EU legislation in the area of consumer protection is hardly comprehensible for many consumers and raises a multitude of questions. The VoicE project has been initiated in order to shed light on this area of EU legislation and to give people a possibility to directly communicate with their elected representatives on EU level.
On the VoicE platform (www.give-your-voice.eu), citizens have a unique chance to discuss current legislative proposals linked to consumer protection with their representatives in Brussels on a state-of-the-art eParticipation platform.
The main topics of discussion on the platform are:
Â· Toy safety
Through a graphic visualisation tool, users get a concise overview of the decisionmaking process. They can see which stage a specific legislative proposal has reached and when voting will take place in the European Parliament. In the VoicE-forum, they can then tell politicians their opinion on specific aspects of the legislation and voice their concerns before the elected representatives decide on it. Political decisions, often perceived as abstract and remote by citizens, thus become more legitimate. One key concept of the project is the adopted regional approach. Since one platform is implemented in Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg (Germany, www.bw-voice.eu) and one in Valencia (Spain, www.voice.gva.es), citizens can directly contact the Members of the European Parliament from their region, rather than getting in touch with any Member of the European Parliament they don't know. This further increases legitimacy and acceptance of the platform as well as of European politics. In order to allow citizens to submit constructive posts, the platform offers them easy-to understand background information on the abovementioned topics. This includes a description of the legal status quo in the four areas covered on the VoicE platform, an outline of the legislative proposal and the changes going along with it as well as the opinions of experts and stakeholders on the different issues. In addition, general information on the European institutions and decision making process is provided.The discussions going on in the VoicE forum are regularly summarised by the VoicE editorial team in short dossiers that are sent to the respective Members of the European Parliament. Politicians have an opportunity to react immediately to citizens' proposals, answer queries and position themselves in the area of consumer protection. VoicE allows them to listen to their voters' concerns and consider citizens' opinions in their political decisions. In 2008, the project was shortlisted for the European Regional Champions Awards in the category "Communication Champion", being among the last three of more than 250 submitted proposals. Involving a consortium of 9 partners from three countries (Greece, Spain, Germany), VoicE is a unique example of cross-regional project work.
The VoicE Project is co-funded by 75% from the European Commission (DG INFSO&MEDIA) in the framework of the eParticipation Preparatory Action (http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/egovernment/implemen…). The policy field it operates in is consumer protection, focusing on the following topics: toy safety, nutrition, energy and telecommunications. The project aims at giving people the opportunity to voice their opinions on specific legislative proposals that are on the agenda of the European institutions (esp. the European Parliament) throughout the project runtime. These are for example the Novel Food Directive which was decided in first reading in the European Parliament on March 25, 2009 or the Third Energy Package which was passed on April 22, 2009.
Description of target users and groups
The VoicE project addresses two target groups. Firstly, it aims at getting involved citizens who have an interest in consumer protection and modern (online) communication tools from two European regions, Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg (Germany, 10 Mio inhabitants) and Valencia (Spain, 5.2 Mio inhabitants). In order to meet users' needs, the project team conducted a user evaluation before the actual platform creation process started, determining users' knowledge of EU affairs and their degree of digital literacy.
The platform offers easy-to-understand background information on EU legislation in the four topics that the project focuses on. Each topic is covered in a dossier text which includes a description of the legal status quo, an outline of the legislative proposal being debated at the very moment and the changes to be expected should the law be passed. For users who want to go more into detail, links to relevant websites are provided where they can for example read the original legal texts. Additionally, the opinions of experts and stakeholders on the different issues are provided. This allows citizens to make constructive and well-funded statements. In case people want to learn more about the functioning of the European Union, the platform offers information on the European institutions and the decisionmaking process.
In order to allow for different ways of participation, the platform offers a poll function ("Question of the Month"). People can vote on questions about consumer protection by simply clicking "Yes", "No" or "I don't know". The questions are posed by MEPs from the regions who appear with a picture next to the question. This tool gives citizens the chance to make a more plain statement without writing a post in the forum.
In order to make the project as attractive to citizens as possible and to stress its regional character, the Spanish website is available in Spanish and in Valenciano, the language spoken in the Valencia region. When entering the website, people can choose which language they want to use by clicking the respective flag.
Secondly, the project addresses Members of the European Parliament from both target regions (Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg: 13, Valencia region: 5). For them, the platform is a means to learn about citizens' concerns in the area of consumer protection. It also allows them to get an idea of peoples' expectations of EU policy in general because people can also put issues for discussion themselves in an open forum.
One key factor that has to be considered in this context is the scarcity of time of MEPs: one cannot expect them to read the various citizen posts in the different forums. Therefore, the forum entries are regularly summarised by the VoicE editorial team and short dossiers sent to the MEPs in Brussels. Also the "Question of the Month" tool is a valuable source of information for MEPs. VoicE offers them a concise and unbiased picture of citizens' opinions from their constituencies, thus bridging the gap between European regions and Brussels.
The VoicE website is a web-based communication tool. In order to overcome possible difficulties that MEPs might have with such tools, a handbook was written and distributed among the MEPs, in which the functionalities of the site and their use are explained step by step. In addition, the editorial team is always at the MEPs' disposal and helps for example when posts of MEPs are to be submitted to the forum.
Description of the way to implement the initiative
The project team comprises partners from three European countries (Germany, Spain, Greece) bringing together experts from various backgrounds, including EU policy analysts, web 2.0 experts, platform developers, public administration and academic researchers. The overall project management as well as the regional project management for Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg lies with MFG Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg, the Public Innovation Agency for ICT and Media. The regional activities in the Valencia region are coordinated by Comunitat Valenciana, the regional public administration, Directorate General for Modernisation.
There are regular project meetings comprising the whole consortium as well as regional partner meetings in Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg and Valencia. Every Thursday, the project Steering Committee, consisting of four core partners, holds a skype conference, takes outstanding decisions and evaluates the general progress of the project. The minutes of these meetings are then sent to all project partners. Regular communication between all partners happens via phone, skype and email. For easier communication, two mailing lists have been set up, one addressing the whole consortium, one addressing the Steering Committee (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com).
In order to make the everyday project work more efficient, a project wiki has been established (http://www.give-your-voice.eu/wiki/index.php/Main_Page). This tool allows each partner a permanent access to relevant information, ranging from contact details of all partners to project logo and deliverables that have been submitted to the European Commission. The wiki also displays statistical data on the project (visits, page impressions, forum entries etc.). In a first review that the European Commission carried out in January 2009, the use of ICT for the project management was acknowledged as success factor for the good collaboration of the project team.
The project goals and milestones are defined in the Grant Agreement that serves as guideline for all partners. In addition, a project- and a partner management plan have been written by the project coordinator where the management approach has been defined. These plans as well as a progress report which is issued every six months have been submitted to the European Commission for review.. All such documents are made available to the consortium in the VoicE project wiki.
Another key success factor of the project is the regular communication between the project coordinator and the European Commission (EC). The EC's project officer is kept updated on the progress of the project regularly by email, in personal meetings and through the biannual progress report.
The VoicE platform is based on the already running eParticipation platform Gov2DemOSS, developed by the Greek non-profit organisation Gov2u - and to apply it in a new political environment, namely the EU legislative process. The tool is extremely user-friendly and cost-effective (open source), enabling easily accessible citizen participation. A range of web 2.0 features provides citizens with different opportunities for direct interaction, with each other as well as with political stakeholders - e.g. through moderated online debates in forums/chats or "expert blogs" around specific predefined topics. The actual issue-specific discussions on the platform are structured in synchronization with the real legislative work being envisaged or already taking place in the field of consumer protection in the European Union. This enables decision-makers to ask for specific input, which can be used immediately. Summed up results of citizen consultation are transferred to decision-makers just before legislative decisions are to be made. Thus, a mechanism has been established that really delivers legislative input by citizens, contributing to the democratic legitimacy of decisions.
Gov2demOSS extends the open source content management system Joomla, customized under the GNU general public license scheme. Due to its generic nature and module structure, the Gov2DemOSS platform can be customized to suit the respective needs of each individual administrator. The portal's actual functionality is provided by various pieces of software, called components or modules. These components can be individually installed, activated and customized according to the project's requirements. The modules also allow to install individual regional settings, adapting to the needs of Valencia and Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg requirements. Several components and modules have been developed specifically for VoicE and other, third-party components, have been customized to fit the special needs of the project.
The portal operates in open source environments such as the Apache web server and MySQL (which is used as its database repository), and is written in PHP. This helps to lower the costs of the project. Furthermore, the portal itself is open source, which makes it possible to reuse it for other European projects or regions. This is especially important for the toolkit (see section 11) which is supposed to be created at the end of the project runtime and will help other regions in implementing similar eParticipation initiatives. The portal is template-based so the HTML layout can be totally customized.
Simple presentation elements can be altered by CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) with the restriction to follow certain naming conventions regarding the CSS classes used.
The template system ensures that any level of accessibility (A, AA, AAA) can be accomplished as defined by EU standards.
The platform uses a combination of one-way password encryption and â€˜cookies' that are saved on users' computers, in order to provide maximum security for the user. The â€˜cookie' merely contains a session ID. Thus, even in case someone stole the cookie, the only infomation he would get is a reference number. The platform also supports RSS Feeds in order to inform users about recent discussions in the forum and delivering news.
Main results, benefits and impacts
The VoicE platform aims at promoting the dialogue between citizens of the participating regions, "their" elected EU representatives and further political stakeholders from the area of consumer protetcion. A range of web 2.0 features provides citizens with different choices of direct interaction with political stakeholders - most importantly through moderated online debates in the VoicE forum or pollings around specific predefined topics.
The issue-specific discussions on the platform are structured in synchronisation with the real legislative work being envisaged or already taking place on European level in the field of consumer protection. This enables decision-makers to get specific input, which can be used immediately. In addition, summed up results of citizen consultation are delivered to decision-makers just before legislative decisions are to be made. Thus, a mechanism is established that really delivers legislative input by citizens, contributing to the democratic legitimacy of EU political decisions.
The platform also features a section that visualises the different stages of the legislative process in a graphical matrix - from the introduction of a new topic in the EC to the consultation process to the discussion and the passing in the Council and the Parliament. The graphic matrix indicates at which stage each selected focus issue currently is. It also includes interactive elements which allow the user to learn more about each phase, links to relevant policy documents and sketch out possible/actual points of discussion/interest.
VoicE also serves as information portal, regularly providing users with recent news from the field of consumer protection which can also be obtained via the platform's RSS feed. VoicE thus substantially enhances citizens' understanding of consumer protection issues and of EU political processes in general.
The overall user acceptance of the VoicE platform is good which is shown by the figures from the end-user questionnaire.
An average of 200 visits is recorded per day on the platforms (the German and the Spanish one). In addition to the comments posed by guest users, there are 300 registered users on both platforms. Summaries of citizens' comments have been sent to Brussels and reactions from MEPs been obtained (such as a reaction on the debate on the toy safety directive from Evelyne Gebhardt, MEP). Not only MEPs were attracted to the platform, also members of the national Parliaments showed their interest and have posted statements on the platform.
The "Question of the Month" tool is very attractive to users, on average it is answered by 150 users per month. This tool allows politicians to get a concise overview of citizens views on specific topics. The platform's attractiveness results from its regional and thematic focus: it addresses citizens and politicians from two specific European regions and deals with a topic of great concern to most citizens.
The project's potential has also been certified by the jury of the European Regional Champions Awards. VoicE was shortlisted in the Communication Champion category and ranged among the last three of more than 250 submitted proposals.
Return on investmentReturn on investment: Not applicable / Not available
Track record of sharing
The project is regularly presented on relevant conferences in the two target regions Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg and Valencia as well as on international events in Brussels or other European cities, thus disseminating it among stakeholders and in the scientific community. In addition, regular exchange with other eParticipation projects happens via the MOMENTUM network (http://www.ep-momentum.eu) which has been established in the framework of the eParticipation Preparatory Action, fostering exchange and cooperation between the various eParticipation projects.
A final conference is envisaged to be held at the end of 2009 in Brussels, showcasing the results of the VoicE project to representatives of other interested regions.
Most importantly, the knowledge that has been gained throughout the project runtime will be made available to other regions in order to support and encourage them in setting up similar eParticipation initiatives. This will happen with the project toolkit, being developed after the end of the project runtime and ensuring that the highest possible use is made of the project's results and experiences.
The envisaged toolkit is supposed to serve as a "user manual" for other European regions, including the different components of the VoicE platform. These are
Â· the software necessary to implement an online platform
Â· modules with management strategies on project planning and implementation
Â· practical advice on marketing and citizens involvement ("lessons learned").
Thus, the project lives also beyond its runtime and other regions can build on and re-use the knowledge and experiences gained in the two years.
1) Careful analysis of the target group(s) is essential
During the project development phase, the target groups need to be carefully analysed and their expectations considered in the set-up. This is especially relevant where a specific topic such as EU consumer protection is in the focus and a rather novel (i.e. online) approach is used. Requirements and needs of people can be sounded out with questionnaires or in personal meetings. Essential questions are: what prior knowledge do people have of the topic? How experienced are they with using online tools? Which tools do they know and where would they need detailed explanations? What do they expect from a platform for political participation? Adapted questionnaires were presented to both target groups, i.e. citizens and politicians and the results considered during the setup of the platform. In addition to the questionnaires, personal interviews were conducted. The interviews with MEPs were usually held in their offices in Brussels or in their constituencies, the meetings with citizens took place on festivals or fairs where members of the VoicE team were present with an information stand. In order to constantly enhance the quality of the platform and further adapt it to both target groups' needs, the user evaluation needs to continue throughout the project runtime through an online questionnaire that is available on the website.
2) Debates need to be limited
It is essential that the platform debates are limited in terms of time and content. The temporary limitation, which must be advertised on the platform, increases the incentive for users to get involved: "Tell your opinion NOW, as the decision in the European Parliament is to be taken in three weeks, after which it is too late for you to take any influence!". If people have the feeling that time is running out, they are more inclined to respond to a thread than if a debate is open for several months. In addition, the narrowing down of the debate to a specific legislative aspect (e.g. the allowance of GMOs on the European market) makes it easier for people to voice their opinions and tell their expectations.
3) People prefer clicking to writing
Even though consumer protection is a topic very relevant to most citizens, they are reluctant to write long posts in a forum. As it turned out, tools where people have to click "yes", "no", "Don't know" seem to be more attractive. For this reason, we have decided for a twofold approach on the platform: the forum where people can write posts and elaborate on a certain point, and the complementary "Question of the Month". The latter allows people to answer a question raised by a Member of the European Parliament by clicking one of three options ("Yes", "No", "I don't know"). As the questions are posed by MEPs, an additional link between citizens and MEPs is created. In addition, as it turned out, people are reluctant to write a post in a forum when they are the first ones to do so. It is thus a crucial task of the editorial team to encourage them, for example by writing a first post in the forum, thus providing a kind of a "starting shot", lowering the barriers for users and increasing participation.
ÂScope: Regional (sub-national)