April 25, 2017

Why empowering citizens should inspire public officials

Democracy as we know it is experiencing serious turmoil. Average voter turnout in the latest EU elections was just 43 percent. Only a minority of Europeans decided to make their voice count by casting a ballot. Within the next two years national elections will be held in no less than four Nordic countries. How will citizens in this region exercise their democratic rights? In what ways would they like to make themselves heard?

Some might argue that European Parliament elections represent the “worst-case scenario”, attracting the least engagement among citizens. However, a similar trend can be seen in other elections too. The low level of interest should be a matter of real concern for public administration, the legitimacy of which lies in the electorate. The weaker the mandate that governments have, the harder it will be for public administration and officials to work effectively. Elections are also a meaningful indicator for inclusiveness in society, i.e. having everybody on board.

“The public sector is an important tool for individual freedom, for equality and for the development of society as a whole,” concludes Ardalan Shekarabi, Minister for Public Administration in Sweden. Mr Shekarabi is of course absolutely right. However, digitalisation and other societal phenomena are truly challenging the relationship that citizens have with their governments. The public sector is quite simply no longer the same kind of tool it used to be.

Citizens – like consumers – expect better services all the time. Consumers are entitled to set demands on service providers, who are duly motivated to adapt to consumer preferences. Similarly, many organisations in the public sector, such as public transportation and health services, are keen to monitor the satisfaction of their customers on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, remarkably little attention is paid to the active role of citizens in politics and civic life, even though digitalisation inevitably will challenge and change the current form of democracy. For the Nordic countries, where democratic traditions are strong, active participation in civic society should be on top of the agenda. In fact, creating possibilities for participation and engagement in civic society would deserve its own dedicated strategy. Why? Because in the best case, digitalisation can help empower civic society by enabling continuous participation for citizens – especially for those with time constraints or mobility issues. Digital tools also make it possible to gauge the attitudes and opinions of citizens more often, also in between elections.

Prime examples of citizen engagement can already be found among the Nordic countries and elsewhere globally, such as the following:

1. Participatory or alternative budgeting in Finland, Norway, the UK and many other countries enables community members to decide directly how a specific part of the public budget should be sent. In other words, taxpayers work together with government to help make the budget decisions that will affect their lives. Digital formats could be used to help monitor trends, differences in neighbourhood societies and preferences by age, gender and social background, for example. This would provide valuable insights at a time when citizens have more and more individual preferences.

2. A Citizens’ Jury is an innovative means of involving citizens in the process of government decision-making. As the name suggests, a Citizens’ Jury is a group of randomly selected members of a community who are convened to consider a given topic and provide a response or recommendation to the governing body.  This method generates a lot of information that could be made available digitally. Citizens’ Juries are already used in the USA, UK and Mali to consult public administration.

3. Citizens’ Initiative Review Panels could be of assistance in voting processes where there is a strong tendency towards black and white polarisation.  These panels empower voters by improving the flow of information and providing statements for their initiatives. Citizens’ Initiative Review Panels are already used in the USA and Australia.

These are just a few examples of the efforts being made around the world to empower citizens. However, it is fair to say that such efforts have been sporadic and mostly lack legislative support.

The Nordic Council could take a determined initiative to revitalise Nordic civic society and encourage public administration to begin implementing engagement programmes in practice. The Nordic countries are already ranked among the global leaders in digitalisation, and the level of technology and citizens’ skills are mature enough to take the initiative forward.

The introduction of new processes would further strengthen Nordic leadership in terms of empowering citizens. The Nordic approach would promote unique learning and sharing opportunities for public administration, as well as produce valuable research for renewing civic society.

“We have to have an open society, a democratic society, and we cannot take it for granted,” says Jan Tore Sanner, Minister of Local Government and Modernisation in Norway.

Digitalisation is a challenge to Nordic democracies, but also an opportunity. The winners in “The Best Place to Live” rankings will be those who are able to renew and reorganise societies. Renewing civic society by promoting strong citizen engagement is clearly the way forward. It means letting and getting all individuals to participate in society in a meaningful way. The communities of the future will include citizens, enterprises, NGOs and public organisations as a single colourful fabric.

Further information about the PE2020 Public Engagement Project: www.eu.pe2020.eu/

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Leila Lehtinen is participating in The Digital North 2017- a Nordic-Baltic Ministerial Conference on Digitalisation on April 25th 2017. The conference connects Nordic and Baltic Ministers for public sector digitalisation and digital innovation, as well as high-level representatives from the public and private sector in the Nordic and Baltic countries. 

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