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Encouraging Participatory Democracy: A Study of 30 Government Websites

By Mark Vanderbeeken and Michele Visciola

For the first time in history, a wide distribution of technology allows citizens to get involved in public governance and participate in institutional life on a very regular basis. Yet websites of public authorities are barely taking advantage of the power of the participatory citizen.

There are two reasons for this gap:

To better understand the opportunities and challenges that are affecting institutional websites, we studied the main sites of thirty public authorities (eleven regional and nineteen municipal) and identified several innovative approaches.

How to Bridge the Participation Gap

Most citizens do not understand how basic democratic institutions and public administrations are set up. For instance, it is not easy to understand the relationship between the legislature (for example, city council, regional council, or parliament), the executive (the mayor and the deputies, the regional government), and the different departments and agencies in a locality responsible for providing services.

The various institutions are also related in often intricate ways. In the usability studies we conducted for the Italian public administration, for example, we noticed that those who are not part of the administration tend to feel lost while searching for relevant information and services. If the aim is to increase the participation of the citizen in public governance and decision-making, this complexity must be reduced. If people are not able to understand how things really work and function, how can they possibly influence the process? How can citizens participate in something they don’t know?

A second issue is the lack of clarity about the role of government websites. Some public authorities now separate their online services from their institutional communications on the web. While this approach increases the usability of online public services, it raises the question of what the aims of institutional sites are or should be.

Our hypothesis is that institutional sites can and should take on the role of a two-way communications tool on topics of policy and politics, support knowledge sharing regarding areas covered by the authority, and create maximum transparency about what the public administration actually does.

The Role of Usability and Strategic Communications

A strategic communications approach can help identify the core elements of institutions. What is a council or an executive really about? What are their powers and their limits? What is the very minimum that people need to navigate through these institutions effectively? How are these topics best communicated?

Similarly, a user research and usability approach can identify what the stumbling blocks are for active participation, what works and what doesn’t, what should be developed based on people’s behaviors and needs, and what can be improved.

Best Practice Analysis

During our best-practice analysis of the thirty websites, we looked for innovative approaches according to the latest understandings of usability and user experience analysis, applicable legal requirements, and a general need to better align the day-to-day practice of public institutions with the behavior and needs of the citizens.

We looked particularly at those sites that were public-information access points, as they provided insight into the direction that public institutions were taking to increase transparency and broaden participation in political decision-making.

Website Selection

The regional and municipal sites we chose were selected for their value as examples and for the insight they could provide on a number of best practices. The conclusions from this article are, of course, not exhaustive and often just apply to some of these sites, particularly the municipal ones. (See the list of surveyed sites at the end of this article. )

Indicators

The table below summarizes the types of best practices we studied to identify best practices in creating touch points with the citizens.

Table 1: Best practices for public websites

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Functions of the Administration
Implications for Web Communication Strategies
(Best Practice)
Type of Site
Primary Activities
Access to Information
Participation and Structured Listening Tools

Councils and Executives

Promotion of political activities

Planning and decision making

Access to policies, strategies, decisions, budget allocations, evaluations, and analyses

Consultations and forums on specific topics

Proposals by citizens or private entities

Departments and Administrations

Knowledge sharing with citizens

Description of who does what

Feedback on emerging needs that require an adjustment or modification of the organization

Transparency on the administrative process and activities of the institution

Description of how political decisions are implemented

Consultations and forums on alerts and on the control of administrative behavior

Information on routine management activities

Feedback on anomalies, malfunctions and new needs

General Findings

There is a lot to be improved. Almost all the sites we analyzed share three characteristics:

Table 2: Examples of Best Practices

Access to information

Participation and structured listening tools

Best practice: Access to policies, strategies, decisions, budget allocations, evaluations, and analyses.

Amsterdam: Articles in the language and the visual style of a magazine feature explain the admnistration’s strategies and plans. Each page is connected to a forum to facilitate comments and discussion.

Berlin: A well-written news services explains priorities and policy choices.

Lombardy: Easy-to-read text explains priorities and values and their application in administration activities and initiatives.

London: People can discuss and provide comments on draft planning documents before they are finalized.

Lyon: Planning and evaluation documents are accessible on the same page.

Naga City: Summary budget information is easily available without any download.

Paris: A clear description of how the city’s decision-making process is organized.

Best practice: Consultations and forums on specific topics; proposals by citizens or private entities.

Alberta: Public consultations on planning documents.

Glasgow: Public consultation through web chats.

London: Draft and final strategies are published on the same page, making it easy for people to comment on draft documents.

Rotterdam: People can submit their own proposals for new services, initiatives, or activities, following a precise but simple procedure. Proposals will be discussed at the next city council meeting.

Surrey: Simple introduction to how people can get involved in decision-making.

Best practice: A description of who does what.

Glasgow: Each departmental page starts with a synopsis of objectives and services provided.

London: The London City Government section starts with “who does what.”

Toronto: Short synopsis for each city department.

Best practice: Feedback on emerging needs that require an adjustment or modification of the organization.

Lyon: Public consultation on urbanism priorities.

Best practice: Description of how political decisions are implemented.

No examples found.

Best Practice: Consultations and forums on alerts and on the control of administrative behavior.

Amsterdam: Publicly accessible forum serves as tool to channel recommendations and complaints.

London: Public is actively involved in helping the council to control the executive.

Naga City: Publicly accessible forum (with most recent posts on the city’s home page) serves as tool to channel recommendations and complaints.

Best practice: Information on routine management activities.

Edinburgh: Easily accessible assessment on “how are we performing?”

 

Best Practice: Feedback on anomalies, malfunctions, and new needs.

Lombardy: Polls allow people to express their opinion on topics or themes of particular relevance to the region.

London: People can express their views on how government services can be improved.

Toronto: Citizens can provide practical input on the concrete implementation of parking arrangements.

Final Comments

Our assessment shows at least eight different best communication practices. However, they are not consistently present in the websites we surveyed and do not stem from unified approaches. Typically, there are more public websites that show innovative practices in providing access to information than sites that allow control on the decision-making process. To improve information access, better communication strategies are needed. Better usability is of crucial importance in increasing participation.

An innovative approach to improving usability could originate from a clever use of social tagging. While this practice can increase the level of participation, it can also improve the usability and findability of documentation and might make it possible for the public to understand how specific political decisions are reached and implemented—an area notably lacking in all the websites we surveyed.

Many open questions remain. What communications strategies can lead to a user-centered approach for regional institutional websites? What are the innovations that would allow us to implement these strategies?

To answer these questions, we need more than just a best-practice survey. Why are these institutional sites so hard to use and to understand? Should it really be necessary to understand how institutions function to take advantage of institutional websites? If it is not sufficient to show the activities of the executive board, then what should these institutional sites do for citizens and private entities? How will a well-thought-out institutional website satisfy the need for participatory government?

Sites Studied

This article is based on a study that took place at the end of 2005. Some of the studied websites ( Abruzzi, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, Naga City, Melbourne, and Sydney) have undergone substantial changes since then. However, we believe that the main conclusions of our paper still stand. Up-to-date information on the latest trends in citizen participation in online public services and public authority websites can be found on the blog www.experientia.com/e-democracy.

R egional sites covered by this study:

Municipal sites covered by this study:

 

 

 

About the Authors

Mark Vanderbeeken is a senior partner of Experientia, in charge of identity and strategic communications. He worked in Belgium (his home country), the USA, Denmark, and Italy for both profit and non-profit organizations and studied at Columbia University. He runs Experientia's two acclaimed blogs, (ital)Putting People First and (ital)e-Democracy.

Michele Visciola is the president of Experientia. He is an international expert on usability engineering, human factors, and user-centered design, and heads the Italian chapter of the Usability Professionals' Association. He has lived in the UK and the USA (where he studied at MIT Sloan) and is known as Italy’s top expert on usability.

 

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User Experience Magazine is by and about usability professionals, featuring significant and unique articles dealing with the broad field of usability and the user experience.
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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 4, 2007.
http://www.usabilityprofessionals.org/upa_publications/past_issues/2006-4.html.

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