New technologies are key to foster EU transparency and participation

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The EU should make better use of new technologies to improve its democratic decision making, transparency and participation. This is key in an election year, at a time when the sense of trust among citizens in its institutions is at an all-time low, writes Marietje Schaake.

Marietje Schaake is an MEP for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and member of the Dutch social liberal party D66.

Whether or not governments embrace the digital era, technology influences democracy. New technologies have empowered people and have raised expectations of openness and interaction. Horizontal and hierarchical structures of power are challenged by vertical networks of empowered individuals all over the world. Governments are best advised to actively shape and reform the role they play in a digitized world. However, too often they fall behind in terms of delivering. A social media strategy alone won't do when dealing with government requires waiting in line and drawing a number at the same time.

The speed of technological advancements is much higher than that of administrative or democratic reforms. Openness and better service would also increase trust, yet too often secrecy is preferred over transparency. Reforms should lead to new standards and to permanent democratization.

Open data, which takes statistics and other data that have been collected with public resources and returns them to the general public, serves as a good example. This data often has value that is overlooked by governments. In Member States that are frontrunners, such as The Netherlands, entrepreneurship is encouraged and useful and innovative applications are built with data set given to the public. Ideally, the role of government becomes one of a platform on which citizens can build. In Estonia, citizens have access to all government services in digital form. From online voting to digital tax forms, and from digitally re-filling medicine prescriptions to using your smart phone to pay the parking meter.

Besides increasing the accessibility of large amounts of government statistical data, democratic decision-making procedures and EU documents should be more easily accessible and searchable. The European Union´s institutions can also foster soliciting input into the decision-making process. I have used web based tools to experiment with this idea and received many relevant comments when I published draft versions of report or resolutions online. This way of working should become part of the system to decrease the perceived gap between politicians and citizens and to democratise parliamentary decision making. In the US the government publishes its budget and asks people to help them find wasteful spending. In South Africa and Iceland people were asked to help write new constitutions online. It is high time the European Union follows these examples.

Currently, stakeholder consultations of the European Commission are often too complicated for individuals to answer. This creates a situation in which companies or advocacy groups with expertise and a significant interest in devoting time can influence the consultation, leaving regular citizens out in the cold. The Share Europe Online project I initiated aims to change this by giving European institutions the tools to start a dialogue with citizens about relevant policies.

While youth unemployment is at an unacceptably high level in the EU, youths themselves continue to have difficulty making their voices heard in the political debate. If EU and government institutions would be designed for smarter interaction with citizens, good ideas and solutions can come from the bottom up.

With 8 months to go until a new European Parliament is elected, and with trust levels of citizens in the EU at an all-time low, the time to use technology for more transparency, openness and interaction is now. 

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