E-participation: UN Expert on E-Government and Civic Consciousness
What is e-government? In simple terms, it's the opportunity to receive public services via internet technologies. But this definition implies a lot more opportunities. E-government allows to not only enlist children in school or apply for documents for a tax reduction from home, but also to get up-to-date information that will allow you to spend state resources more effectively. For instance, online information on public transport schedules can really ease the managing of this service and decrease the costs.
In many countries, there is such a term as "electronic democracy". It implies the citizen’s direct participation in government processes. One can "help" the government make decisions and regulate social processes not only with the help of voting and complaints, but also with petitions, social networks, webinars and other similar means.
"I believe that everyone understands now that the legitimacy of the decisions made by the government can no longer be substituted only by the fact that the people elected their representatives some time ago. The governments decisions have to be in accordance with the society's opinion or at least be based on it. Such systems can be created using three main processes: informing the citizens on forthcoming changes and options for future decisions, consultations with experts on public sentiments and then - decision making", - commented Yuri Misnikov.
He gave the example of the Moscow "Active Citizen" website where concerned citizens can interact with officials and solve daily problems by voting. Surely, there is a most essential question to electronic democracy: how rational will it be to leave serious economic, political and social decisions to citizens who can well be incompetent in legal studies, international relations, and economics?
On the other hand, identification of public opinion is a one-of-a-kind ethical threshold for the government in making decisions. Any person, even if he's not qualified in this or that field can express his opinions concerning something that can affect his quality of life. For example – whether or not to close plants that produce hazardous waste into the atmosphere? Or what to build on a free site - a casino or a park? The answer to the first question will most probably be unanimous; the second can lead to a discussion: a casino means new jobs, whereas there might be enough parks in the city.
Still, there are few services that can be used to express public opinion, and they are not widely known. For instance, there are websites where new draft bills are published. Any internet user can comment on this or that document, and the government can take these comments into account. But in practice, such websites are not advertised, and it’s hard for citizens to read complex legal texts, as no one gives simple descriptions of these bills.
The other example is "Russian Public Initiative". Unlike the popular Change.org, petitions from this website are actually directed to the governmental workgroup and then to the State Duma if they get enough support. Still, this resource is not advertised enough and few citizens use it. The interface of such websites plays an essential role in motivating the citizens to use it, as well. If its structure is not user-friendly, it won't be used.
What's more, the government has to have software tools to discern comments that are actually useful and represent a real opinion from the work of internet trolls. The opinion of one's neighbor or fellow townsmen can be more important than that of an expert, as people live in close communities that regulate themselves. The government has to learn to organize internet discussions about its decisions in a way that will allow it to understand how opinions form, and to which extent they reflect the interests of different parts of the society. Then, logical and software algorithms for analyzing the results of public consultations have to be developed. This is the task that is being solved in ITMO University under the direction of Yuri Melnikov.
The Measurement and Evaluation Tool for Engagement and e-Participation (METEP) allows us to evaluate the maturity level of whole countries and particular territories and branches to the active involvement of citizens in government processes through targeted information sharing, public consultations or invitation to participation in decisions.
"We've created this system to assess how far the government involves its citizens in government processes using these or those technologies and public events. This is an international system; most countries have access to it. It includes a survey for governmental establishments on what they do to introduce electronic democracy and e-government. The questions are made so that that one can't be all positive about it - as no system is ideal. After the survey, the system gives recommendations on improving the establishment's policy. It also creates ratings of countries according to their citizen's involvement in e-government. This system can be used on any administrative level - federal, municipal, regional. Also, METEP allows you to conduct surveys amongst citizens", - explains the system's developer.
To follow METEP's recommendations or not is up to the government to decide. Often, it's enough to improve the existing resources and let them work, not to create new ones. The methodology for the citizen's involvement in e-government can be different for each country. The other difficulty is that it’s very hard to do research in this area. Still, Master's Degree students from the Department of State Information Systems Management who are interested in the field are given a chance to do relevant research.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Mr. Andrey Chugunov, Head of the Department of State Information Systems Management noted that the project "Research on the Models and Methods of E-Government of the Development of Territories" of the "Urban Computer Science" international laboratory accepts Master's students. An important part of this research project is conducted at ITMO University under the direction of Yuri Misnikov.