"...even in a context where citizen participation becomes a policy principle, the desired format of and the actual opportunities for participation can be problematic."
This paper from Making All Voices Count studies the integration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the process of governance in the Netherlands, which has been described as a global leader in e-participation and e-government. It looks at the Ons Geld (Our Money) initiative to understand the visions and opportunities technology-mediated governance creates for citizen engagement. Specifically, the research brief first presents the top-down visions and opportunities for citizen engagement (part 1), comparing them to those emerging organically out of a case of grassroots digital activism (part 2).
As is detailed here, the Netherlands provides several avenues for citizen participation in formal policy-making. On the national level, these avenues consist of petitions, citizen initiatives, and referenda, all submitted to the House of Representatives. Local public administration has turned towards citizen participation to enhance - and devolve the costs of managing - local communities. Yet the Dutch case suggests four pitfalls: the appropriation of citizen participation as a means to legitimise cuts to public services; the development of a limited (and limiting) vision of participation; the difficulty of a systematic review of the landscape of participation opportunities; and the limited approach to the role of ICTs in policy-making. These pitfalls are discussed. For instance, the review suggests that the government has articulated ICTs primarily as a broadcasting channel for governmental information and public services. The ongoing debates on the formal mechanisms for citizen participation seem divorced from the debates on e-government. When included in these discussions, citizens are addressed primarily as customers or users of e-government services, with limited opportunities for participation in the process of governance. This example reflects a top-down vision.
An alternative vision is that of Ons Geld (Our Money), which, as indicated on the initiative's website (see also the video below), proposes to implement a public digital money system (in addition to physical money). Public digital money is not a claim on a bank but property (like physical coins and bills); it involves giving people independence from commercial banks. The empirical case study of Ons Geld shared in the brief revealed four lessons: technology is only one component of citizen participation; the current format of the formal mechanism for citizen participation is not conducive to a deliberative model of democracy; the cost of citizen participation requires more careful attention; and ICTs are yet to be fully integrated within the existing formal avenues for citizen input into policy-making. For example, it is noted here that successful use of ICTs for civic mobilisation purposes rests upon the skills and resources of the citizen organisers. This emphasises the necessity of investing in the development of technical literacy skills for civic purposes. "Striking a balance between enabling individuals to become civic organisers and ensuring a healthy civil society is particularly important in the effort to create political cultures fostering engagement and participation."
This research brief is part of the IT-for-Change-led Voice or Chatter? - a multi-country case study analysis about how ICT-mediated citizen engagement can be empowering for citizens and transformative for democratic governance outcomes. Voice or Chatter? was funded by Making All Voices Count.