A recent survey on eParticipation in The Netherlands carried out by Utrecht University on behalf of Burgerlink (Citizenlink) shows that Dutch municipalities are increasingly offering opportunities for citizen participation. However, an integrated and approach and a clear division of responsibilities is lacking, as is a common definition. There is an urgent need for examples to be followed, exchange of experiences and support for implementation.
Most of the time the Communications Department is in charge of citizen participation. The City Council surprisingly is seldom involved, the more so since this focus was a major objective of the so called “dualistic” reform of local government introduced in 2002. Small municipalities do give participation lower priority, saying they are occupied with eGovernment projects.
One of the deliverables of the survey is a map which lists the current projects. This overview is also the starting point for the annual eParticipation Award which this year will be organized for the second time by Citizenlink.
The present state of affairs in eParticipation can be characterized as “Let many flowers blossom”. Looking at the maturity cycle that is common in innovation, in due time a number of feasible projects will survive. The Citizenlink approach in The Netherlands consists of modeling and standardizing promising instruments in the field of information, services, politics and cohesion. These address the possibilities of increasing transparency, reducing complexity of decision-making and supporting involvement.
Apart form the right of petition current in most representative systems, according to Dutch law, citizens are entitled to start a citizens’ initiative. If enough people support the issue, it can be tabled with a representative body like a city council or the parliament, which has to discuss it. This is similar to the right of petition. The internet can be quite a help to gather the required number of signatures, so a website to this end has been started. A number of Dutch municipalities have created their own portal on this website.
One of the Dutch successes in using the internet during election time has been the Voting Assistant. This provides a comparison between the programmes of political parties on the basis of 30 main issues. It helps voters to make their choice. At the recent national elections about 5 million voters used the assistant (almost half of those eligible to vote).
Since it is more helpful to make your electoral choice on actual behaviour than on future promises, another instrument is being developed: a Voting Tracker which assembles the voting record of parties and politicians and thus makes transparent what their positions have been on certain issues.
Copying the example of rating websites who gather information about commercial services (like restaurants) and thereby create (or destroy) reputation, a national website has been started on which citizens can evaluate public services. They can design their own rating system or they can use a simplified model of the National Citizen Satisfaction Survey based on the criteria of the e-Citizen Charter.
Government is generally able to collect information about popular opinions and preferences as they are published or distributed in the analogue world. In order to be able to do the same in the digital world, and instrument is designed that helps civil servants to find the relevant information about issues in the “second society”.
This project aims to introduce a new, more structured way of blogging. A number of experts are invited to forward opinions on improving government and are encouraged to comment on each others ideas. Citizenlink moderates this discussion and after one or more rounds summarizes the debate and puts forward conclusions. A concrete proposal is presented to the responsible politician (i.e. the Deputy Minister of the Interior), who has promised to react. When successful, this format will become available on other levels of government.