â€œe-dialogosâ€ is an innovative and fully fledged e-Democracy online platform for the citizens of the â€œCity of Trikalaâ€ in Greece to participate in the decision-making processes of the city.
The objective is to offer to all citizens the opportunity to get involved directly with the process of development and implementation of city policies through an online platform of dialogue and participation, in an effort to reverse the disengagement of citizens with their elected representatives and the policy process.
The innovation of the methodology lies in the development of an original, holistic and fully integrated approach to e-Participation, which combines online deliberative and voting processes in a new way. The methodology developed is based on best practices worldwide & is consistent with the current political theory of democracy and models of deliberation.
The e-deliberation model is essentially a tight â€˜serial processâ€™ within a specific time-frame, with 5 well-defined concrete steps embedded in each deliberative cycle. A process where the different e-tools are assigned to a particular and appropriate use .These e-tools are: an e-poll for agenda setting, a moderated e-forum with pre-determined discussion threads, e-surveys to quantify opinions and finally, interactive online real-time webcasting of the city council proceedings, where citizens can offer their feedback directly. All the tools are supported by an extensive, organically integrated and user-friendly information platform. Finally there is also an e-petition component for bottom-up mobilization of citizens, which actually operates outside the deliberation cycle. It is worth noting that the project is supported by a comprehensive communication strategy (from branding to leaflets, posters and other materials which inform, inspire and educate the public in the use of the platform).
Owner & funding of project
The project was funded by the â€œGreek Ministry of Interior, Public & Local Administrationâ€ and the â€œRegion of Thessalyâ€ and was implemented at the â€œCity of Trikalaâ€, a mid-sized city which is often called â€œThe 1st Digital City of Greeceâ€ because of its long-time commitment to the exploitation of ICTs for local and regional development. The city is one of the first to offer free wi-fi access to citizens and businesses and has deployed a wide array of IT-powered services. It is also a member of iNec, an international network of cities committed to ICTs.
Benefits & impact:
The end benefit of â€œe-dialogosâ€ is engaged and informed citizens from start-to-end and an engaged city council committed to listen to citizensâ€™ opinions.Â The impact is many fold: Socio-politically, it offered a new â€œrole modelâ€ for other cities and public entities to follow, it educated the city officials in the uses of such a platform, it raised awareness for e-participation attracting media interest and it gave citizens a glimpse into what is possible through ICTs. In this sense, the most important outcome is the cultivation of a â€œculture of participationâ€ among citizens and elected officials alike, fostering legitimacy and transparency in public services.
Project-wise, the solution is scalable and replicable for other cities and different public entities. Moreover, there is a net gain in terms of technical, organizational and management know-how of similar projects for which there was no prior knowledge in the country.
The main lessons learnt can be summarized as:
The project falls under the â€œPoliteia: Reinvention of Public Administrationâ€ Programme of the eGov Unit of the Greek Ministry of Interior and specifically its 5th sub-programme â€œTransparency & Values of sound Governanceâ€ and the specific action â€œParticipation of Citizens and Businesses in decision-makingâ€ (5.1).
The project is also part of the eTrikala initiative, the first initiative for the Digital City in Greece. The eTrikala case inspired by the â€broadband as a public commodityâ€ vision has as its main goal to develop strategic frameworks which will assist policy makers, planners, and other stakeholders in the process of harnessing the potential of ICTs to meet socio-economic objectives and targets of local societies, citizens and enterprises in an efficient and effective way.
The initiativeâ€™s objectives include the provision of free broadband access to the citizens as a means for the cultivation of a digital culture towards eGovernment and eDemocracy. Under this policy context, empowering active citizenship and participation through ICT infrastructures remains a milestone that has to be achieved in order to exploit Internet broadband access so as to enhance the quality of our democratic regime.
On the European level, e-dialogos is aligned to the i2010 strategy and the Lisbon strategy, in particular to the European Commissionâ€™sÂ â€œi2010 eGovernment Action Plan: Accelerating eGovernment in Europe for the Benefit of Allâ€ and particularly its provisions for eParticipation (â€œStrengthening participation and democratic decision-making in Europeâ€) which is about reconnecting ordinary people with politics and policy-making and making the decision-making processes easier to understand and follow through the use of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).
Moreover, the project is also aligned to the European Commissionâ€™s principles as laid out in the â€œPlan-Dâ€ (Dialogue-Democracy-Debate) strategy put forward by Margot Wallstrom and stresses the need to â€œlistenâ€ to citizens through two-way communication as a means to enhance democracy and transparency.
The deliberation process supported by eDialogos tool is simple and user friendly so as to address all citizen groups. Target users are all citizens and stakeholders of the City of Trikala. This includes:
There is also provision to include immigrants, meaning Trikala born citizens who live permanently abroad and wish to keep a link with city affairs. These stakeholders are explicitly mentioned in the registration process that is required to log in the system.Â Thus, all citizens, businesses, and organisations having stakes at the Municipality of Trikala are involved.
Nevertheless the initiative is expected to have a stronger impact on the younger part of the population, allowing the eTrikala initiative to facilitate the onset of a new generation of active citizens that are not only familiar with the use of ICT technology per se, but realize its full potential as an enabling tool and cater for a political environment of maximum transparency and cooperation
eDialogos (www.edialogos.gr) is part of the eTrikala project (www.e-trikala.gr) and consists one of the many vertical applications of the first Digital City in Greece, the Municiaplity of Trikala. The Municipality of Trikala is the owner of the platform and has outsourced the basic management processes of eDialogos, as for all the other vertical applications, to eTrikala SA, the municipalityâ€™s company in charge of the development and operation of theÂ Digital City. eTrikala SA, contributing a manpower of around 30 employees specialised in IT and eGovernment is responsible for the maintenance of all applications.
eDialogos was implemented in 2007 using external outsourcing for the technical and methodological development. The contractor was IMC Technologies SA, a company with strong local presence in Trikala. The implementation team was multi-disciplinary, consisting of:
â€¢Â Software architects, engineers and developers, responsible for the development of the platform. PRINCE and RUP methodologies were followed.
â€¢Â Knowledge engineers, responsible for the development of the ontologies and semantic web applications
â€¢Â eParticipation experts, who developed the methodology of eDialogos and provided the functional and usability specifications of the platform.
â€¢Â Political Scientists, who researched and organized the public deliberations; the facts, the knowledge and the structure of a deliberation. These scientists supported the moderators (local journalists) in maintaining a fair and open dialogue with the citizens.
â€¢Â Political research scientists, responsible for the creation and analysis of the online surveys.
â€¢Â Communication Strategy consultants, responsible for the design and overall implementation of communication strategy of the Municipality of Triakala with citizens, NGOs, businesses etc.
â€¢Â Project management, responsible for the co-ordination of this heterogeneous team and the close collaboration with the e-Trikala team.
The implementation of the project had two major phases: a) the development and operation of the eDialogos approach, and b) the real-life application of the approach in public dialogues with the citizens. The first phase lasted 3 months whereas the second phase 6 months. It was a perception of all the project participants that in order for the approach to work a close co-operation of the expert team with the municipalityâ€™s staff responsible for the operation of eDialogos would be critical. During the 6 month period the experts worked very close with the staff of the municipality as well as other external participants (e.g. journalists who played the role of moderators).
The eDialogos toolkit, which was developed during the first phase, was the basis for all the staff actions and a rich knowledge transfer took place between staff, external participants and IMC Technologiesâ€™ experts for the efficient operation of the eDialogos approach. This knowledge was captured and formalized by means developing an ontology that served as a shared conceptualization of the domain.
In parallel, the Mayorâ€™s commitment to promote the approach motivated employees to do their best and make the approach work.
Following the initial nine months of the project, e-Trikala SA has maintained the staff that worked in the project to continue the management of the case. The following roles can be distinguished:
â€¢Â Case manager, who has, apart from the obvious managerial role, to synchronize and implement the Municipalityâ€™s guidelines and decisions (with respect to future deliberations, surveys, etc). S/he is the link between the municipality and the citizens.
â€¢Â Content manager, responsible for the development and publication of the platformâ€™s content. The content manager is responsible for the organization of public deliberations and thus has a strong political science background
â€¢Â Communication Manager, responsible for the constant communication of the actions and events that take place in the eDialogos platform, the promotion of the approach and the co-ordination of external participants, such as moderators, who are usually journalists.
â€¢Â Political Research. This is specialized staff that has been trained in the development and analysis of online surveys.
â€¢Â Technical Administration, responsible of the efficient operation of the platform. Maintenance & Support is provided by IMC Technologies
As it becomes obvious, eDialogos, like all eParticipation projects, requires a multi-disciplinary approach. Being a local case and having the Mayorâ€™s commitment and support helped in the direction that communication lines became short and the overall management effective. The rich, face-to-face knowledge transfer process that lasted for a six month period along with a detailed toolkit that demystified the eParticipation norms and processes, guaranteed that no gap between technical, organizational and operation side would remain unresolved. Finally, a Communication Strategy Action Plan and the dedication by the authorities to promote the initiative boosted eDialogos publicity and participation.
What has been driving our efforts from the very beginning is the aim for openness: we wanted to open up the participation procedure as much as possible for as many as possible. Thus, this fundamental choice is reflected in our technological approach as well â€“ openness is the key to our 3-fold approach: open architecture, open source, open standards.
The architecture of eDialogos is a layered one, aiming to provide maximum flexibility. At the bottom we have the Data layer, which serves as the repository for data collected by the system. Directly above it we have the Semantic layer that provides the backbone for advanced services and includes applications that support ontology editing and maintenance along with an ontology engine that provides a run-time environment for the application of ontologies in the platform. Next one is the Application layer that implements the functionality of system to support the several aspects of functional requirements for the various roles in the system. Finally, the different tools utilized by e-dialogos have been integrated at the Presentation layer so that the citizens perceive e-dialogos as a unified system and not as a loose toolkit.
The implementation of the system has been based on open source software platforms throughout every layer. The availability of source code gives us the opportunity to capitalize on existing tools and modify them in order to fit exactly with the theoretical methodology model. Furthermore, this choice allows us to freely redistribute modifications of our code and the right to use the software in any way and makes the system transparent at the technical level.
The use of standards has been an explicit goal of our technical approach, as by adhering to standards we avoid vendor lock-in while also enabling interoperability. While we have put a lot of effort in making the more informed and appropriate choice of platform for every layer and aspect of our system, we would not want to find ourselves being dependent on one particular platform or being unable to change, should new technological developments dictate so. By choosing standards-based solutions we make sure that we can smoothly replace components of our system with others that comply with the same standards without breaking it. On the other hand, this also means that our system can interoperate on the technical level with other systems that comply with the same standards.
We have tried to integrate the findings and recommendations of the CEN/ISSS eGovernment Focus Group at every layer of our architecture, in particular adopting technical and semantic standards as defined in the groupâ€™s final report. Some of the technical standards we have used are SQL for the Data layer, XML, RDF(S) and OWL for the Semantic layer, J2EE for the Application layer, Portlets and JSP for the Presentation Layer. As we believe that semantic interoperability is a key factor to the success of the system, we have paid extra attention to this aspect and have tried to fill in gaps that currently exist as far as semantic standards are concerned. In particular, we are working towards integrating parts of the CEN/ISSS eGovernment Focus Group Reference Ontology and Metadata Schema in our ontologies, as well as making our data available according to the Linked Data principles.
Benefits & Social Impact
The benefit to the implementing partners of the project is the development of a unique methodology and a real platform which has been put to the test. Essentially this can be summed up as a net gain in "know-how" with respect to e-democracy and e-participation models and best practices worldwide.
The benefit for the City and the Region of Thessaly, the owners of the project, is increased legitimacy and an improved public image. Also, the establishment of a new mentality, since they accepted the need for increased engagement of citizens in the policy making process.
The benefit to the users, the citizens, is first and foremost the creation of a "culture of participation", especially in a country in which the dominant perception is one of "distant" politicians who do not listen or are interested enough for their constituents once they are elected. Also, society as a whole stands to benefit greatly form this project since the issue of deliberation has gained the attention of mainstream media and key opinion leaders who have embraced it as truly new and innovative. In this respect, it acts as an example, a "role model" for other projects to be developed especially in local authorities.
Finally, as a side benefit, the "Special Secretariat for Information Society" (Greece's govenment body in charge of coordinating the information society funds) stands to gain from the promotion of this example to other potential parties who are interested now to deploy similar projects, enriching thus the country's experience from e-democracy projects.Â In fact, experience gained from this project has already created plans for further uptake and expansion.
Quantitative: The level of participation:
The project is now entering its final phase and the overall results will have to be assessed when the project will be concluded. At the same time, it must be considered that a similar project has never been implemented in Greece before, thus there is no availability of historical or comparative data for the development of benchmarks to asses progress.
However, there are already some early indicators on which we can judge performance. These are:
-Number of citizens who have registered at the platform: 310.
-Number of citizens who participated in the first agenda setting e-poll: 195.
-Number of citizens who posted to the e-forum: 21 with 26 posts.
-Number of e-surveys submitted: 31 (ongoing currently).
-The monthly average site statistics are: 350 visits, 250 unique visitors, 1.900 page views.
These figures â€“although relatively small - exceeded expectations so far, considering that in the City of Trikala (with a population of 51.802 people), there are between 8.000 and 13.000 internet users out of which only between 950 and 1.550 have broadband access (figures calculated and based on official data from the â€œObservatory for the Information Societyâ€ eEurope/i2010 July 08 report and the â€œCensus 2001â€ population data of the â€œGreek National Statistics Officeâ€). Assuming that broadband users are the ones most likely to use such a sophisticated platform, then we can -very roughly - estimate that 25% of them became registered users and 15% participated in one way or another.
These numbers justify our claim that the project is already an unqualified success, especially after taking into consideration the fact that it is not yet concluded and that it is a novel project for the City of Trikala and Greece as a whole, with all the constraints and problems that this entails.
Exchange and transfer:
The project was designed from its very inception with a view for scalability and replicability by other organizations and partners. All critical parts of the platform are designed to be adaptable for almost any organization wishing to deliberate widely with citizens or specific stakeholders. The methodologyâ€™s principles are largely independent of the initiating body.
In this respect, there have been discussions with other stakeholders who have expressed a strong interest in adopting the project for their own use. Naturally, the fist organizations who have expressed interest are of a similar nature, namely other cities and municipalities especially in the region. The novelty and success of the project has attracted strong local interest and there is a specific plan under way to replicate and transfer the project firstly to neighbouring cities and subsequently to other local authorities integrating all the necessary modifications and improvements which have been identified through this first application at the City of Trikala. We should note here, that the mere fact that the City of Trikala is looked upon as a role model for other cities ensures the high interest of other authorities in adopting the platform.
The medium term objective - as soon as the project concludes its present phase - is to adapt the platform for uses and a report of findings will be published which will help towards this goal. Other actors who could benefit from adapting this platform are Ministries or Parliaments for legislative related deliberation. Also, non-profit organizations of any nature or umbrella organizations of non-profits and international institutions can benefit from its adoption.
e-dialogos has attracted wide interest by mass media and IT-related journals, mainly because it is the only project of its kind in the country. This was a result of spontaneous interest (which is significant factor) and also of the dissemination efforts of the team. We have opted to share our experience and lessons learnt with specific audiences abroad and the reception was always positive and warm.
Here is a list of some of the dissemination efforts on the international scene, specifically addressed to fellow e-participation theorists and practitioners.
â€¢Â Presentation at the international conference â€œBroadband Cities 2008â€, Trikala, Greece
â€¢Â Presentation at the international ICT conference â€œGlobal Forum 2008â€, Zappeion, Athens, 2008
â€¢Â Presentation at the international conference â€œ9th World e-democracy Forumâ€, Issy-les-Moulineaux, Paris, France
â€¢Â CC-eGov, Case Study Interview, 2007
â€¢Â Project case cited at E-Participation.net
â€¢Â Project case cited at epractice, the EU supported portal on e-government and e-democracy
â€¢Â Project case cited at Digital Communities Portal
â€¢Â Article Â«An Innovative Methodological Approach to Local E-Democracy in Greece Â» by Christoforos Korakas, in Î’Î¿Î¿k: Â«Beyond e-Government & e-Democracy : A Global PerspectiveÂ» by Alan R. Shark, D.P.A. & Sylviane Toporkoff, Ph.D. executive editors
â€¢Â Best practice case cited in all the official presentations by trainers of KEDKE/ITA (the official local authorities association of Greece) during the educational programme â€œDigital Cityâ€ which trained the elected officials of local authorities all over Greece during 2008
The First lesson is the utmost need for â€œLegitimacyâ€, meaning the need for "pioneers" - in this case was the Mayor and the CEO of the coordinating body (e-trikala) - who will embrace the project, inspire public servants and citizens and will provide assurance that citizensâ€™ voices will be heard.
Second lesson is that there are no ready-made transferable solutions or one-size fits all platform or methodology. There are tailor-made solutions which must take into account the local needs and restrictions (cultural, political and technical) and need the input of a wide range of experts to collaborate as one team: Software developers, social scientists, opinion poll experts, communication experts, content managers, graphic designers etc.
Third lesson is the paramount need to combine offline with online methods especially with respect to communication and marketing of the project, a task that must "educate" the owners, the users, the management team and the stakeholders of the project, considering the novelty of the project.