17 October 2023
“In a well-functioning democracy, a well-informed public is essential in ensuring the accountability of governments. But when information is inaccessible, such work is difficult,” explains Jasmina Ploštajner from the Institute Danes je nov dan (Slovenian for “today is a new day”). In 2016, the Ljubljana-based institute launched Parlameter, a digital transparency tool for analysing and visualising parliamentary sessions. But what exactly does Parlameter do, and how does it contribute to increasing the transparency of political institutions?
Parlameter, a digital transparency tool to enhance democracy
In simple terms, Parlameter digests various forms of data and makes information that is often too complex or simply boring more accessible and engaging. It is fed with a steady stream of textual data such as transcripts of sessions, as well as other sources, such as voting records. Using textual data, the tool provides visualisations so users can scroll through transcripts, search for keywords, and create notifications when a particular word or phrase is spoken during a session.
Parlameter also provides statistics on voting and analyses voting behaviour. For example, users can easily compare the voting records of parliamentary groups and see which groups frequently vote together. When a certain vote represents a deviation from regular voting patterns, Parlameter notifies users of this deviation. All information available on Parlameter’s website takes the form of information cards, which users can easily embed in other web pages such as news sites.
The institute Danes je nov dan initially created the tool to enable citizens to follow the work of the Slovenian National Assembly. Following its success, the tool is now available in three other national assemblies: the Croatian Sabor, the Bosnian Parliament, and the Ukrainian Rada. In addition to following politics on the national level, the Institute recently adjusted the tool to the work of municipal councils. At present, it is available in four Slovenian municipalities.
No transparency without accessibility
The team behind Parlameter places great importance on increasing transparency. They believe that if political institutions provide citizens with clear information about what occurs behind the walls of legislative buildings, citizens’ interest in the work of political institutions will increase.
“We wanted to contribute to a culture of opening up parliamentary and municipal data in Slovenia and to increase oversight of decision-makers’ actions,” says Ploštajner. “In ensuring the legitimacy of elected representatives and achieving more effective public participation in democracy, free access to public data is of paramount importance.”
Here, digital transparency tools play a significant role. They provide various ways for political institutions to make their information available to the public. But even more importantly, they provide innovative ways of making this information accessible, understandable, and usable.
Transparency of political institutions isn’t achieved simply by opening access to their data. Rather, it has to be presented in an accessible and user-friendly way. This discrepancy between the availability and actual accessibility of public information is something the Parlameter team frequently came across in their work. In many cases, information that is meant to be public is stored in ways or formats that are difficult to use, such as scanned copies of minutes, which are hard to find and even harder to search through. “It was as if the information was stored in a drawer of a dusty closet somewhere in the building of the Parliament,” says Ploštajner.
The principles of accessible, understandable, and usable information were crucial in developing Parlameter. By creating an engaging and easy-to-use interface, the tool could promote transparency and encourage public engagement with the work of political institutions. As Ploštajner puts it, “it aims to increase the transparency of the work of democratic institutions, as well as to increase the general public’s interest in the democratic process.”
Digitalising local governance
Following the success of Parlameter at the national level, the team decided to expand its use to municipal councils. This brought a fresh set of challenges with it.
As the Report on Democracy Technologies in Europe showed, European municipalities need support from their national governments in implementing and improving e-democratic processes such as online participation, deliberation, and voting. These findings indicate that compared to national governments, local governments work with fewer resources, tools, and know-how needed to implement new digital solutions. The same also holds for their efforts to use advanced technology to ensure transparency.
This digital lag was also apparent in the case of Parlameter. Unlike the National Assembly, which occasionally receives media attention and public scrutiny regarding transparency, local authorities in Slovenia have largely been overlooked. Research on the transparency and openness of Slovenian municipalities revealed that, before the introduction of Parlameter, citizens had no access to information on the work of elected officials, such as transcripts of meetings or information on voting. “There wasn’t a single municipality in Slovenia where citizens could search through the documents of municipal councils,” says Ploštajner.
The team faced some challenges in developing the municipal version of Parlameter. In particular, the successful functioning of the tool required close cooperation with municipal councils. By contrast to the parliamentary level, where information is already publicly available on the official website, most Slovenian municipal councils don’t usually publish information on their work.
In addition, the process of extracting data couldn’t be automated, which demanded more interest from the municipal councils in increasing the transparency of their work. “We also needed the willingness of employees to either manually enter the data or to systematise minutes, transcripts of meetings, and voting results so that the Parlameter parsers could read them,” explains Ploštajner.
Digital transparency and participation in local politics
Ajdovšična is one of the four Slovenian municipalities where Parlameter is available. Mojca Planinc from the municipal council of Ajdovščina sees Parlameter as crucial to ensuring transparency on the part of the municipal council.
“The municipal staff, councillors, the local community and journalists are familiar with Parlameter. It is one of the ways we ensure transparency in our municipal council. For me, it is important that we ensure it in as many ways as possible so that the local community can access accurate information,” says Planinc.
In discussing specific challenges that institutions of local governance face in ensuring transparency, Planinc mentioned the complex functioning of these institutions.” To understand how municipal councils work, large amounts of complex data need to be comprehended,” explained Planinc. Digital transparency tools like Parlameter help bridge this gap.
However, ensuring the transparent work of political institutions does not automatically lead to a politically engaged and active community. Effective oversight of elected officials is a cornerstone of a well-functioning democracy. But, in a politically engaged community, it’s not all about keeping a watchful eye on our representatives.
A local activist from the municipality of Ajdovščina explained that while he frequently uses Parlameter to follow the council’s work and to fact-check local media, this alone does not make him an engaged citizen.
“Merely following the council’s work is not enough to shape local politics,” he told Democracy Technologies. “We must also be active in our local communities and engage in an open dialogue with both elected officials and other community members.” Parlameter’s example shows technology’s potential to enhance the transparency of political institutions. Still, it reminds us that transparency alone isn’t enough to spark political engagement – it is just the starting point.