Awards - Osale: the Estonian eParticipation tool (Osale)

Published on: 08/06/2009
Document

Implementation of electronic engagement channels such as participation portal www.osale.ee support open consultation and inclusive policy-making. The aim of government-initiated portal is to build bilateral communication  with constituences, making the operation of the government more transparent to citizens. It was recognized that besides lack of motivation to have a say in „official matters", people did not know how to put forward a proposal or where it should be presented. Rather than a one-way, broadcasting model of information flow about the operation of government, the portal was designed to enhance interaction between citizen and government as well as support citizen-to-citizen communication and deliberation.

The Osale integrated electronic environment has three functions. Firstly, deliberation: citizens and interest groups can launch initiatives for new legislative proposals, present ideas and critique to government and submit petitions. Any such proposal undergoes voting and commenting by other users. Then the proposal is forwarded to the relevant government department, which then posts an official response explaining what action was or was not taken and why.

Secondly, participation: citizens can participate in public consultations/hearings. Citizens and CSOs can publicly give their opinion about draft legislation prepared by government agencies. All government agencies have been advised how to publish their draft policy papers, development plans, laws or provisions on the consultation website. Submission is however voluntary and is not regulated by administrative procedures.

Thirdly, information: government agencies publish information about forthcoming policy decisions and relevant public consultations. There is also a search function for legal acts according to their stage of preparation (i.e. since policy proposal to adoption in the parliament).

Policy Context

As stated by ICA Country Report 2007, Estonia: one of the aims of the Estonian Information Society Strategy 2013 is to increase a general living standard for citizens, including building more citizen-centred information society. The strategy aims to raise the knowledge and interest of citizens to use all benefits of the Information Society by widening access to digital information and offering different opportunities to participate in decision-making processes.

In Estonia, the responsibilities for democracy and e-democracy development are decentralised. During recent years, Estonian state institutions have provided and used various tools for citizen hearings and engagement. These are supported by the general development of e-services and adoption of new media channels for government communication.

Engaging interest groups in drafting legislation and preparing policy documents is not mandatory under Estonian law. However, elements of participatory democracy and engaging of interest groups can be found in the Constitution, rules of the Government of the Republic, and legislative drafting rules of the Government and the Parliament. A significant influence in favour of engaging interest groups has come from the general regulation of European Commission structural funds which requires engagement of social partners in preparing a national development plan.

Consultations with CSOs are stipulated in a governmental decree adopted in 1999 which provides that the explanatory letters of draft laws should also include the opinions of NGOs and interest groups. In 2005, a “Code of Good Practice on Involvement” was developed, elaborating the key principles that support active and meaningful participation of CSOs and wider public. The Code is in the form of recommendations and aims to be applied by government in the preparation of policy documents that are important to the country’s development.

Description of target users and groups

The target groups are all stakeholders in the civil society, e.g. civil servants and politicians, citizens, CSOs, business associations, social partners. Feedback by users indicates that the consultation site presents opportunities for dialogue between state and stakeholders, in the form of policy deliberation and public consultation.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

State Chancellery co-ordinates engagement policies and practices in government agencies and also runs the central participation portal. Public consultation in  the participation portal is planned when setting up policy-making process, which is guided by the Code of Good Practice for Involvement.

The administrator grants access rights to the portal and advises the owners of public consultations to build up online-consultations, adding comments and feedback and discussing policy proposals by citizens. The administrating and moderating functions are described for users as FAQ.

State Chancellery administrator also acts as moderator in discussions of policy proposals, initiated by citizens.  After deliberation (including voting or collecting signatures) on any given proposal/petition,  the moderator forwards the proposal or petition to an institution responsible for the policy area.

Technology solution

The website is an update of the portal for citizens initiatives and petitions (Today I Decide) that has been functioning since 2001. The portal for citizens’ initiatives is available internationally as an open source code product at www.tidplus.net

Technology choice: Open source software

Main results, benefits and impacts

During first 2 years of use, over 70 public consultations have been carried out, initiated by all line ministries ( the structure of government includes 11), the National Audit Office and the State Chancellery. Interest in the consultations is quite significant. The website has 5 000 visits per consultation on average. It has over 2 500 registered users. Among them are individual citizens, but also representatives of organizations, e.g. business organizations, CSOs or associations who issue a statement on behalf of their members.

Feedback by users and stakeholders indicates that the consultation site presents opportunities for dialogue between policy-makers and civil sector. Main impact rises from enhancing transparency of government decision-making and involving citizens as stakeholders, besides already established groups such as CSO umbrella organisatsions, employers' associations and trade unions.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Track record of sharing

The experience gained from launching and developing the central participation tool was used to create an international product TID+ , on open-source software that can be used by any institution. A specific development project was carried out in partnership with e-Governance Academy (based in Estonia) and European University Institute (based in Florence, Italy). The project was co-financed by the European Union under the eParticipation preparatory action. As a result of the project, a working prototype of the software for participation portal can be accessed via http://tidplus.net The project web site (containing project resources and news items, and supporting the dissemination efforts) is http://tidplus.net

Lessons learnt

Lesson 1 - e-Participation channels will support open and inclusive policy-making if there is sufficient awareness of participation principles among civil servants and their partners in CSOs. The key element in any form of participation is the willingness to hold a government-citizen dialogue.

Lesson 2 - When an e-Participation channel has been established, there should be will and resources for constant promotion, provision of user help-desk and dynamic development of technological features. The technical side should be “foolproof”, easily understandable, navigable and convenient for users.  The aim is to engage even citizens with little ICT skills – it should be easy to join the online community.

Lesson 3 - Portal aims and usage rules should be clearly defined and explicitly described for all stakeholders and users. Operation/ administrating and moderating the consultation website should not be too formal or technologically complicated to hinder the two-way discussion.

Lesson 4 - Co-operation and co-ordination with institutional users, i.e. government agencies ministries is vital. Regardless if the portal use is voluntary or mandatory, there should be a help-desk offering technological support, hands-on user training and easily accessible advice.

Lesson 5 - Continuous promotion should be planned for general participation principles and specific campaigns for ongoing consultations in e-Participation channels. Links should be established to outside sources, such as online media and social networks.

Scope: National