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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Online citizen participation in parliamentary work

Thematic area: Information technologies
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: completed
Duration: 2015 till 2016

Subject and objective of the project

The term »online citizen participation« includes services offering citizens the possibility of exerting influence on political decisions via the Internet. For more than ten years already, the German Bundestag has been making use of the Internet to facilitate the participation of citizens in parliamentary work. Committees and commissions are testing different types of citizen participation ranging from interactive communication in social media and debates in online forums to consultations and involvement in the drafting of documents.

The study focused on the »Study Commission on the Internet and Digital Society« of the 17th German Bundestag (»Internet Enquête«). According to the resolution that led to its establishment, this Study Commission had the mission of involving the public in its work to a particular degree and offering Internet-based participation services for this purpose. Based on the approaches of the Internet Enquête, the experience made regarding participation services of the Committee on the Digital Agenda (since 2/2014) and of the Commission on the Storage of High-Level Radioactive Waste (5/2014 until 7/2016) have been discussed. The youth portal »mitmischen.de« (since 6/2004) as the parliament’s interactive online service for young people and the e-petitioning platform (since 9/2005) have also been included in the study. The objective of the study was to provide an analysis of novel approaches and their impacts on parliamentary work as well as to formulate options for action regarding the further development of online citizen participation at the German Bundestag.

Key results

In recent years, the German Bundestag has gathered various experiences regarding the implementation of online citizen participation services. Both the Internet Enquête with its novel, web-based approaches and formats of participation and the continuous further development of e-petitioning have received considerable public attention. Other participation services of the German Bundestag, however, achieve a lower level of popularity only. Online citizen participation has the potential to provide positive impetus or effects with regard to the understanding of parliamentary work, opinion formation and political engagement. It can support parliamentary work and opinion formation by integrating arguments, expert knowledge and positions from both the population and experts into political processes. However, it reaches its limits if – due to an unfavourable design – individuals or certain groups of the population are excluded from participation, manipulations lead to distorted results or the contributions made are not integrated into the parliamentary process.

Experience made with online citizen participation so far

The experience made by the Internet Enquête with online citizen participation are assessed positively both by its members and external observers. The Internet Enquête reported regularly about its work process via its weblog, Twitter account and online forum and also set up a participation platform following the principle of »liquid democracy«. Approximately 3,300 people registered for using the platform and almost 600 among them contributed texts and suggestions which have been integrated – partly without any modifications – into the recommendations of the Internet Enquête. The contributions and the participation process itself were characterised by a factual and constructive tone, specialist knowledge and a high level of cooperation.

The Committee on the Digital Agenda set up a forum as pilot project which has received only little public response so far. Even if the Committee has implemented most of its guidelines for online citizen participation, some of the people involved regret that no options for participation have been offered that go even further.

The Commission on the Storage of High-Level Radioactive Waste had to face the challenge of elaborating a respected basis for searching a repository site for highly radioactive waste in a societal context characterised by fierce conflicts about this issue. It had its own financial means to commission and implement participation formats. 42 people participated in the online forum with 304 discussion posts. However, the discussion was largely dominated by a few participants only. The technical platforms for the two online consultations were clearly arranged, but they were not very well promoted and attracted only few participants.

The youth portal »mitmischen.de« offers an online forum for discussion. With 12,000 people, the number of participants registered for the portal is very high, but decreasing usage figures of the online forum can be observed. However, the discussions are not reflected in parliamentary processes. The portal is the only service of the German Bundestag that has its own »fan page« in the social network Facebook. For its integration, provisions of data privacy have been strictly observed.

Moreover, e-petitioning is the only service for which the initiative lies with the citizens. The possibility of publishing and signing petitions represents a technical novelty, but particularly also as a procedural innovation. With more than 2 million registered participants, the e-petitioning platform is one of the most widely used online services of the German Bundestag. The discussion forum of the e-petitioning platform as well is frequently used. There are current challenges with regard to the adaptation for mobile devices as well as regarding the question of how to cope with extra-parliamentary petitioning portals which are enjoying an increasing attention among the population.

Options for action

From a strategic point of view, the German Bundestag has adopted an approach of carefully and successively developing its online participation services which includes both experiments (such as the working methods of the Internet Enquête) and the further development of established procedures (such as e-petitioning).

For further consolidation and development of online citizen participation at the German Bundestag, it should be clarified first what kind of participation is generally aimed at and will be used by the citizens. Otherwise, there is a risk that expectations will be disappointed and a loss of legitimacy is likely to follow. A particularly appropriate format for online citizen participation could be consultations, because they leave the decision-making power with the elected members of parliament, in accordance with the principles of representative democracy. In order to increase motivation to participate, formal arrangements (such as for e-petitions) or binding commitments can ensure that the results of participation activities will be taken into consideration. The participation of members of the German Bundestag in the procedures can also help to increase the motivation to participate. Early stages of opinion formation and decision making have proven to be a good point in time for participation procedures. Thanks to online citizen participation, specific target groups can be directly addressed and involved successfully. Moreover, online citizen participation could be used more intensely for facilitating initiatives from the population and integrating them into the parliamentary process.

The implementation of online citizen participation by means of standard tools such as online forums and weblogs always reaches its limits, if the objective is to achieve more than just a non-binding discussion. For using specialised participation platforms, adequate financial and human resources, but also decision-making powers have to be allocated to the corresponding bodies. Besides aspects regarding technology and design, a state–of-the-art implementation should also include protection against misuse and manipulation. Moreover, participation services should be as inclusive as possible and motivate the intended target group to participate.

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