Project of the Week: Opengov.gr and “The Citizen Initiator”

We in the States know how a new government with new ideas about transparency and new technology to implement them can make a difference in public perception. Other nations’ new governments are taking a lesson from our shores, and experiencing positive feedback as a result. But is this kind of foray into participatory democracy really new?

Greece recently launched its site, www.opengov.gr , the first time that public administration in Greece deployed such a platform. The government led by PASOK, the ruling Socialist party, has relied heavily on this effort to prove that a fresh, open and transparent political mentality is in place. This is being described as an experiment in e-deliberation, but I choose to see it as democracy coming back to its roots. A quick scan of Wikipedia confirmed what I’d remembered from those old Political Science classes.

As we all know, the Greek city-state of Athens was one of the very first known democracies. There were other early democracies in the Mediterranean region, but none were as powerful, stable, or as well-documented as that of Athens. Athens is held up as the penultimate example of direct democracy where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf, but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right. Participation was by no means open, but it has been documented that the in-group of participants was constituted with no reference to economic class and widely accepted, perhaps in historical hindsight, that individuals participated on a scale that forevermore changed the way humans perceived governance around the globe.

There was a concept in Athens of the Citizen Initiator, or Ho boulomenos, translated as, “He Who Wishes”, or “Anyone who Wishes.” This expression encapsulated the right of citizens to take the initiative: to stand to speak in the assembly, to initiate a public law suit (that is, one held to affect the political community as a whole), to propose a law before the lawmakers or to approach the council with suggestions. Unlike officeholders, the citizen initiator was not vetted before taking up office or automatically reviewed after stepping down. But any stepping forward into the democratic limelight was risky and if someone chose (another citizen initiator) they could be called to account for their actions and punished.

Think about this concept in our 2.0 world. If I don’t like your idea posted on a forum, I can “like”, “dislike” and comment strongly, if need be. We have this capability and use it daily. We just employ it for book reviews and popular GovLoop blog posts.

The degree of participation among citizens varied greatly, along a spectrum from doing virtually nothing towards something like a fulltime commitment. But for even the most active citizen the formal basis of his political activity was the invitation issued to everyone (every qualified free male Athenian citizen) by the phrase “whoever wishes”. There are then three functions: the officeholders organized and saw to the complex protocols; Ho boulomenos was the initiator and the proposer of content; and finally the people, massed in assembly or court or convened as lawmakers, made the decisions, either yes or no, or choosing between alternatives.

Opengov.gr isn’t exactly a forum for the citizen initiator…yet. It allows people to comment on certain bits of legislation. It is simply a website where text documents, mainly in the form of draft legislation or ministerial decrees, are published and are open to simple serial commenting paragraph-by-paragraph by anyone. No comment threading, voting by users, or some kind of ranking is currently available. Once can simply sign up and choose to follow the fields via a straightforward RSS feed. As of February, Opengov.gr has hosted 23 deliberations on a wide range of topics relevant to 7 out of the 14 ministries and garnered 38,000 comments from citizens. 40% of those were submitted for a single consultation on a Tax Reform Bill.

Is it perfect? Far from it, but we can learn a great deal from Greece past and present, and I suggest keeping an eye on Opengov.gr as it evolves, and how it may evolve for us into these kinds of electronic civic deliberations in the future . Democracy, after all, is the Greek δημοκρατια from the demos, “people” and kratos, “power”. That’s something we citizen-initiators in the Gov 2.0 space would do well to remember.

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Alex Moll

Tanya – Good message in your post. Ancient Athens actually had some really good ways of engaging citizens. Pericles said, “Though only a few may originate a policy,
we are all able to judge it.” Aristotle believed that democracy among citizens was essential to protect accountability. Thus, to hardwire accountability required some technology and a process by which to institutionalize certain roles and responsibilities for citizens to inform policy making, yet more than mere one-way ‘input’.

Aristotle’s public administration recommendations for Open Government
– Elections to office by all from among all
– Rule of all over each and of each by turns over all
– All or most offices filled by lot (random chance)
– Tenure of office not/minimally dependent on possession of property
– The same man not to hold the same office twice, or only rarely
– Short terms for all offices or for as many as possible
– All to sit on juries, chosen from all
– The assembly as the sovereign authority in everything
– No official has perpetual tenure

The organization of Athenian democracy had a unique structure too which was an early form of Open Government distributing power among people and elected officials alike. The Athenians even had some early Gov 1.0 elements for allotment, identification, deliberation, and decree, if you will. Today, it’s refreshing to see the current Athenian government reflecting on some of this heritage and reassessing the delicate balance of democracy. It will be interesting to see how it compares to the U.S. approach thus far.

Here’s another good foray in Open Government on the legislative side in Australia. http://citizensparliament.org.au/

The Open Government Playbook group on GovLoop is also exploring different online and offline ways for public participation.

Part of my career practice focuses on how we can integrate deliberative and collaborative democracy techniques so as to optimize the way people interact with their government. This part focuses on how both civil society and the government institutions can meet each other half way to help each other clarify and formulate both public will and political will, respectively. In some ways this is the citizen half of Open Government. This is something often overlooked in the efforts of Open Government, which often focus only on government’s bottom-line, rather than the citizen’s bottom line too. The two are different.

Citizen-centered Open Government–the bottom line of citizens–is to clarify the majority and minority voice of public will. Public will is the judgment or answer reached after values, trade-offs and decisions have been deliberated carefully in a series of online and/or offline forums per community (geographic centric or affiliation centric) about a specific question related to a policy or an administrative rule.

So, here would be my questions for the next Open Gov discussion related to how we leverage technology to build public participation and collaboration by addressing the needs of citizens:
Under the rubric of participation or collaboration, what are the responsibilities of the government agencies to enhance the ability of citizens to clarify their respective community’s consensus (geographically identified) or public will on various rulemaking or agency actions?
Across the U.S. electorate, how do we honor not only the suggestions/recommendations or expertise of individuals, but clarify the public will or consensus of communities? Without over committing resources, is it useful for agencies to encourage the private or civil society sector to mobilize resources toward engaging the public to leverage feedback and expertise for improved agency decision-making or problem solving online or offline in representative samples of the public? Would such efforts increase an agency’s problem solving capacity or agency program service delivery?

Bernard D Tremblay (ben)

I read the title and was intrigued. I read and re-read the article. “Opengov.gr isn’t exactly a forum for the citizen initiator…yet.”