12 September 2023

Democracy Technologies: What is the idea behind the “Zesumme Vereinfachen” platform?

Martine Kerschen: The Ministry for Digitalisation was founded in 2018 following the last elections. It has two main ambitions: to advance the digitalisation of the state, and to advance the administrative reform. This includes the simplification of administrative procedures. As a Service Designer, I develop the services from the perspective of the users. I ensure that the users are involved from day one, to ensure that the services correspond to the needs and wishes of the users. To develop a good service, you need input from the people who use it.

The “Zesumme Vereinfachen” platform has been online for two years now. It gives citizens, organisations and businesses a way to get involved in the reform process. They can find information about ongoing reform projects, and can also contribute by leaving comments, proposing changes they would like to see, or sometimes even voting on proposals.

The platform has 2,000 registered users, out of a population of 700,000. Registering is easy – we only ask for an email address, and there are no identity checks. We made it as straightforward as possible to avoid introducing unnecessary hurdles.

DT: How does it work?

Kerschen: The platform works in two directions: top down, and bottom up. The top down part allows administrations and ministries to use our platform to get feedback from citizens. They post information about official projects, and ask the broader population or businesses for their input.

But there is also a bottom up part of the platform, where citizens can raise any issue on selected
digital processes. Maybe there is something about the existing digital processes that isn’t very user-friendly, or where they think it should be done differently.

Luxembourg already has a very developed one stop shop for online government administration: myguichet.lu (“my counter”). It’s a state-run platform where you can take care of anything from filing your tax return to registering your car to requesting a postal vote. All of these things are taken care of digitally, Luxembourg is very advanced in this area.

If users have any kind of problem with the platform, or if they find something illogical or see room for improvement, they can leave a comment on the participation platform. Other users can then add their own comments. And users can check the platform at any time to see whether their suggestion has been accepted, taken into consideration, rejected, or is still under evaluation.

DT: How was the platform set up?

Kerschen: The platform website is constantly evolving, even now. It is powered by CitizenLab. We opted for them in part because they are in use all over Europe, especially in the French-speaking territories. We had a long and intensive exchange with Linz in Austria, and with Wallonia in French-speaking Belgium. We took them as best-practice examples.

Linz launched their participation platform with CitizenLab during a COVID lockdown. We talked to them a great deal before choosing the software. We did not opt for a fully open source provider, because with those, you need the human resources to continue developing them and to maintain them. Another advantage is that with CitizenLab, anyone who has ever used social media immediately knows how to navigate it. You don’t have to explain much, it’s pretty self-explanatory.

Paula Almeida: CitizenLab has the advantage that it has many functionalities built in. We were able to start using it without waiting for further developments, or without making our own changes. That was a big part of why we went with it.

DT: Was there resistance among civil servants to opening the process up to citizens?

Almeida: It’s clear that generally speaking, people’s mindset has changed over the last five years. That’s partly due to the COVID pandemic. People are more used to things being done online. But equally, the entire participative approach has become more widespread, and civil servants have changed their attitudes towards it. Of course, the first reaction is often to ask: Why do people have to keep questioning what we’re doing, and whether we are doing our jobs right?

But this is happening less and less. The whole mindset has undergone a big change, among civil servants but also among citizens. I think this happened because people got used to using digital tools, and no longer see it as a hurdle, but as a real plus for their work.

Kerschen: I think it is actually often among the users that this mindset is missing. They are not used to being asked, and to being able to give a really honest answer. It is different in Switzerland, where direct democracy is really in their DNA. We had one project which I think was too innovative, where only five or six people responded to each question! And we really wanted to hear from more people.

What is missing is the culture of participation. On the one hand, you need this culture in public institutions. They need to ask users for feedback. But equally, the users need to get used to the idea that they can really get involved and contribute in a constructive way. I should add that so far, we have had over 100 contributions on the current project, almost all of them of a really high quality. We just need more people to learn that they can get involved, and that their involvement is really important.

DT: Luxembourg has three administrative languages. How do you deal with this on the platform?

Kerschen: There are really four languages in use in Luxembourg. The platform was already available in French, German and English, and was also translated into Luxembourgish for us. But people also need to be able to interact with one another between the languages, which not everyone speaks, and this is why the translation tool is so important.

There are people who post in English, then others leave comments in French, Luxembourgish or German. This is pretty normal for Luxembourg, it’s a real melting pot of languages, it’s hard to explain to outsiders. The platform includes automatic “courtesy” translations of the various contributions in the four languages.

That means if you only understand Luxembourgish, which is only rarely the case, you can still engage with other users, which is a key part of the platform.

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