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2023 | Book

Participatory and Digital Democracy at the Local Level

European Discourses and Practices


About this book

This edited volume discusses digital democracy at the local level in Europe. Contrasting the political discourse surrounding participatory digital democracy with actual experiences of implementation, the book provides a wholistic view of digital democracy across Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. The book is divided into three parts. Chapters in Part I analyze discourses about participatory democracy in Europe. Chapters in Part II provide case studies of digital democracy practices at the local level in the EU. Chapters in Part III discuss the risks and challenges associated with digital democracy. Written by a panel of international, interdisciplinary experts, this volume will be of interest to researchers, students, and practitioners across public administration, political science, economics, management, and sociology.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Local Participatory Democracy, Discourses, and Practices in Digital Age
Within representative democracies, participatory mechanisms have been progressively implemented, often based on a legal obligation to consult citizens on various subjects, such as public services, urban planning, the environment, etc. These mechanisms can include the selection of panels of people, by co-option or randomly, public meetings likely to interest a wider public, or the use of referendums or petitions. All over Europe, locally and nationally, these practices are becoming established in public spaces, in particular by mobilizing digital tools, and often go beyond the strict framework of legal obligations: for example, many municipalities have set up participatory budgeting systems to entrust citizens with deciding on the allocation of part of the municipal budget. It is no longer simply a matter of giving an opinion or organizing a debate among citizens that may precede a decision by elected officials, but rather of letting citizens decide on part of the allocation of collective budgets, even if the budgetary leeway often remains limited.
Thierry Côme, Gilles Rouet

Participatory Democracy in the European Union

Participatory Democracy as Practice: Actors and Discourses
Participatory democracy is considered as deceiving and enough radical as initially conceived. In this communication, we argue that the evaluation of the radicalness is a matter of point of view. Thus, the participatory democracy mechanisms should not be studied as an isolated entity but as a social practice that is intertangled with other social practices. We illustrate some of the discursive relations between participatory democracy elements and their normative and performative effects. We imply that the participatory democracy use is an achievement of a dialogue between participatory and representative one.
Stela Raytcheva
Evolution of the Legal Framework in Europe for the Use of Digital Participation at the “Local” Level: The French Case
This chapter will analyze European discourses and practices concerning the use of digital tools in the legal framework of participatory democracy, focusing specifically on the French case. If a legal framework is currently developing in France about participatory democracy, it is not really specific to the “local” field, nor is it specific to the use of digital tools. The use of new technologies in local participatory democracy takes place in the general legal framework. Nevertheless, this framework inevitably influences local French practices. In particular, it orientates participative processes toward principles of sincerity, equality, transparence, and regularity, even if those principles need to be clarified. These principles are of even more importance ever since the Covid-19 crisis intensified recourse to digital tools. This is notably the case in environmental participation, where these digital tools question the enforcement of the right to take part in environmental decision processes protected by article 7 of the Charter for the Environment.
Camille Morio
European Free Mobility and Participatory Democracy: Knowledge and Digital Technology as a Bridge
Over the last decade, before the Covid-19 pandemic emergency, the share of EU mobile citizens increased by 0.9% – a growth that may have been favored by the consolidation of the beneficial conditions fortified by the European Single Market’s four freedoms, namely, the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital. Encouraged by the possibility to travel freely, study, work, and live across borders (and benefitting from the chance to access better prices, higher environmental and social standards, as well as more comprehensive consumer protection), European citizens of all ages have been increasingly moving across EU borders. However, practical experience shows that there is still much to be done at the local level to make European mobility sustainable without creating severe difficulties in maintaining and achieving fundamental rights (work, vote, education, information, assistance, and free movement). Based on an identikit of mobile citizens within the EU, it is assumed that they can play a role in facilitating the path of social cohesion both at the level of individual states and in the common European area. To demonstrate this, this chapter presents two international initiatives coordinated by Italian institutions, both supported by the European Rights, Equality and Citizenship (REC) Program.
Marco Cilento, Mihaela Gavrila
Youth and Democracy: Digital Opportunities for the Future of Participation
The disengagement of young people from politics continues to be a major challenge for democracies in Europe and beyond. Although the European Commission and national governments have made multiple efforts to mitigate this problem, young people are increasingly detached from traditional forms of politics, such as political party and trade union membership, and voting. However, this does not mean that young people are indifferent to what policymakers do and decide. The recent mobilizations for the future of the environment through the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion movements and other forms of protest clearly show that young people want to play an active part of change in their communities.
Our contribution focuses on the youth’s attitudes toward democracy and the possibilities of e-democracy to strengthen democratic participation. Based on a review of successful e-participation platforms, we identify examples of best practices in this field. We also investigate supply and demand side factors regarding youth e-democracy initiatives by conducting interviews with local policymakers and a survey among young people in three European cities, i.e., Krakow (Poland), Leiden (Netherlands), and Trieste (Italy). Our results demonstrate that young people are eager to get involved politically when provided with tools targeted to them. E-democracy platforms thus hold considerable potential to promote democratic participation among young people.
Alessandro Ambrosino, Simon Cecchin Birk, Carlotta Mingardi, Georgios Nikolou, Lukas Spielberger, Elodie Thevenin, Alice Trinkle
Freedom of Speech and Democratic Values in the Digital Epoch: A Critical Perspective on the Post-totalitarian Media Culture
This chapter analyzes the report of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the World Press Freedom Index in relation to the cultural values in different societies. Its main statement is that the political and social processes in a given country are predetermined by the cultural values deeply rooted in the collective consciousness. The research demonstrates that there is a special interrelation between cultural values and freedom of speech. Highly individualized societies are placed on the top of the ranking in the World Press Freedom Index, while more collectivistic cultures take lower places. Also, the paper claims that the ranking of the Reporters Without Borders may show the current situation in the press but it should not be applied to other media and forms of speech, such as the digital media or the social protests. Bulgaria is an example of a country where the press is influenced by political and business interests. Simultaneously, if there is a pressure exercised on the traditional media, there is practically no regulation in the digital ones, where during the pandemic of COVID-19, fake news, rumors, and conspiracy theories have been widely spread. This fact proves that the freedom of speech is a result of the existing cultural values and that a balance should be achieved between the individual freedoms and rights, on the one hand, and the media regulation and media education, on the other.
Diana Petkova
The Relationship Between Participatory Democracy and Digitalization in Europe: Is There an East-West Divide?
The current context generated by the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the European Single Market, conveying an overwhelming role to information technologies. Although their large-scale implementation requires, in particular, a favorable legislative framework, adequate resources and a supportive government, the extent to which the member states of the European Union (EU) have the levers to adapt to digitalization is worth investigating. As it is well- known, the Fourth Industrial Revolution focuses on digitalization, a very complex phenomenon with both positive and negative major implications for society as a whole. Moreover, it is acknowledged that digitalization and the widespread access to information have been changing the traditional means of participation in politics, thus deeply and irrevocably affecting the way that democracy functions. Considering these, our research combines a set of multidimensional factors (institutional and economic) with digitalization, in order to highlight whether they are interconnected, on the one hand, and whether there is a division between the eastern and western EU countries in terms of digitalization, on the other hand. The results of the study allowed us to outline specific policy recommendations to support a digital convergence at European level.
Loredana Maria Simionov, Ramona Ţigănaşu, Gabriela Carmen Pascariu
Differences and Similarities in Local Participative Governance in Slovakia and Lithuania
This chapter examines the differences and similarities between the local governance of two young democracies in Slovakia and Lithuania. Using literature, legal analysis, and logical distribution and classification methods, the article evaluates the differences and similarities in describing the municipality, structures, and key bodies, with special attention paid to civic participation. The special part is devoted to the innovative forms of stakeholders´ participation based on the development of IT and a strong focus on interactive technics. To conclude, the chapter identifies the main differences and similarities of the research field in Slovakia and Lithuania.
Katarína Vitálišová, Jaroslav Dvořák

Digital Tools for Democracy 4.0

Online Citizens’ Consultations for More Democracy in Europe: EuropaNova’s Experience Since 2018
The legislature and the majority pro-European government that is coming to an end in France, after 3 years of relaunching the citizens’ debate in a more or less organized manner, followed by 2 years of more or less successful online consultations by default, seems to have reconciled French citizens with Europe. If such a result appears to be hesitant, it is above all because the objectives were never really clearly defined, leading organized civil society actors, such as EuropaNova, to improvise a great deal in this context of digitalization of public debate and to draw their own conclusions.
Elise Bernard
(Dis)empowering Citizens at the Local Level in Bulgaria: Digitalization, Local Democracy, and Participatory Practices Before and Post-COVID-19
The chapter analyzes the dynamics of participatory practices and use of digital tools as an enabler of citizens’ involvement at the local level in Bulgaria before and post-Covid-19. At the time of the Covid-19 outbreak, the legal framework allowed for quite limited offline citizens’ participation and almost no digital forms such as e-voting, e-initiatives, e-public deliberation, and e-assemblies at both the national and local level. At the same time, digital citizen engagement broadens in alternative non-institutionalized forms.
Daniela Bozhinova, Petia Gueorguieva
The Conditions of Social Learning in Formal Deliberative Settings: A Study of Municipal Councils in Brussels
Public deliberation can be conceptualized as a debate and discussion aimed at producing reasonable, well-informed opinions in which participants are willing to revise preferences in light of discussion, new information, and claims made by fellow participants. Social learning, defined as an individual and collective process involving the enduring acquisition or modification of cognitive constructs, is central in such a conceptualization. For the last years, participatory democracy has been studied and promoted in order to improve the efficacy and legitimacy of policy decisions made through representative democracy, especially at the local level. Despite these developments, representative councils or parliaments remain fundamental to transform the outputs of participatory democracy into concrete decisions. Yet, research on public deliberation in representative democracy is rarer.
In this chapter, we look at the conditions of social learning within municipal councils, with the results of a thematic analysis of 17 semi-structured interviews with council presidents and general directors of 13 municipalities in the Brussels-Capital Region in Belgium. To conclude, next to theoretical and practical implications, we present the features of a new software supposed to foster social learning in public deliberation based on these results.
Mohamad-Amin Alomar, Mohammad Al Saleh, David Aubin, Stéphane Moyson
Could Facebook Save Cities? The Case of “Save Sofia”
The Save Sofia Project – a non-government organization – has gained rapidly popularity among the residents of Bulgaria’s capital and, not just, mostly through its exceptionally visible presence on the social networks and especially Facebook. One of the iconic faces of the project launched the Save the Metro campaign, which at a later stage came to include other problems of the city as well, while he himself ran on the 2019 Sofia mayoral elections and surprisingly became fourth, leaving behind candidates with long political biographies. However, he secured entrance on the Municipal Council of the city where, despite his high-pitched promises for a change in the urban ambience, he became overwhelmed in the traditional political agenda. The article aims to use the example of Save Sofia to analyze the extent to which civil e-engagement can be transformed into real public politics at urban level, which would lead to a quality change in the decision-making process and the building of a better public environment.
Ildiko Otova
Digital Transformation in Local Municipalities: Theory Versus Practice
Digital transformation expands the possibilities of designing and implementing public policy. Governments are changing their mode of operation to co-create public policy with relevant stakeholders as well as to make policy open, transparent, and effective. For the general public, the most visible demonstrations of these changes are at the local level, in townships. The aim of the paper is to compare the academic framework of modern (smart) local governance and its tools with the state of the art in the Slovak cities. The chapter presents selected findings of primary research on the utilization and combination of traditional and digital tools in local governance realized by the Delphi method among experts in the field of regional development, strategic planning, and public administration and compares them with the results of primary research carried out among representatives of cities in Slovak Republic. Based on this comparison, the present paper identifies key challenges of the further development of local digital governance.
Katarína Vitálišová, Katarína Sýkorová, Samuel Koróny, Peter Laco, Anna Vaňová, Kamila Borseková
Digital Best-Bid: Internet Voting for the French Abroad?
In June 2021, the undersecretary for the French abroad, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, stated that the French abroad “stepped into the digital age.” Of the voters 86.16% used Internet voting, but only 15.06% of the overall citizens cast a ballot. This chapter analyzes if the statement “Internet always brings the voter closer to the ballot box” is correct or not. Internet voting was put to the test for the French diaspora, legally characterized as the “French based abroad” at the turn of the century. Against a specific political background, no evidence justified that Internet voting increased the election turnout. Instead, it might have increased the blank vote or blank ballot paper. Internet voting also impacts on civic culture. It trivializes the act of voting and confirms what some scholars have described as a “rupture of legitimacy.” It cannot replace the physical ballot in polling stations because the traditional process epitomizes two centuries of democracy.
William Guéraiche

Participatory Budgeting: Discourses and Realities

Participatory Budgeting: Behind the Words, the Euros. Empirical Study of 4043 Projects in Paris (2014–2021)
The participatory budget of cities (Cf. <>) has become an instrument widely promoted by the new public management as a means to involve citizens in public policies. Beyond the conceptual appeal of empowering the citizen-user, the reality of the financed projects sometimes responds to trending topics that are more about communication than about a committed footprint of the citizen in his or her city that would orient the public decision. To explore this phenomenon, the corpus studied will include the 4043 projects identified and financed by the city of Paris from 2014 to 2021 (Cf. <>). A comparison using smart data methods under the R software will be made between the different projects voted by the citizens and finalized by the Paris City Hall. The results show that the title of the project (i.e., the descriptive terms used) determines the value of the project and that it is the most unattended words that vary the amount of the allocated budget. The participatory budget would ultimately be an additional instrument of political communication to the service of a fantasized and illusory participatory democracy.
Thierry Côme, Stéphane Magne, Alexandre Steyer
ICT Use in Municipal Participatory Budgeting in Czechia: Similar Patterns or Heterogeneity?
This chapter outlines findings of the research that focused on how ICT are used in municipal PB in Czechia. As such it connects participatory budgeting and e-participation. We looked at web pages dedicated to PB of all 66 municipalities that implemented PB in 2020 (using the same research protocol, we mapped situation either on official web pages of the municipalities or on their special web pages dedicated to PB). We found that ICT were clearly supporting PB processes in Czech municipalities and the analysis highlighted several interesting features of ICT in municipal PB in the country. Municipalities not only use the web pages for informing about PB; most of them also use online tools for voting. On the other hand, public hearings are organized online only scarcely.
David Špaček, Marek Navrátil
Digitalization, Co-production, and Participatory Budgeting at the Local Level in Slovakia
The focus of this chapter is the local (self-)government level in Slovakia, which is a highly decentralized country with a very fragmented municipal structure. Two aspects of ICTs are investigated: (1) the role of ICTs and electronization in the co-creation and co-production of local public services and (2) the role of ICTs in the promotion and continual use of participatory budgeting. The multi-case study method is used as the framework method for this study. The case studies deliver several interesting findings. They show that private companies are much more active in co-creation compared to local governments, which otherwise ought to be genuine supporters and promoters of co-creation in modern governance, where cooperation and partnerships are critical. The chapter also identifies the use of ICTs as an important determinant enabling local governments to continue in PB under pandemic conditions.
Juraj Nemec, Martina Balážová, Jozef Gašparík, Daniel Klimovský
The Impact of Online Technologies on Participative Practices: Learnings from Digital Participatory Budgeting in German Local Governments
Participatory budgeting (PB), associated with experiences from the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, was one of the most important democratic innovations of the last 50 years. This paper analyses the influence of internet technologies known as social media on the introduction of participatory budgeting in Germany. It will be argued that internet technologies played a key role in transforming approaches of PB from a “strengthen democracy” model to a “democratic offer” design. Empirical data comes from a document analysis of 11 evaluations of German PB projects between 2006 and 2015.
Jens Weiss
City as a Platform and the Role of Participative Democracy in Big Romanian Cities
The article investigates the main contributions of digital transformation, technologies, and platform logic in the way public institutions implement participative democracy with a primary focus on citizens as both beneficiaries and users of those platforms. We specifically look at the way in which participative instruments make use of platforms and digital technologies. The article is based on triangulation between participative democracy, platform logic, and digital technologies in Romanian public institutions, as a new framework to engage multiple stakeholders in the decision-making process. From the perspective of institutional management, this chapter investigates what are the main challenges of participative democracy and how technology, digital innovation, transformation, and platform logic can facilitate the process and be part of new strategic approaches, with a focus on Cluj-Napoca, the second biggest city in Romania. We aim to analyze the necessary internal institutional changes, frameworks, and strategies that facilitate adoption of new models and concepts and the challenges that public institutions face in adapting to a more participatory and integrative approach to policy making. Based on interviews and statistical data analysis, we investigate the degree of participation, engagement in the participatory process, benefits for stakeholders, and obstacles encountered in the implementation.
Alexandru Roja, Nicolae Urs

Evolution and Perspectives

Benefits of Remote Work in the Self-Service Model in the Public Utility Sector
Due to the ongoing changes and challenges, flexibility should be the domain of private sector entities but as well the domain of public sector actors. This chapter aims to draw attention to two areas/issues: (1) the possibility of implementing remote working in public entities’ activities, which may increase the level of flexibility of their current functioning and future development, and consequently to better adjustment and accessibility of their services, and (2) using the formula of co-production and self-service in public services based on ICT solutions that remotely enable their provision.
Justyna Trippner-Hrabi, Jacek Chądzyński, Aygun Kam
The Digital Transformation of Local Democracy During the Pandemic
The chapter examines an unexpected side of the COVID-19 pandemic, an example of its positive role in terms of digitalization in the public sphere. The text analyzes the digital transformation of the opportunities for civic participation. The hypothesis is that the new digital technologies and tools have the potential to improve decision-making efficiency and transparency, to promote communication, active citizenship, and political engagement, and therefore enhance local democracy on a permanent basis. The analysis, which focuses entirely on the level of the cities, looks for interesting examples of interactive communication between citizens and local authorities. The interaction is viewed in two directions – both in terms of the opportunities and stimulus that comes from the local authorities and in terms of the initiatives launched by civil society.
Evelina Staykova
The COVID-19 Crisis: An Accelerator of Digital Democracy?
The Covid-19 pandemic has differentiated impacts, depending on the country and especially on the policies implemented, on the functioning of democracies throughout the world. In all countries, radical policies, unthinkable outside of a health crisis, have been implemented; strict confinement orders have been given, for varying periods of time; and curfews, mobility restrictions, travel bans have been applied. Pandemic spreads very rapidly and leaders had to act quickly in a situation of uncertain information, often mobilizing committees of experts who had to try to understand and explain and advise policy at the same time. This unprecedented situation makes the relevance of the policies adopted unquestionable, which have obviously disrupted social life as well as the functioning of democracies, at all levels. This chapter proposes a partial assessment of the impacts of the health crisis on democratic functioning and attempts to highlight the elements and conditions that can determine the development of a local democracy mobilizing digital tools.
Gilles Rouet
Democratic Innovation in Europe: Conditions for Ethical Participatory Practices
In the wake of the last decade’s crises, the resilience of the EU seems to be an interesting experimental ground for novel configurations of participatory practices. Inviting citizens to have a say in European policymaking, either through deliberative or other participatory formats, both on-site and online, brings a renewal of the public debate. This paper poses the limits of democratic innovation and brings a series of considerations, through the case of the Conference on the Future of Europe, pointing out that ethical considerations are key in determining the added value of citizen participation. This approach defies the novelty of digital technologies, underlining residual ethical shortcomings and considerations forming the requisites for ethical participatory practices. Considering all participatory forms alike, analyzing some key limitations uncovers the institutional boundaries and the tendency towards what we identify here as fast participation. Ultimately, the need for ethical guidance and another pact between the decision-makers, the public, and the organizers of participatory practices would be the necessary slowdown in the participatory inflation compromising the very potential of public participation as a public good.
Kalli Giannelos
Participatory and Digital Democracy at the Local Level
Gilles Rouet
Thierry Côme
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