Citizens’ participation is one of the crucial mechanisms for ensuring democracy in any society. According to the Baseline research of the state of e-government development & digital literacy in the targeted Western Balkan countries 2020, citizens’ participation is regulated and practiced in all of the Western Balkan countries, but the level of citizens’ engagement is low, and the e-participation mechanisms are not in full use.
Participation and e-participation
The sense of being a part of the community while demanding better and quality government services while about change is one of the main reasons why citizens’ participation is essential for fostering a civil state and tolerant society.
In a definition from the OECD report, it is argued that ‘’democratic political participation must involve the means to be informed, the mechanisms to take part in the decision-making and the ability to contribute and influence the policy agenda.’’ In this sense, citizens should be perceived as states’ partners when it comes to creating a healthier and more inclusive environment, but it also means sharing responsibility for its development.
It is also evident that digital has become a ”new normal” for many. Especially since we are still under the influence of the pandemic, having most of our life and labor tasks in hybrid mode – both offline and online. On the other hand, we live in an era of social media. We consume an enormous amount of information regarding the government and governance in our countries through it. The issues of low information and media literacy have already been raised in the Western Balkans, and they are directly influencing citizens’ trust and willingness to engage and demand changes of the current system in their countries.
When it comes to e-participation, according to A. Macintosh, we are talking about ICT-supported participation in processes such as administration, service delivery, decision-making, and policymaking. To simplify, we are talking about digital tools. These tools will enable us to contribute to the decision-making processes and ask for improvements in our neighborhood, our city, or the whole country.
E-participation tools should be accessible to every citizen. They should be easy to use and secure at all times.
There are two concepts to be considered when it comes to e-participation. The first one is the government and our ability to influence it as citizens. The second one is the technology that gives us the possibility to utilize digital space and share our voices. Trust is the key factor to empower that voice, which means that people should trust in both government and technology.
“e” like electronic and “e” like empowerment
”Establishing trust demands both that government can establish that those who seek access to information, and decision-making have a legitimate right to do so and that the privacy and civil rights of those who are governed are not compromised in doing so.”
The digital component can never be observed separately. It is an integrated part of our lives. It has blended so seamlessly, that sometimes it can be hard to imagine that just a few decades ago we lived in a significantly different world.
That being said, whether we are talking about ‘’e’’ considering its digital nature or about ‘’e’’ as empowering people to engage, we are talking about intertwined processes.
The role of the digital in this sense is to serve democracy, to enable its already built political and democratic culture to thrive by blurring the limitation of time and space.
E-government enables more information about the government and the work of institutions, so it is easier to observe the faults and pain points to be resolved. In countries that don’t have a high level of political and democratic culture, digital can be used as a kind of a ”corrective mechanism’’. Moreover, because it can unravel these issues and provide the platform for reaction. This doesn’t mean that just because something is digital it automatically becomes better. The human factor remains one of the biggest challenges on multiple levels, which means that the issues with the processes have to be resolved first and foremost on a policy level.
The precondition to becoming empowered, and engaging in all these processes, is to be informed. For example, we have to know what happens with our data in the digital space, who owns it and how they use it. We have to understand how digital works. It means that we have to have certain digital skills and digital competencies and be aware of certain risks that can happen to us in the digital space. We have to know what it means to have a digital identity, what kind of benefits we have from e-government and electronic services, and so on. These and many more things should be familiar to accomplish the desired impact. Although it might sound complex, it has many similarities with the principles behind the applications we use daily.
Digital has brought many advantages, but also responsibilities and ethical challenges. Digital responsibility is one of the rising topics in the world, along with the pressing issues of the digital divide and the creation of digitally vulnerable groups.
E-participation tools in the Western Balkans
Each country has its way of enabling citizens to express their opinion or to participate in policy creation. In recent years all of these countries through e-government incorporated digital components, enabling citizens’ participation online through specialized platforms.
Although the definitive list of e-participation tools can’t be compiled due to the non-existent centralization of e-services and variety of e-solutions from both business and civil society sectors, here are some of the tools that might be the most useful when it comes to direct participation in policymaking in the targeted Western Balkan countries:
E-registry for public notification and consultation: http://www.konsultimipublik.gov.al/
Open Government data portal: https://opendata.gov.al/en
E-consultation platform: https://konsultimet.rks-gov.net/index.php
Open Government data portal: https://opendata.rks-gov.net/en/
E-petition tool: http://www.epeticije.gov.me/
Open Government data portal: https://data.gov.me/
Single national electronic register of regulations: https://ener.gov.mk/Default.aspx
Open Government data portal: https://data.gov.mk/
Open Government Partnership North Macedonia portal: https://ovp.gov.mk/
E-consultation portal: https://ekonsultacije.gov.rs/
Open Government Data portal: https://data.gov.rs/sr/
Since one of the main goals of the #ICEDA team is to educate and support citizens while empowering them to demand more quality services. We encourage you to send us your examples of online initiatives, or good examples of citizens’ engagement in online space from your countries! You can write to us on our Facebook or Twitter page (@ICEDAproject), or simply send an email on firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of ICEDA partners and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.