From 8th May to 17th June, the EuComMeet consortium has put in place its ambitious goal of connecting groups of citizens from five different European Union countries (Italy, Ireland, France, Germany, and Poland) through participatory online spaces.
The nearly 400 European citizens who participated in the EuComMeet deliberative process were invited to debate on a current and highly significant topic that affects all segments of the population: the environment and climate change. To facilitate organised discussions, the general issue was divided into three subtopics: sustainable mobility, sustainable food consumption, and plastic pollution.
Two methods were used to connect citizens from the five European countries, each aiming to enable different types of debate sessions: synchronous sessions through 90-minute video conferences and asynchronous sessions within a chat forum where text messages could be sent over the course of three days.
The deliberative process was developed at three different territorial levels of engagement: local, consisting of individuals from the same city; national, involving citizens of the same country; and European, where some participants from previous groups finally engaged in a plenary session where the main results from the discussion days were presented and discussed.
This last level of discussion was particularly challenging both technologically and methodologically: participants were given the opportunity to make their voices heard by local and European representatives. They were shown video contributions from politicians and administrators working within the European Committee of the Regions who will receive the results of citizens’ deliberative engagement in their decision-making. Citizens were not merely passive recipients of politicians’ communications, they could interact with each other and comment on them. To facilitate communications between people from different countries, an automatic text message translation tool was introduced for the five different European languages of the participants.
The entire process was divided into three waves of implementation:
the first deliberation phase took place between May 8 and May 22, with an attendance rate for the synchronous sessions of 30.6%, and an average of 25.7% per country for the asynchronous sessions. The following two waves featured an increase in participation, with attendance rate raising to 41% and 45.4%, respectively, in the synchronous sessions and the text-based forums.
These results will provide important insight for the understanding of the main motivation of the attendance in deliberative events. Indeed, to further explore the issue, the Consortium conducted a qualitative evaluation phase via in-depth interviews and a set of focus groups at the end of the deliberative process. What emerges most clearly from the words of the interviewees is a general high level of interest and engagement in using such deliberative tools.
“What I liked the most was obviously me getting the opportunity to raise my voice, my opinion, me getting the opportunity to pass on my voice to the politicians, me being able to learn more about the subjects, me being able to listen to what other people think, what are their views, so I think that these are all the things I liked.” (Int_IRL_4).
“I deal with local politics; it’s a topic I find myself dealing with. If you don’t have a basic interest, you don’t participate; I would have done it even for free, that’s not the lever of interest.” (Int_ITA_9).
However, this initial positive element is somewhat spoilt by a widespread pessimism about the real opportunity to effectively influence the decision-making process, a problem common to many of our current representative democracies.
“After these experiences, do you feel that your voice might count in political decision making? Really when it comes down to it, the only thing that matters is your vote.” (INT_IRL_3).
Fortunately, the possible solution to this sense of citizen disillusionment is suggested by the citizens themselves: increasing participation channels and making them an integrated practice within our institutional system.
“Q: Do you think a process like this, where citizens are consulted, is something that only needs to be done once in a while? A: No, it should be continuous; in other European realities, this bottom-up consultation is very active and carried out. We do elect our representatives politically, so we pay them to represent our interests, but this doesn’t happen, so maybe we should also get involved to promote bottom-up democracy. This is a winning and useful path.” (Focus Group_ITA).
Riccardo Spallina for the UNISI Team