % disagreed with the statement.

In recent decades, improvements have been made to citizens’ involvement in the EU political process, such as direct parliamentary European elections, the increased competences and legislative powers of the European Parliament and the creation of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). However, in scholarly debates the EU is still regarded as suffering from what was coined a ‘democratic deficit’ by Grimm (1995). EU policy making as practiced by the European institutions still seems, at least in some respects, to be not completely open to European citizens. The multilevel system of EU policy making makes it sometimes difficult for European citizens to trace back responsibilities and to hold the EU institutions accountable for the outcomes of their policies (Habermas 2015; Michailidou and Trenz 2013).

The central objective of this study is to determine whether ICT tools could help to increase the EU’s democratic quality and its legitimacy among citizens, as well as its entire political system.

Read the full report here