Citizen engagement - a howNOTto

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The 1st of April this year saw the entry into force of a key new citizen engagement tool at a European Union level, the European Citizens' Initiative. First set out in the Lisbon Treaty, the ECI allows one million EU citizens representing at least seven member states to call on the European Commission to initiate legislation in a policy area that falls under the EU's competency. So far so good - it's a great idea, giving citizens powers equal to the European Parliament and the Council (of the European Union - not the European Council or Council of Europe - but now I'm just being facetious) to request the Commission to initiate legislation. The implementation, however, is sub-optimal to say the least.

It is telling that the domain citizens-initiative.eu is owned by a group campaigning for the initiative rather than the Commission or another EU institution. To find the official website of the ECI you have to delve into the Commission's website - which is unwieldy at the best of times. It is also telling that three weeks in, there are currently no formally registered open initiatives. Say what you will about the current incarnation of the UK government's e-petition website, but on day one is was attracting 1000 hits a minute, taking the site down, and pro-death-penalty campaigners managed to get nearly 1500 signatures by mid-afternoon.

At EU level, things move at a rather more leisurely pace. There are a few reasons for this. Of course, working at a transnational level presents additional complexities over and above what a national government might face. Having to reconcile the interests and views of 27 separate member states, as well as work in 23 official languages will add a certain amount of overhead to even the simplest of undertakings. Yet just the fact that the ECI needs a 5MB, 32-page guide book tells me the number of hoops citizens have to jump through to create a successful initiative are disproportionate and likely to put off all but the most determined. Here are just a few areas where the European Citizens' Initiative could do better.

The Citizens' Committee

Each citizens' initiative needs an organising committee made up of seven EU citizens resident in seven different member states. "This committee is considered as the official "organiser" of the initiative and is responsible for managing the procedure throughout." The committee needs to be in place before you can register your ECI on the Commission's website. Compare this to the five minutes it takes to set up an e-petition to "[b]an rioters and looters from holding passports" in the UK, and the timescale for setting up an ECI starts looking positively geological.

Of course, we're looking at two extremes here. The UK approach is highly likely to get you some pretty ludicrous stuff - but equally, the silliest petitions are unlikely to get a huge number of signatures. And let's face it, if you can get 300,000 people to declare themselves Jedi then maybe you deserve your day in Parliament anyway.

Requiring an organising committee from seven member states, on the other hand, makes initiation of ECIs highly exclusive and reserved for the European "elites". Yes, I may have easy access to the right people, but I am fluent in three languages and have lived in five members states myself! Additionally, the time commitment required from committee members is hardly sustainable for the average EU citizen with a full-time job and a family. Between raising funds, making your funding transparent, getting your materials translated into 23 languages and publicising your initiative, you would pretty much be giving up about two years of your life.

There are a couple of good reasons why you might want something slightly more organised than the UK e-petition approach, generally to do with inclusion. Having representatives from seven member states on your committee makes it more likely that you will get the required minimum number of signatures from each country; you will have local expertise on the ground to help you promote your initiative rather than simply releasing it into the wild and hoping it goes viral on the internet. It also helps you remember that you need to reach out beyond the internet, opening access to ECIs to the one in four EU citizens who have never been online.

Both of these are good ideas in principle. What strikes me, though, is that when the Commission set about resolving implementational issues with the ECI, their guiding principles probably were around making everything water-tight, rather than making it functional with the least amount of hassle possible. While this is the right approach for transnational legislation, when it comes to citizen engagement I'd be inclined to err on the side of open and accessible rather than bureaucratic.

Signing a Citizens' Initiative

Organising a citizens' initiative is not without its challenges - but neither is signing one. For a start, unlike Direct Gov's e-petition website, there isn't a Commission site where you can simply add your support to an initiative. Every ECI has to build its own signature collection site which - this is my favourite bit - has to comply with the Commission's technical specification as laid out in the Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1179/2011 of 17 November 2011. I dare you to read through all seven pages of that!

There is a silver lining here. The Commission has actually developed open source software (and kudos to them for it being open source!) which already meets the technical requirements. However,

Organisers will need to ensure that the other elements of their online collection system - i.e. the hardware, hosting environment, business processes and staff - also comply with the remaining technical specifications of the Annex to Regulation (EU) No 1179/2011, namely: points 2.1, 2.2, 2.15 to 2.20.2 and 3.4.

Once their online collection system is set up and fully complies with the technical specifications, organisers should request the competent national authority of the member state where the data will be stored to certify the system.

Why the Commission doesn't just run a central ECI signature site is anybody's guess.

There is another issue with regards to the amount and nature of the personal data you have to surrender to sign the petition. Because signatures are validated by individual member states, each member state has different requirements for the data they would like from you. So if you're Austrian you have to provide your passport or ID card number as well as (judging from the sample form in the guide book) your date and place of birth and your full address. If you're Finnish you get away with just your date of birth and country of permanent residence, and no need for an identifying document. If you're Belgian and live abroad, you have to have told the Belgian authorities about it. The rules are ambiguous, but a number of countries don't explicitly state that foreign nationals resident in that country are eligible to sign. So if you're Belgian, living in the Czech Republic and haven't told your embassy that your permanent residence is now in Prague you may not be able to sign an ECI in either your country of residence or your country of citizenship.

The rather awkwardly named but otherwise very helpful Initiative for the European Citizens' Initiative estimates that up to 20% of signatures could be invalidated by national authorities and advises to aim for collecting around 1,250,000 signatures rather than the 1,000,000 headline figure. With rules as complex as this, that is not surprising - but disappointing nonetheless.

Who can (afford to) run an initiative?

It should be apparent from the above that there are significant costs associated with running an ECI. Even assuming you can get your translation into 23 languages done by volunteers and get some pro bono legal advice on whether your idea falls under EU competency, you're still likely to have printing costs for your publicity materials and signature collection forms, and significant technical costs for hardware, hosting and administering your online signature collection system. Given the number and nature of hoops to jump through, hiring an intern or three might not be a bad plan. So as well as getting people to support your idea, give up their personal data and possibly some of their time to help out, you are now suddenly asking them for money as well - which of course adds another layer of bureaucracy to the whole thing.

The rules state explicitly that ECIs cannot be run by organisations; they have to be run by individuals. Organisations can still support an initiative (including financially), but the initiative's funding has to be transparent. In principle these are good ideas. They're designed to prevent professional lobbyists from hijacking the tool for their own purposes. Yet the implementation here seems both heavy-handed and inadequate. There is nothing stopping organisations from nominating individuals to run the initiative - and while funding transparency provides some additional protection I suspect there are ways around it. Equally, "organisations" is a very broad term. There are plenty of civil society organisations which simply represent citizens, and arguably there is no harm in them running an initiative. I would for instance love to see an initiative on digital rights supported by the Open Rights Group, the Chaos Computer Club, La Quadrature du Net, various Pirate Parties and other similar organisations.

A number of factors come together here to make the ECI process even more exclusive. The Commission's failure to provide a single signature collection website saves costs for the EU by outsourcing them to citizens running an initiative. This in turn pushes up the cost of running ECIs, making the process inaccessible to those without either money or serious fundraising skills. The "no organisations" rule exacerbates this further, while not necessarily being effective at preventing lobbyists from hijacking initiatives.

Where next?

As someone who self-defines as European above all else and who passionately believes in the European project, I think the principle of the Citizens' Initiative is a great idea. I very much want it to succeed. Despite not being fully registered on the website yet, there are a few initiatives out there already. High(and low)lights include the Let Me Vote, the Gay Marriage, the Right to Life, and the Free Sunday initiatives.

I very much hope the Commission monitors the progress of these early initiatives and gets feedback both from those who run them as well as those who thought of starting an ECI and were put off by the bureaucracy of it all. Citizen engagement should be about openness and accessibility, aiming to make it easy for people to get involved. The ECI doesn't quite hit the mark here - yet.

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This page contains a single entry by Milena Popova published on April 22, 2012 10:25 PM.

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