Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects
In April, The Open Government Partnership Networking Mechanism held a Webinar on “Citizen Engagement on Law Making”. The event featured Andrew Mandelbaum, Senior Program Officer from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Cristiano Ferri Farrio, Manager of the Legislative e-democracy program for the Brazil House of Representatives. The two participants provided fascinating examples of the online and offline approaches different countries have taken to encourage citizens to become more involved with law making through government institutions and civil society organizations. You can find audio to the program and read summaries of their presentation below.
During the presentation, Andrew focused on 5 aspects of citizen engagement in legislative processes. While acknowledging that there could be more categories, he touched on the importance of designing governance structures, providing context, encouraging participation, planning, and responding.
Designing Governance Structures: The way citizen engagement activities are designed are important because it can either produce citizen input that is sentiment-based or expertise-based. One example of the former could include putting up a draft law with a comment box. This will provide a high volume of responses that will come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Another example of the latter approach could involve an activity that facilitates direct editing of laws by citizens. This would get fewer participants, but would involve a greater degree of comments based on experience or expertise.
The Croatian government (like Chile and the UK) now require open comment periods on draft legislation before it’s proposed. The responses tend to be more often from civil society groups and can be very specific as this tool is more friendly to people who have expertise on an issue.
In Latvia, ManaBalss.lv, is a petition website run by a civic group. This organization played a key role in convincing parliament to pass a law allowing petitions that receive 10,000 signatures to be taken up by parliament. To be considered, a petition must be vetted for legality, existence of a solution, and a plan of action. These petitions harness sentiment-based responses and often leave little room to debate issues. Thus far 20% of the population have signed a petition, 7 have received 10,000 signatures and 2 have been enacted by parliament.
Providing Context: It’s important that citizens are provided with relevant, unbiased legislation in plain language. It can often be difficult to understand the rationale behind the law or how it would affect other laws.
Oregon’s Citizen’s Initiative Review in the United States brings together 24 randomly-selected, demographically diverse voters for 5 days to review evidence, talk to experts, talk to campaigns, and discuss ballot measures. Afterwards they produce statements to citizens reviewing the facts and arguments and it is included with each ballot. It was found that this increased factual accuracy and 2/3 of those who read it found it to be insightful.
In France, Regards Citoyens created a tool to provide people with information on the context of the law and how it affects other laws. The website provides links to related amendments and laws the proposal will affect. It also allows citizens to comment as annotation to the bill and allows people to rate comments ensuring high quality citizen input.
Encouraging Participation: To encourage active participation, it’s important to make the process convenient and easy. The robust use of twitter and social media with outreach efforts can also be key.
Being Responsive: Even if the response from a citizen is rejected, it’s essential they receive a response, recognizing the effort they took.
Planning: Among other things, it is important to identify goals, stakeholders, and target audiences to create effective projects.
1. Effective engagement does not guarantee results. In Iceland, there was a massive effort to engage citizens in the creation of a new constitution and parliament has yet to vote on the issue.
2. There’s a healthy trend towards reinforcing online and offline activities. Governments like the UK are having small group discussions along with online activities. This is needed because not everyone is aware of online initiatives.
3. There’s value in government and civil society partnerships because neither can do it alone. For example, just because a government has adopted a new law, it does not mean they’re equipped to implement it. Civil society can provide training and lobby governments to provide funding for these activities.
Cristiano Ferri Faria:
Tools for Citizens and Policymakers in Brazil:
To engage citizens in policy making, it is important to provide several tools to citizens so they feel comfortable interacting with parliament. The E-Democracy portal made by the Brazilian House of Representatives is one good example. Through this website, a person can participate through a poll or chat online while watching live streams of public hearings. This allows representatives to receive questions to better interrogate guests at public hearings. For those less tech-savvy, the portal also came up with the idea of creating a video forum, to allow representatives to produce 2-7 minute videos so representatives could respond to specific citizens. E-Democracy also invented wikilegis, an option for more advanced users, where people can comment article by article and suggest specific text for proposed legislation. Specialists will in turn summarize this input and show it to legislators.
Outreach Challenges: When discussions are sought, much of the outreach is conducted through social media like facebook or twitter. However, many of the main organizations, opinion leaders, and those who are interested in the discussion but aren’t with an organization can be inadvertently excluded if they’re not active through these modern channels.
Political, Social, and Organizational Challenges: There is tension involved with traditional politics. In some parts of Brazil, there are people who don’t have the internet and the internet isn’t very influential and in other parts, there are areas that are very connected to the internet. Representatives can be on either side of this tension. There is also social tension, where you have have traditional lobbies who are democracy groups that are knocking on doors and they know how to influence representatives.On the opposite side of this, you have the digital lobby, where some issues can be organized through the internet and as a result can influence law making. But there’s a question of how strong the digital lobby is compared to the traditional lobby. There’s also organizational challenges, where you have civil servants who are younger and more open to creating a transparent culture. Then you have elders who are influential and in the main, key positions, who still believe in red tape culture.
You can read more about what the panelists said here.