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Citizen Participation Online
Democracy Reloaded

Participation: Democracy reloaded
Participation: Democracy reloaded | Photo (detail): © Adobe

The Internet makes it pretty easy to engage in politics by signing a petition. Many Germans are now voicing their ideals about policy online, and a number of cities have created platforms for citizen participation. Does this mean the days of the town hall meeting are numbered?

Von Matthias Trénel

“There can be no biodiversity without insects.” This is how Rainer S. expressed his support for an online petition addressed to the Prime Minister of Baden-Württemberg – a petition to demand a reduction in pesticide use to halt insect extinction. He added his signature via an online participation tool created by Campact – a non-governmental organization that brings citizens together to voice their opinions to political decision-makers. He could just have easily used Change.org, Avaaz , or Openpetition, or posted a question to his state representative via Parliament Watch. There is a growing number of online participation tools available today – and the number of citizens who use them is also on the rise. A 2011 study conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation found that almost 40 percent of Germans had either already engaged in or expressed interest in e-petitions.

Give us your two cents

In response to this trend, many cities are launching online participation portals all across Germany.
Bonn, for example, welcomes comments on the city's cycling policy on its “Bonn macht mit” (Bonn participates) platform. User Carmen highlights how dangers it is to have buses crossing the cycling path at Bertha-von-Suttner-Platz. In the 27 comments that follows, users debate whether the traffic light cycle could be changed, or if a dedicated bus lane would help. Carmen’s is just one of the 2,319 posts the people of Bonn submitted in the first few weeks after the platform went live.  
Berlin, Hamburg and Munich are also opening an increasingly numbers of projects to public debate on the web, as are many other smaller towns and cities such as Nuremberg, Mannheim, Bielefeld, Braunschweig, Emden, Unterschleißheim. It seems to be only a matter of time before democracy tools reach the level of state and national politics too, though currently Baden-Wuerttemberg’s Green and Christian Democratic government is the only German state to host a participation portal. It features every bill the ministries are currently working on with forums for citizens to discuss all the pros and cons.
At the moment, there is nothing quite as comprehensive at the federal level, though the German Bundestag is now offering one beacon of online citizen participation. Approximately two million citizens have already registered on the Portal für E-Peititonen to exercise their fundamental participation as guaranteed by Article 17 of German Basic Law: “Every person shall have the right individually or jointly with others to address written requests or complaints to competent authorities and to the legislature.” The special feature of the Bundestag's participation tool is that anyone who submits a petition can decide whether they want their concerns dealt with confidentially or publically posted on the portal for others to read, sign and discuss.
The proliferation of participation tools on both NGO and governmental websites is likely an indication of how many people want to get more involved in the public sphere. Many surveys have suggested that people today are less involved in political parties, trade unions and other organisations than in the past, and found that they prefer individual, short-term and “more convenient” forms of political engagement today. If this is the case, then these online tools are right in line with the times.

Are town hall meetings a thing of the past?

But what impact is this trend having on other, more traditional forms of civic participation? Has the town hall meeting had its day? All signs point to no. Apparently they work well together and are often combines, such as in the Bürgerbudget Wuppertal participatory citizen’s budgeting project. Groups present their ideas for projects online, anything from an urban gardening project or children’s playground to a car-free street or more park benches. Then the town holds “citizen’s workshop” in the town hall to discuss the projects, after which residents of Wuppertal can vote online for the projects they like the best.
Whether this kind of “click democracy” contributes to more and better citizen participation, or whether it is at most “particitainment”, that is entertaining, superficial and ultimately ineffective participation, is a legitimate and open question. In 2011, urban researcher Klaus Selle from the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen (Aachen University of Technology, RWTH) explored how online participation could lead to resignation. He found that citizens were quickly discouraged if the government did not keep its promises, giving them the sense that they could not ultimately exert any substantial influence on public policymaking. The danger of resignation is higher if online participation tools aren’t carefully planned with clear objectives and procedures.
So far though, this kind of pessimism seems premature. The number of participation tools is shooting up, and so is the number of cities working on developing guidelines for good civic participation, training their employees, and running quality checks on participation options, whether online or off.