Citizen's forum European debates http://www.evropske-razprave.si/ is providing a national on-line deliberation space for facilitated public debates and consultations on relevant European issues in Slovenia. The main goal of on-line forum is to establish a permanent on-line dialogue between Slovene public (citizens, NGOs, civil society) and European decision-making institutions (primarily Slovene members of the European parliament) on current EU policies and topics. Citizen's forum e-participation process is based on principles of deliberative and participatory democracy. On-line discussions can be initiated by citizens or NGOs and consultations are initiated by Members of the European Parliament. Consultations include video messages and invitation from MEPs, information about the policy context, phase of political decision-making, time frame, relevant documents and starting questions. Inputs posted in the forum or submitted by e-mail or paper questionnaires are summarized into reports by facilitators and sent to Members of the European Parliament to provide feedback. Different web 2.0 features like Facebook, You Tube, RSS and Twitter are used to involve public combined with press conferences, on-line video streaming and chat rooms covering live forums with MEPs from Slovenia. The Forum's platform is accessible to all internet users without prior registration and occasional ePoints have been set up to encourage the participation of citizens without internet access.
The policy context is provided by the European Parliament's resolution on the "Next steps for the period of reflection and analysis on the Future of Europe" adopted on June 14, 2006. The resolution followed the "Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate" by introducing the parliament's proposals regarding the organization of citizen's forums in order to enable an intensive and lively exchange of public opinions and achieve a consensus on the core issues related to the future of Europe. The resolution enabled the institutional incorporation of the Citizen's forum into the European parliament decision-making processes. On 13th of January 2009 a new European Parliament's resolution on the perspectives for developing civil dialogue under the Treaty of Lisbon (2008/2067(INI)) was adopted, establishing an updated policy framework for the on-line Citizen's forum operation in line with Treaty of Lisbon provisions.
The on-line Citizen's Forum target groups include general population in Republic of Slovenia and European Union, civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations and other public actors or institutions interested in shaping the EU policy issues at the European Parliament level.
The European Parliament Information Office in Ljubljanahttp://www.europarl.si/ is providing financial, media and coordination support for the on-line Citizen's forum. On behalf of the office, Slovene members of the EP are invited to initiate on-line consultations by providing information about the policy issue on the agenda of the European Parliament, political context and explanation how they are going to use inputs from citizens and NGOs participating in the process. At the end of consultation period, MEPs provide public feedbacks on facilitators reports which are published on Citizen's forum http://www.evropske-razprave.si/english.
The initial version of the on-line Citizens forum (http://www.evropske-razprave.si/forum/13.html) was technically implemented under the framework of the Centre of Electronic Democracy (CED) at the Institute of Ecology using the communication concept developed in collaboration with the Faculty of Social Sciences (University of Ljubljana). Since 2008 the Institute for Electronic Participation (INePA http://www.inepa.eu/) is responsible for Citizen's forum technical implementation, development, maintenance and on-line communication administration, facilitation, promotion and sustainable e-participation project management. INePA facilitators deliver consultations reports summarizing contributions from participants by using advanced tools for visualization of on-line discussions. The institute is also delivering political science reflection on e-democracy impacts of the project as a part of international experts conferences, forums and meetings.
INePA successfully finalized mayor upgrade of on-line Citizens forum European debates platform with new users options, graphical design and web 2.0 feature like Facebook http://www.facebook.com/forum.evropske.razprave and Twitter profile http://twitter.com/razprave_eu.
The Citizen's Forum was created by using free and open source bulletin board software phpbb (http://www.phpbb.com/) that allows setting up advanced on-line communities. Additionally, a free, open-source content management system (CMS) and application framework Joomla (http://www.joomla.org/) was used alongside with many other additions (e.g. blocks), that transformed on-line forum into an interactive portal site. Both phpbb and Joomla! software were used because of its accessibility, user-friendly concept and simple implementation, maintenance, administration and moderation. From the userÂ´s perspective, the latest forum improvements allow citizens to post new messages quickly and without prior registration, while keeping the communication procedure transparent. The chosen software has also been subject of constant development in order to be even more user-friendly, safe and fast.
List of technical components used:
During the period 2009-2010 nearly 17.000 unique internet users visited Citizen's forum. 3 online public consultations with MEPs covering EU policy issues such as Climate change, Unemployment, Violence against Women (etc.) were implemented. 7 on-line public debates covering issues of European elections and performance of the European Parliament were initiated. 634 forum contributions were published by citizens and NGOs and 4 facilitators report from on-line debates and consultations were made. The Slovene MEPs and European elections political parties candidates provided 12 feedbacks to facilitators reports. There are examples of MEPs involving consultation reports into their work at the European parliament or presenting them at the corresponding EP committee sessions as reporters for a specific policy issue.
Since the beginning of the Citizen's forum operation in 2006, 9 on-line consultations with Slovene MEPs and 11 on-line discussions have been implemented and more than 1.000 contribution from citizens and NGOs were published. 17 feedback have been provided by MEPs to facilitators reports and to individual questions from citizens.
The on-line Citizen's forum European debates is providing several benefits for citizens and NGOs such as facilitated exchange of opinions and proposals on EU issues, answers & feedbacks from MEPs, transparency of political positions, summary reports on discussion and consultation topics and visibility of MEPs accountable to citizens.
A statement made by MEP Romana Jordan Cizelj using the on-line Citizen's forum European debates: "I would like to thank to all participants in an on-line consultation for willingness and activity to take part in our common efforts for saving our environment, for adjusting to climate changes in for reducing negative effect on environment. /.../ Your views and opinions although sometimes diverse are presenting to MEP as me a valuable source of information and views on further implementation of environmental policy. I am inviting you to continue with your participation." MEP Romana Jordan Cizelj (EPP) available at http://www.evropske-razprave.si/forum/34.html?p=1061#p1061.
The novelty of the Citizen's forum can be described from different aspects. Firstly, the Republic of Slovenia ranked poorly according to the United Nations eParticipation Index in 2005: 46 among 191 nations of the world and 15 among EU-27 (behind the majority of the new member states). This poor ranking was partially due to previously unsuccessful on-line forums attempts by Slovenian government and local communities. From this perspective, the Citizen's forum brings very much needed experience and recognition of on-line forums as a tool for strengthening democratic participation in Slovenia. As result from on-line Citizen's forum success, Slovenian government followed Estonian example "Today I decide" (http://www.epractice.eu/en/cases/osaleawards) with "My.suggestion.gov.si" (http://www.epractice.eu/en/news/292843) and consequently improved its United Nations eParticipation Index in 2010 by becoming 20th most developed e-participation UN country in the world.
Secondly, from the conceptual point of view the forum represents a successful attempt to provide new deliberative elements in decision-making and increased participation at national and European level.
Thirdly, the e-inclusion and e-accessibility aspects. The possibility to involve all Slovene citizens in the forum's consultation process has involved a lot of effort. Therefore in order to engage less skilful internet users, the publishing procedure is quite simple and registration is not mandatory. In addition, ePoints with forum facilitators are occasionally created to involve citizens without internet access. Combining both kind of on-line and off-line participation represents a novelty in the Slovene political conditions, values and culture.
Finally, the Citizen's forum constitutes a turning point for eDemocracy/ eParticipation initiatives in Slovenia in terms of the valuable experience and confidence gained by non-governmental organizations. As result Institute for Electronic Participation (INePA) is recognized among key eParticipation developments actor in the EU (European eParticipation study 2009) and as a front runner of e-democracy practices in Slovenia (http://pep-net.eu/blog/2010/04/15/civil-society-as-a-frontrunner-in-e-democracy-developments-in-slovenia/).
The Citizen's Forum is recognized by the eChallanges conference in 2007 as the first 1st successful e-democracy initiative in Slovenia implemented jointly by the NGO (INePA) and European institution (European Parliament Information Office in Ljubljana). The forum is being further developed as a part of the European Commission's eParticipation initiative under the 7th Framework Programme (VIDI project - http://vidi-project.eu/. In 2007 Citizen's forum received the Editor's Choice recognition by the European ePractice portal.
The Citizen's forum was presented at the several international conferences and workshops in 2010:
The Citizen's forum was presented at the several international conferences and workshops in 2009:
The Citizenâ€™s forum results have been evaluated by the Centre of Electronic Democracy at the Institute of Ecology, Ljubljana and presented at several national and foreign symposiums, such as the eChallenges 2007 Conference & Exhibition in The Hague and the "Young People, New Technologies and Political Engagement" seminar at the University of Surrey. More information on sharing the good practice is available on-line at http://www.evropske-razprave.si/forum-evropske-razprave/predstavitev.html.
Obstacles identified by the Institute for Electronic participation when trying to reach higher number of citizens and NGOs taking part in on-line consultations: lack of deliberation practice & know how (education), lack of motivation to participate and apathy by citizens and NGOs (distrust), lack of capacities to engage in on-line deliberation (time), democratic limitations of top-down approaches (elitism), complex situations when implementing deliberative democracy into multilevel governance (transparency), politicians might exploit deliberation process for their own promotion (accountability), low level of public trust towards European institutions and low public image of politicians in Slovenia.
Lesson no. 1: Solely institutional top-down approach when designing e-democracy on-line forums brings limited democratic implications - political elitism (democracy issue). Lesson no. 2: Complex situations when implementing e-democracy within multilevel European governance requires detailed knowledge of decision-making process (proper evaluation framework). Lesson no. 3: Politicians are keen to exploit on-line democratic process for their own advantage (trust issue). Lesson no. 4: Important arguments in favour of e-democracy forums derive from securing transparency and concrete evidence of the citizensâ€™ contributions inclusion in final documents (policy involvement). Lesson no. 5: On-line deliberation in a real-time environment improves participation in the process (digital divide issue). Lesson no. 6: Wider (national) scale e-democracy deliberations require more human moderators and advanced technological platforms (e.g. content management system) in order to facilitate a massive participation and to summarise the large amount of information provided by participants (technological issue). Lesson no. 7: Providing intensive and long term media promotion and public advertisement of successful on-line forums that are trusted both by politicians and citizens strengthens participation and confidence. Lesson no. 8: On-line deliberation carried out by intermediary civil society institutions which promote, moderate and evaluate the process, motivate citizens and watch over transparency and inclusion in decision-making processes, fosters expert and professional implementation.