Technological advancements have resulted in the emergence of new innovative forms of democratic participation. These include digital platforms, through which citizens can be directly consulted on policymaking, and raise issues that might otherwise be ignored. “Higher levels of participation can increase trust in government, accountability and the legitimacy of government decisions,” notes TROPICO (Transforming into Open, Innovative and Collaborative Governments) project coordinator Lise Hellebø Rykkja, professor of administration and organisation theory at the University of Bergen in Norway. This is still an emerging form of governance though, and uncertainty remains over how digital platforms can best be organised and administered. One of the challenges – for academics and policymakers alike – is that little research has been carried out on this topic, especially from a social science perspective. “Most work on this to date has been done by researchers with an ICT or communication background, and without taking the institutional or politico-administrative context into account,” explains Rykkja. “Our expertise is in studying public sector administration, management and the interaction between governments and other actors in the public sphere.”
Platforms for change
The TROPICO project has sought to fill this knowledge gap by investigating how public administrations in different European countries can be transformed into open, innovative and collaborative governments through the use of ICT. “The ICT component was a new element for many of us,” says Rykkja. The project team began by examining collaborations inside government to improve policy design, as well collaborations between the government and private sector partners and how governments interact and involve citizens in their policymaking. “In this project we combined conceptual analyses, literature reviews, examinations of legislative codes and strategy documents,” notes Rykkja. “We also conducted in-depth case studies and interviews in 10 European countries and carried out expert surveys to investigate how innovative policies are designed.” With the project due to end in 2021, this work has led Rykkja and her colleagues to some preliminary conclusions. For example, while digital platforms clearly benefit from institutional and financial support, adequate public sector funding remains a barrier. Administrations also need to clearly explain the purpose of any platform to citizens. “Collaboration with citizens does not always lead to better participation or more involvement,” adds Rykkja. “Many e-participation platforms lack systems for providing systematic feedback to users, which means that citizens often do not know how their input is being dealt with. There should be incentives for ensuring that citizen feedback resonates within governments.” To fully benefit from e-participation initiatives therefore, administrations need to systematically target higher levels of participation, and work to ensure that citizen recommendations are incorporated into decisions. Governments also need to build organisational capacity to adequately answer questions, facilitate online discussions and provide professional feedback.
Future of citizen participation
With nearly a year left to go at the time of writing, the TROPICO project will build on these critical insights and deliver recommendations on the drivers and barriers, as well as the possibilities and pitfalls of collaboration through digital platforms. “This project will hopefully make governments and institutions more aware that encouraging citizen participation via digital tools is crucial for democracy and democratic participation,” comments Rykkja. “It is also critical for public service delivery, policy design and bureaucratic efficiency. Embracing ICT contributes to better working practices inside governments, and enhances interactions between governments, citizens and stakeholders outside the public sector.”
TROPICO, government, digital, platform, citizens, legitimacy, e-participation, ICT