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Towards We-Government: Collective and participative approaches for addressing local policy challenges

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - WeGovNow (Towards We-Government: Collective and participative approaches for addressing local policy challenges)

Période du rapport: 2017-02-01 au 2019-01-31

For some years, developments in the online world have nourished hopes that public services can be considerably improved with help of innovative digital technologies. At the same time, views that power has shifted to the ‘customer’ have gained ground not only in the private sector but in the public sector as well. It is hoped that innovative online tools provide potentials for enabling citizens to play a more active role in the design and delivery of public services. Evidence available from international benchmarking studies suggests that achieving innovation in the public sector along these lines, however, is anything else but a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some online tools supporting civic engagement have emerged over recent years, e.g. citizens survey tools or petition systems. These do, however, not fully exploit the potential of participative social innovation to find novel solutions for existing problems and to engage in collective action and peer-to-peer networking for addressing issues which are not tackled satisfactorily by local authorities. Also, they tend to suffer from a poor link between open discussion and collective action, as they lack capability to achieve opinion formation – which means that their usefulness is limited to issues about which there is little if any controversy. However, a successful transformation from current ‘e-Government’ viewing the citizen as a customer to ‘we-Government’ where the citizen is viewed as a partner holds potentials for society placing greater trust in – and empowering – the public to play a far more active role in the functioning of their government. Against this background, WeGovNow tapped into innovative technologies for effectively supporting co-production by civic society stakeholders and collective proposition development.
Based on a commonly agreed conceptual framework, an integrated engagement platform was developed. To this end, a number of existing civic participation applications were extended and integrated with newly developed components. Unlike currently available online civic participation tools such as citizen surveys or petition systems, WeGovNow represents an integrated “tool box”, which enables users to co-create or tailor their responses to address local policy challenges that affect them. To this end, WeGovNow can be jointly utilised by public administrations, individual citizens, civil society organisations and local business.

During the final project year, the pilot platform was operated under day-to-day conditions in the London Borough of Southwark, the City of Turin and the rural municipality of San Donà dí Piave, in Italy. All in all, 9.976 pilot user accounts were registered to platform across the three pilot municipalities. In terms of age the pilot users spread quite evenly across different age bands. The majority (80%) was aged between 20 and 59 years. Roughly one in ten pilot users was aged between 60 and 69 years. The youngest (16-19 years) and the oldest (70+ years) age bands were represented with 4% and 5% respectively. Slightly more than one half (56%) of the pilot users were female users. All together, 22.324 single usage activities were observed across the different functional components integrated within the overall platform. Of these, 26% concerned the posting of original contributions by registered pilot users and 16% concerned the subsequent updating or deletion of own posts. The remaining share (58%) concerned responses to contributions made by others.

The architectural approach adopted for the purposes of WeGovNow and its operational implementation in terms of an integrated web service proved scalable to larger numbers of users. With almost 10.000 users having registered to WeGovNow across the three pilot municipalities, no major malfunctions or breakdowns occurred. Despite extensive usage of the individual platform components throughout the pilot duration, user feedback points into the direction that there is room for better guiding the user through the diverse functionalities available from the overall platform, e.g. by means of short video tutorials.

Various benefits were perceived to flow from the platform’s functional utility to the different stakeholder groups involved in the local pilots. They concern, on the one hand, commonly accepted democratic values such as enhanced democratic legitimacy of administrative decision making. On the other hand, utilitarian aspects such as better informed decision making came to the fore as well.
All software components developed / extended within the project are available as open source solutions for downloading. Further to this, augmenting information is provided to support those interested in implementing and / or further developing WeGovNow open source software components. A number of publications have become available throughout the project duration.
The local validation trials were directed towards exploiting the capabilities provided by the pilot platform for addressing local policy challenges that had emerged independent of the WeGovNow project. To this end, a number of stakeholder participation processes were designed, based in different ways on the various online functions of the WeGovNow platform. The interest of the pilot users in utilising WeGovNow varied a lot across the individual policy scenarios piloted in the three municipalities. There is no reason to assume that citizen would suddenly become passionate about the intricate policy decisions or administrative processes that impact their lives, just because a powerful online platform becomes available to them. Beyond the functional utility of the pilot platform, motivational aspects deserve attention if continued utilisation by the citizens is ultimately to be achieved. They concern in particular the citizen’s perception as to whether they have the possibility to indeed exert influences on policy development or implementation by utilising WeGovNow. Also, the peoples’ perception as to whether they are directly affected by or concerned about policy challenges or issues under discussion on WeGovNow seems to play an important role.

When adopting the perspective of the public administration, a number of aspects deserve attention as well if sustainable platform operation is to be achieved. For instance, WeGovNow requires embedding the technical infrastructure into a comprehensive “political” strategy towards civic participation, be it with a focus on case-by-case decision making or social capital building or both. Also, WeGovNow offers a number of short term benefits over its “off-line” variants when it comes to fostering collective action, including the fact that it is easier to exchange information and make group decisions at a larger scale. However, the local pilots suggest that WeGovNow is likely to enfold its full transformational impacts only in the longer run, by acting as a catalyst of change towards transforming public administration processes. We-Government should therefore be considered as a long-term investment rather than a means to achieve short-term rationalisation effects in public administrations.