Digitalisation as a new frontier for political participation

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by Antonella Benedetto

Today, information and communication technology (ICTs) plays an important role in everyone’s life. This is why digitalisation is needed, especially for local authorities providing public services in order to simplify the coordination between the EU and local realities. The article provides an overview of how digitalisation could lead to better local service management in all sectors and even lead to some collateral benefits, such as increasing young people’s political participation. On the other hand, the risk at stake is the social exclusion of some vulnerable categories, such as the old, immigrants, or people who either cannot have material access to technological devices or do not have the knowledge to use them. The EU has put forward a wide range of initiatives in the last few years in order to upgrade the overall degree of digitalisation both at the institutional and the individual level.

Terms specificity

First, defining the terms and the differences between “digitalisation” and “e-government” appears fundamental, both having a significant transformative impact at local and regional level. In a narrow sense, digitalisation is defined as the “adoption or increase in the use of digital or computer technology by an organisation, industry, country”, while the broader definition talks about an “economic and social transformation triggered by the massive adoption of digital technologies to generate, process, share and transact information”. The term “e-gov” (Electronic Government or Electronic Governance) appeared in the public debate in the late 1990s, but the academic literature about it dates back to the 1970s. Grönlund has identified three goals that could be reached through internet technology, that is, more efficient governments, better services to citizens, and improved democratic processes.

The European Union’s perspective

In the last three years, the Council of Europe has been working hard on e-governance-related issues, which are e-democracy, internet governance, the effects of using artificial intelligence in criminal law, the use of social media in electoral campaigns, and other themes related to the more complex issues of human rights and the rule of law. The European Committee on Democracy and Governance” (CDDS) has conducted, together with the “Ad Hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence” (CAHAI), studies about the impact of digitalisation on democracy and governance.

The digitalisation of public services is one of the EU agenda priorities. Digitalisation is an important part of the modernisation process. For instance, digitalisation has played an essential role in developing the knowledge economy, which started almost fifteen years ago. The Malmo Declaration (2009) has recognised the following four priorities: the empowerment of citizens and businesses; the mobility reinforcement in the Single Market; enabling efficiency and effectiveness; creating necessary vital enablers and pre-conditions for the above priorities. Instead, the e-government aims for the citizens to have access to online services, a solid telecommunication infrastructure covering all the country’s territory, and an adequate level of computer literacy to manage the service.

The 2015 three pillars “Digital Single Market Strategy” aims to ameliorate the functioning of the single market through a removal of digital barriers as to facilitate the access for consumers and firms; to create shared rules for digital technology and support infrastructure development; to use the ICT  infrastructure in economic and industrial employment and in multilevel governance, which characterised the EU.

As part of the European Digital Agenda, an action plan set by the EU Commission led by President Ursula von der Leyen, many initiatives and policies have been adopted at the EU level.

To start with, the “Europe fit for the digital age” (2020) and the EU e-government action plan” (2016-2020) are plans aiming at developing e-government services even more deeply. Results of such initiatives are e-health and telemedicine, the spread of electronic medical records, and the improvement in administration and services management.

“Europe’s 2030 Digital Decade” is another package of measures whose targets are to develop a sustainable digital society which puts individuals at the centre, and to empower and connect both businesses and citizens beyond physical barriers.

Finally, “The Digital Compass” Communication aims at increasing citizens’ and professionals’ digital skills, adopting secure and sustainable digital infrastructures, and digitalising businesses and public services.

Digitalisation as a solution for social inclusion and political participation

The idea of a link between internet and political activism is not unheard of. In the past and still today, many then-influential civic movements all around the world have mobilised supporters and their message and values through social networks, reinforcing the democratic process both at national and transnational level. Examples of these movements are the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Euromaidan.

Notwithstanding internet political activism and social networks’ global success, some groups still do not have access to internet and technology because of a lack of knowledge of how to use technological devices, so digitalisation could create a big gap between certain groups of people and others, considered vulnerable, such as old, disabled, or low-income individuals, NEET youth, refugees, migrants, LGBTI youth, and homeless. Social inclusion can be defined as the “process that enables a young person to build up self-esteem, self-realisation and resilience, to become an autonomous and productive member of society”, so it is necessary to provide everyone with the necessary tools to use the internet and technological devices. Moreover, “their participation in social, economic and political life should be promoted, based on the equality of rights, equity and dignity”.  Studies show how the fast-developing digitalisation process could create new opportunities and possible solutions to solve the ever-existing issue of social inclusion, but the risk of creating the opposite trend, meaning that some people could be forced into social exclusion by technologies, should not be underrated.

The concept of social inclusion is intersectional. Social inclusion, in fact, is an important matter to be reached in different sectors, such as employment, health, education, and politics. It is not possible to divide the world into the two categories of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”. Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how the first category as well has faced numerous difficulties in accessing the internet, or in having an availability of adequate technological devices. Indeed, the ECDL Foundation has stated that “young people do not inherently possess the skills for safe and effective use of technologies, and skills acquired informally are likely to be incomplete”.

Statistics say that 95% of young people use the internet daily, and 89% prefer to use mobile phones to access the web. But numbers tell a different story when looking at stats showing  the scope for which young people use the internet. Most of the young generation have used it for communication and entertainment (mainly social networks). In contrast, only 11% of them has used the internet for online political consultations, voting, and civic issues. To address the issue, the “Resolution on encouraging the political participation of young people in democratic life in Europe” (Council of the European Union, 2015) is specifically aimed at promoting an inclusive and equal access to the internet for young people with the final goal to increase political participation. The “EU Youth Strategy 2019-2027” has the same goal. Member states are encouraged to explore and promote innovative and alternative forms of democratic participation, e.g., digital democracy tools, and facilitate access to support youth participation in democratic life and inclusively engage young people.

A survey carried out by the OECD on the innovative use of digital services shows how European countries reached a more efficient degree of digitalisation as far as local and regional public services are concerned. For example, Germany has digitalised the childcare and family sector. The “Amilienworkstadt”, specifically, addresses migrant children and children from socially disadvantaged families. It aims to improve family participation in education and care, zooming on the access to care facilities, the development of parental competencies, and the strengthening of neighbourhood networks.

Virtuous examples can be found in different municipalities in Europe. In 2014, the Mayor of Paris launched an initiative where citizens could propose, through an online or in-presence vote, projects to allocate the city’s budget. In 2015, the Municipality of Madrid launched a platform where citizens are invited to discuss with the Councillors about local issues and design new laws together. Later, this initiative was extended to Barcelona and Coruña.