17 April 2023

Democracy Technologies: The Bertelsmann Stiftung published an extensive study last year, 2022, calling for an EU framework for citizen participation. What was the inspiration for this study?

Dominik Hierlemann: New forms of citizen participation have become a hot topic with interesting developments all over Europe. We have been involved in the field for quite some time now and so we wanted to better understand how existing instruments in the EU actually work.

As advocates for citizen assemblies, we believe there needs to be more participation, new participation, on a national level, but also on the European level. The EU likes to talk about a union of citizens. It likes to talk about bringing the EU closer to its people. But there is often little follow-up.

The Conference on the Future of Europe has changed this a bit. So together with the European Policy Centre we took a closer look at how citizens can actually take part in EU policy-making. Do citizens actually know about these opportunities? Do these instruments work? And what do politicians think about it? I guess that was the starting point.

DT: What were your key findings how easy is it for the average European citizen to participate at EU level?

Dominik Hierlemann: What we found is that there are lots of tools in place, perhaps even more than on the national level, but it is a patchwork of instruments and there is no clear participation infrastructure. We did a representative survey in Europe and found that citizens know little about these participation instruments or their rights in this regard. The only thing they know about is European elections. Even there, we know that voter turnout is not that high.

So a participation infrastructure would help citizens to know which instrument to use for what purpose. Currently, this is far from easy. Even those instruments that are in place, often cater for a rather small group of people – the Brussels suspects, we call them!  But an ordinary citizen doesn’t really know about that, so there’s a big awareness gap.

DT: Is this due to a lack of information and support at the national level and ineffective information at the European level?

Dominik Hierlemann: Well, it’s both. But very often what I see is that participation is not taken seriously enough. Very often communication is mistaken for participation, but communicating about the EU and what it is doing, is not enough.

So what I think is necessary is that citizens know how they can participate. The other side is of course that citizens who do participate with these instruments, realize that it has an effect. Our research shows that only 15% of European citizens find it easy to participate in EU politics and 32 % of EU citizens don’t believe it would make enough of a difference. Then of course the question: why should I participate at all?

DT: Your study identifies five steps, and one of them is changing the culture around EU citizen participation. But how, concretely, does one begin to do this?

Dominik Hierlemann: Well, it’s different things. To change a culture, of course, takes a century. It probably doesn’t change overnight and especially not on the European level. But first and foremost it is about involving citizens. So doing things hands-on and showing citizens that there are initiatives that work, there are participation formats out there. The second thing, and it’s also perhaps a political thing, is that there is still a lack of deliberation formats. And, there is no common understanding of what deliberation and good participation actually mean.

So if you ask 10 politicians, you will probably get 11 different opinions! And some politicians are very open to these new formats while others haven’t even heard about them. So that is clearly a problem. Linked to that is therefore the need for some capacity building. Politicians and civil servants alike need to think from the very first moment when policy initiatives are being launched: how should we integrate or involve citizens in the process? That should be the starting point – and that’s a cultural change.

DT: We interview many people working at city level where citizens’ initiatives and participation projects are gaining ground across Europe. Is this perhaps where change will come from, rather than the higher EU levels?

Dominik Hierlemann: I agree with you. Things are evolving, especially in cities. We see a lot of willingness, a lot of people that are very engaged – from all sides of the political spectrum. On the other hand, it is important that we give citizens a chance to be involved on every political level. That is the heart of democracy. We cannot create a political system or a democracy where we are saying from the outset, well, this is democracy, but it is difficult to involve citizens.

Brussels is further away from citizens which makes involvement more difficult. But at the same time, we see, especially on the European level, that decisions are being taken that have the biggest impact on people’s lives. So the political system is under pressure. It needs to come up with approaches that also work on the transnational level.

DT: So both sides – top and bottom need to come together in future. You mentioned a central online hub for EU citizen participation in the study, could you tell me more about that?

Dominik Hierlemann:  A central online hub is basically a tool. You could call it a one-stop shop, you know, one central entry point. The core of it is, if citizens want to participate, they need to know where to go. So that’s the place and it needs to be accessible to people with different backgrounds. And it needs to be evident when citizens go on that central hub, that if they participate, the results of their participation will not just be shelved. So there needs to be a follow-up process, and all this is simply not there at the moment.

DT: You speak about the importance of political will. This is a problem at EU level, a lack of accountability and a distance from ordinary EU citizens? What can we do about this?  

Dominik Hierlemann:  I’ve talked to many civil servants and politicians, and many do not know about citizens’ assemblies and digital participation tools. Many of them are sceptical because they think citizens will come up with outrageous ideas. But when you bring citizens and politicians together, the citizens begin to realise that it’s actually quite a hard job to be a politician or a civil servant and politicians realise that citizens can come up with really good, sensible ideas. So it’s about creating new spaces – both physical and digital in which to have these conversations.

I would say that in the past decade, digital participation formats haven’t really kept pace with technological advancements. I think we’re still in a kind of Wikipedia-style of digital participation mode. And when I look at various cities, there are lots of tools but very often they’re still very basic and they do not involve large numbers of people. So the challenge that we have, and something we are also working on as a foundation, is trying to combine high-quality deliberation with mass participation.

DT: So what would an ideal participation framework look like could you provide our readers with a concrete example?

Dominik Hierlemann: That’s a difficult one. But first, as I already mentioned, we would need a central hub and that needs to be visible. And I know the Commission is working on it. But in addition to that we need to ensure that Europeans actually know that they can participate.

A topic like migration would be a really good one for an EU debate because it is such a contentious issue and it is concrete. A citizens’ assembly would work well for a topic such as this but it takes time and money. So far, our experience with citizen panels at European level found them to be too short.

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