Drivers and Barriers of e-Participation: the European Experience

28 Feb 2019 | Published by Kadi Maria Vooglaid

Illustration: Colourbox

Electronic participation, or e-participation, is being experimented with worldwide, with the expectation that greater engagement will better inform government decision-making and enhance democratic processes. Since the earliest attempts at electronic democracy, e-participation has aimed at overcoming political distance, thus ushering in a new era of democratic revitalization. Proof of the democratizing and legitimizing effects of most e-participation initiatives has remained scarce, however, with technologies often failing to deliver the transformational changes towards new forms of participation.

Despite a rich variety of opportunities for stakeholders’ and citizens’ engagement offered by new technologies, several studies on e-participation have referred to a general weakness of these initiatives to deliver expected outcomes, mobilize a sufficient number of active users, and fulfil the democratic promise of engaging the disengaged segments of society. Modest success rates, however, have not deterred governments from using e-participation as a strategy for opening up the black box of government.

Why do some e-participation projects fail? What are the critical success factors of initiatives that have fared better? Where is e-participation in Europe headed? These are some of the questions that the TROPICO partners are looking at, with a particular focus on exploring the administrative processes surrounding e-participation initiatives from European governments.

The relative weakness of e-participation initiatives could be traced back to the fact that e-participation research hasn’t been able to sufficiently address critical issues related to the non-technical side of electronic participation. In fact, e-participation studies have often been criticized for their overly techno-centric focus, in which socio-organizational realities are ignored. Failures in e-participation may also be related to societal, administrative, and organizational context, but so far, the academic research addressing the various political and administrative challenges stemming from the institutional and organizational context of e-participation practices is quite limited.

Insufficient attention to the empirical relationship between the normative theory of e-participation and the actual politico-administrative context in which these practices unfold, has hindered the possibility of drawing broader conclusions on the adoption and performance of e-participation platforms. While collaboration and participation have been on the public administration research agenda for several decades, and the different levels of collaboration also feature in theoretical papers on e-participation, there is surprisingly little empirical research which systematically addresses how e-participation initiatives affect collaborative partnerships within government, with non-governmental actors, and ultimately, the links between e-participation practices and the actual policy-making process.

The TROPICO project looks into the myriad ways in which ICT is being used to enable collaboration and innovation within the public sector, and on how governments use digital tools to engage citizens in policy debates. Work Package 5 within the project aims to fill that gap by addressing the national, organizational and administrative contexts of e-participation adoption. A number of case studies will be conducted on the most recent examples of e-participation in Europe on both national and local levels. A cross-country comparison will help determine the institutional, organizational and administrative drivers and barriers for e-participatory practices. Early results indicate that the institutional, organizational and administrative context does indeed matter. Perhaps the time has finally come for e-participation?