How to Get Off the Vicious Circle of Citizens’ Low Participation

  • Velikanov, Cyril


Until now, most of the government-sponsored projects and initiatives aimed at involving citizens in participatory actions rapidly vanished, due to low citizens’ participation. On the other hand, FaceBook and other social networks are flooded with spontaneous and typically short-lived political discussions that follow no procedure and go nowhere. This buoyant activity proves that citizens are not politically as indifferent as they are too often depicted; so, we should study other hypotheses.

In our opinion, low participation is due, first of all, to a general disbelief of people in that their opinion matters for decision-makers, even when it is expressed openly and publicly.

Secondly, as most eParticipation platforms lack an appropriate procedural framework for supporting inter-participant deliberation (or do not provide for such a “horizontal” deliberation at all), citizens do not feel themselves involved in any communicative action (in the Habermasian sense), but rather, each of them faces the “almighty” administration as a single individual who knows little and can do yet less. This is the opposite of a jury trial, where the jurors, after having participated in the preceding pleadings, are left alone to decide on the case, with no intervention of a judge.

Hence, an eParticipation event or campaign may be successful only if (a) it is institutionally enforced, and (b) it facilitates horizontal deliberation among participants.

Our third point is that, when citizens are left free to raise any issue or to advance any proposal at any time, this, almost inevitably, results in a rather weak per issue participation – because people who may be potentially interested in a given issue, are not properly and timely informed when it is raised. Hence, (c) every participatory event should be carefully scheduled and largely advertised, to cover the whole community concerned. Fulfilling this requirement would also contribute to legitimation of the decisions taken.

Further on, eParticipation event should be organised in a way as to be (d) productive, that is, initial participants’ proposals/opinions should converge to a consensus, or to a short list of alternatives.

When turning then to requirements on the structure and the procedure of a deliberative eParticipation action, we arrive at stating further requirements, which are, above all,

(e) fairness, i.e. everybody should have the chance to be heard, depending only on how clear his/her ideas are expressed;

(f) maintaining minority voices, i.e. giving equal visibility to every idea/opinion, notwithstanding how large or small is its (initial) support;

(g) self-management, i.e. the “house-keeping” actions of moderation, appraisal and comparison of participants’ contributions should be done by the community of participants themselves, rather than by a hired staff; and

(h) economy of time and efforts, i.e. the deliberation procedures should be designed in a way as ‘i’ to provide participants with a “summarised” view of all the ideas/opinions/proposals advanced, and ‘ii’ not to overburden them with too complicated “house-keeping” actions in a too large number.

In our paper/presentation we intend to expand on the above guidelines, and to describe a procedural framework and an ICT-system to support and enforce it, in order to be able of organising and handling really large scale online participation events, comprising large scale online deliberation.