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TID procedural recommendations

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Preliminary TID+ Procedural Recommendations




Building on the TOM analysis already undertaken (available for consultation at the public project wiki: http://tidywork.pbwiki.com/), this report contains a set of preliminary procedural recommendations regarding how to improve the TOM tool for e-participation. Yet although they concern in this specific case the Estonian e-participation tool, it is expected that the following recommendations will be applicable for unleashing the potential of e-participation initiatives in any context and hence they are perhaps best rest in a context-independent manner. Whilst the analysis, therefore, takes place in the light of the Estonian experience, we firmly believe that the suggested improvements presented are a generally valid blueprint for an enhanced e-participation tool.


Our recommendations draw on all four elements of the analysis report – usage activity data, the survey of TOM users, interviews with authors of legislative proposals and interviews with public officials – to understand how TOM can be made to perform better as a way of facilitating citizen participation in decision-making. The following suggestions for improving TOM are addressed principally to the government authorities tasked with launching the new, improved TID+. To a lesser degree, however, they also target citizens whom the tool is supposed to empower since the lessons learnt from TOM still have to be put into practice by TID+ users.


The suggestions presented here take the form of a series of measures targeted on the one hand at improving citizen mobilization in using the revamped TID+ tool and, on the other hand, to increase the legislative impact of TID+-generated ideas on public policy. However, these suggestions are intended to be only preliminary in nature; they are not assumed to be definitive given that the TID+ tool is part of a dynamic, web-based process and reality liable to evolve in an unpredictable manner. Moreover, this report does not dwell on issues of improving TOM’s technical specifications – although there is some overlap, which is signaled appropriately – since this is the subject matter of a complementary sister-report (TID+ Technical Specifications). Finally, this paper is preliminary in a further sense given that it is the product still of the initial phase of an ongoing project of research, analysis and experimentation in the area of e-participation. Thus the suggestions for refining the e-participation tool are subject to potential substantive revision in the light of subsequent trials and evaluations of the enhance e-participation tool. In any case, future project deliverables, including academic analysis, will continue to re-assess the validity of the recommendations presented here.


The report is structured as follows. The first section briefly reviews the weaknesses of the existing TOM in order to identify the priorities for making TID+ a success. These priorities concern citizen mobilization and legislative impact. Thus section two provides recommendations on the former, whilst the third section offers suggestions for the latter. A short conclusion completes the document.


1. Problems with the Existing TOM Tool


Based on the analysis report, two major problems with current TOM usage can be identified: poor citizen mobilization and the low impact of TOM-generated legislative ideas. Both these problems are caused by a variety of factors but the end result is, respectively, a low number of TOM users and few positive government responses to TOM-generated ideas. Consequently, visitor traffic to the TOM site stagnated to a level comparable with the average number of visits to a moderately popular Estonian weblog or the website of a medium-sized Estonian business. The following table summarizes the causes behind both problems as identified in the earlier analysis report:


Poor Mobilization:


• Few users

• Dominance of a few mega-users

• Authors disappointed by the lack of user comments

• No linkage between the authoring, commenting and voting phases

• Little discussion of government responses as no user notification of responses

• No possibility of re-submitting revised ideas


Low Impact:


• Public officials contemptuous of low public participation rate

• Answering is a burden on civil servants

• Ideas do not correspond with ministerial priorities

• Civil servants in charge of responding do not make policy decisions - they execute

• TOM-generated ideas are lost once responded to; they drop out of policy debate as civil servants defend official line


These two problems of mobilization and impact are closely inter-twined. Indeed, it seems that there is a negative feedback loop that largely explains the drop in the average number of votes per idea, which fell from 20 in 2001 to 4 by 2006. This negative cycle of poor citizen mobilization leading to civil servants’ unwillingness to take seriously TOM ideas, which in turn discourages citizens from using TOM and further results in pessimistic user comments on TOM ideas, is illustrated in the following graphic:


The Negative Feedback Loop Behind Low Citizen Mobilization



Given these weaknesses in the existing TOM tool it is evident that a radically revised strategy for TID+ usage is necessary to overcome the twofold problem of low mobilization and impact. However, there is good reason to believe that such a strategy is relatively simple to put into effect. The emphasis, as far as increasing mobilization is concerned, should above all be placed on publicity and creative linkages between the TID+ platform and a variety of other fora for and actors in public debate. Secondly, as far as enabling TID+ to have a much greater legislative impact is concerned, here the priority is to make the functioning of TID+ more intelligent so as to allow the ideas it generates to play a greater role in public debate.


2. A Strategy for Improving E-Participation with TID+: Mobilizing Citizens and Making an Impact


The two elements of the strategy proposed here for improving the TOM tool are complementary or, better, mutually reinforcing. Whereas the weaknesses of the current TOM tool were seen to create a negative feedback loop, the purpose of these procedural recommendations is to foster a positive feedback mechanism. Based on the survey and interview data gathered from users, authors and civil servants, it is possible to identify various measures to increase citizen mobilization and the impact of TOM-generated ideas in the Estonian public sphere. These will first be discussed separately before then showing how mobilization and impact strategies will work in tandem.


2.1 How to Mobilize Citizens: Four Recommendations


The most evident flaw in the current TOM tool was the lack of publicity concerning its very existence. The statistics from the user analysis are very clear. Usage, in terms of both the number of legislative proposals and number of votes per idea, was greatest in 2001 when TOM-generated ideas were mirrored on Estonia’s largest internet portal, www.delfi.ee. Combined with the coverage accorded to the launch of TOM, this linkage between TOM and a major internet portal provided the type of publicity necessary for attracting users to the e-participation tool. Hence the first recommendation for TID+ is as follows:


Mobilization Recommendation Number One – the TID+ tool has to be advertised permanently across internet and other media.


The method for advertising TID+ can vary across different media yet is nevertheless simple to put into effect. For instance, internet portals and online newspapers should all incorporate permanent links to TID+ in their current affairs coverage. Likewise, traditional print media (newspapers and periodicals) as well as TV and radio coverage should mention the TID+ tool website, even if only in a byline, as a forum for further public debate or for demanding government action in their opinion pieces or commentary articles. However, the purpose of such coverage must extend beyond simply linking or commenting directly on TID+-generated ideas, which is likely to occur naturally once TID+ attracts more users, as happened in the case of the huge petition against road tolls in the UK (the latter generated extensive press coverage, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/6349027.stm; ‘Petitions, Politics and Prats: A Cautionary Tale for Number 10[, Guardian 17 February, 2007; ‘The E-Petition Shows My Government is Listening’, Observer, 18 February, 2007). Rather, the TID+ tool needs to be advertised as a means to pass new legislation. TID+, therefore, needs to be visible and recognized as the obvious space for citizens to engage in public debate and contribute to discussing as well as proposing legislative change.


These two measures by themselves would suffice to heighten awareness of the TID+ tool, thereby allowing the TID+ tool and TID+-generated ideas to reach a greater audience, including potentially NGOs, political parties and private weblogs. In this context a “send to a friend” service, commonplace in online newspapers, allowing users to introduce TID+-generated ideas to their circle of friends, would be an optimal solution for increasing TID+ awareness.


Increased publicity can also be expected to have a positive impact on the discussion taking place amongst TID+ users. Interviews with the authors of TOM ideas revealed particular disappointment with the quality and quantity of discussion amongst TOM users. This is the subject of our second recommendation for improving mobilization.


Mobilization Recommendation Number Two – a system of email or RSS notification linking authors and discussants is necessary to improve the quality and quantity of discussion of TID+-generated ideas.


Although it is expected that greater coverage will increase discussion of TID+-generated ideas amongst users, further measures need to be taken to improve the added value of this inter-user debate. The current TOM tool subdivides the practice of e-participation into different phases once an idea is proposed: discussion, revision followed by voting. TOM users, authors in particular, expressed dissatisfaction with the linkages between these separate phases. Invariably, users explained that there was no way to keep track of discussion and revision of TOM-generated ideas, which led to disengagement with the e-participation process. Authors were disinclined to remain engaged in e-participation in the face of the indifference of other users as indicated by a lack of comments.


Hence we propose the introduction of a system of email notification or RSS feed (Really Simple Syndication, an automatic system for alerting subscribers of updated website content without them having to visit the actual website) that automatically informs authors that their idea has been commented upon. Similarly, this principle can also be reversed in the next phase of the TID+ process, revision, meaning that users who have commented on an idea can be alerted regarding how the original idea has been subsequently revised after the discussion phase. Furthermore, the whole process of authorship and commenting should be complemented by the ready availability of reputational information for each user (specifying number of comments and ideas etc, but without revealing real identity) as proposed in the TID+ technical specifications. This information is necessary to curtail the dominance of mega-users, as has occurred with the existing tool, and prevent discussions from becoming a user cartel (participation inequality is a recurrent problem for online communities, see http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html) beset by comments that tend towards the personal. Another technical specification that overlaps with the third procedural recommendation presented here, concerns the creation of a fully searchable database of TID+-generated ideas and comments.


Mobilization Recommendation Number Three – the TID+ tool requires the creation of a searchable database of TID+ ideas to signal previous attempts to address a problem and make it easier to mobilize TID+ users.


To improve further the quality of comments on TID+-generated ideas and stimulate citizen participation, it is suggested that there needs to be a way of storing and retrieving previous TID+ ideas and the comments they elicited. This database should be fully searchable according to the policy area or subject matter of the ideas proposed.


As discussed above, user feedback clearly indicated a tendency towards disengagement – especially amongst authors of ideas – with the TOM tool in the face of the perceived indifference of other users. One way to overcome this problem, therefore, is the creation of a database of all TID+-generated ideas and comments to assist authors when proposing new legislative ideas in cognate areas. In this way, users will also be able to make contact with previous authors and those who have commented on relevant previous ideas. This will make it easier for new authors to mobilize a community of TID+ users to support a TID+-generated idea. Furthermore, the knowledge that comments will be stored for future use should also act as a disincentive for users to post ad hominem messages (replying to an argument or factual claim by attacking or appealing to the person making the argument or claim, rather than by addressing the substance of the argument or producing evidence against the claim). Thus the quality of debate will also be improved. However, the participant feedback analysis also indicated that authors of TID+-generated ideas were particularly disappointed by the post-TID+ phase of e-participation, i.e. the process whereby a legislative proposal is delivered to a government ministry. This forms the basis of the fourth and final recommendation for improving citizen mobilization.


Mobilization Recommendation Number Four – an automatic system for tracing the progress of TID+-generated ideas once they have been delivered to the government is required.


The analysis report revealed that authors were particularly disappointed with the lack of information regarding the progress of their TOM idea once successfully voted upon and sent to a government ministry. Thus we propose the creation of an automatic system (by email notification or RSS) whereby authors and other TID+ users can track the progress of a TID+-generated idea in the stage leading up to an official government response. This would not only ensure the transparency of e-participation process, thereby showing that the government takes the fruits of e-participation seriously. It would also enable the TID+ user community to mobilize in the crucial period of government decision-making by allowing users to know the timing of government decisions and thus organize their mobilization accordingly.


Indeed, this notification system should also encompass the eventual government response as author interviews indicated that they were particularly dissatisfied by the failure of the existing tool to signal a government response to their idea. Moreover, the tracking of TID+ ideas as they progress through the various phases of governmental decision-making should also become part of the TID+ database. This would enable the authors of new ideas to discover how seriously previous similar ideas were considered as well as what the eventual government response was.


2.2 How to Increase the Legislative Impact of TID+-Generated Ideas: Six Recommendations



The increased mobilization that will result from implementing the four recommendations specified above should obviously have a positive effect on the legislative impact of TID+-generated ideas given that civil servants were above all lacking self-confidence towards TOM because of its low number of users. Nevertheless, it is still vital to improve certain features of the TOM e-participation tool in order to ensure that the ideas it generates have a greater influence on public policy. Thus we propose six additional suggestions in order that the improved TOM tool, TID+, can have a greater impact, which in turn is liable to herald a virtuous circle of greater public mobilization. Hence the first recommendation targets the audience to which TID+-generated ideas are circulated.


Impact Recommendation Number One – TID+-generated ideas should also be circulated to a wider network of interested parties, including parliamentary committees, political parties and NGOs.


The analysis of participant feedback demonstrated that TOM users, especially authors, were frustrated by the paucity of positive government responses to TOM-generated ideas and yet recognized the incapacity of civil servants, as administrators rather than decision-makers, to implement certain ideas. Thus we propose that if TID+ is to have a greater impact, the ideas it generates ought not to be circulated solely to government ministries. Rather, these ideas should also be communicated directly to decision-making actors such as parliamentary committees as well as partisan or advocacy organizations such as political parties and NGOs. Indeed, when interviewed, civil servants who were involved in responding to TOM-generated ideas approved the notion that interest groups should be able to express their support for ideas during the phase of government consideration.


The impact of e-participation will be greater the more TID+-generated ideas are embraced by politicians and the better the quality of these ideas as a result of more expert participation in the commenting and revision phases. However, the engagement of politicians and experts cannot be delivered by fiat. Hence the suggestion here to circulate TID+-generated ideas to the wider policy community is understood to be the best means of establishing connections between the e-participation platform and decision-makers, interest groups and experts. Nevertheless, the entire purpose of e-participation is to empower ordinary citizens – not to have the medium hijacked by already well-established political actors and institutions – which is why the second suggestion is designed to increase the information available to TID+ users who wish to propose legislation.


Impact Recommendation Number Two – the TID+ tool needs to connect users to outside sources of information to help the drafting and commenting of ideas.


The quality of TOM users was already well-regarded according to interviews with civil servants. Yet to ensure the continuing quality of ideas and to improve that of the comments, it appears necessary to enable TID+ ideas to be linked to external sources of information. In fact, the Estonian government originally sought to associate the TOM tool with a database of public law, a move we wholeheartedly endorse. In addition, the TID+ tool should indicate to its users sources of information relevant to the subject matter of each legislative idea. This would perhaps require a moderator to upload and maintain links with external information sources.


Impact Recommendation Number Three – the TID+ tool should indicate the policy priorities of government ministries.


One of the complaints common to both the authors of TOM ideas and civil servants was the fact that TOM-generated ideas did not match ministerial priorities. Consequently, ideas that did not require high-level decision-making nevertheless did not meet with a positive response. To overcome this problem, we propose that the TID+ tool should have a feature – which might also be the task of a moderator – specifying the current policy priorities of each government ministry. This would enable potential TID+ authors to tailor their suggestions to current priorities, thereby increasing the chances that ideas generated via e-participation will meet with a positive answer. However, feedback analysis also revealed a desire on the part of TOM users to have the possibility to resubmit ideas. This is the basis of the fourth impact recommendation.


Impact Recommendation Number Four – TID+ should allow users to revise and resubmit ideas that have received a negative answer from the relevant government ministry.


The existing TOM tool does not allow for the resubmission of rejected ideas. This was considered a flaw by TOM users, reducing the ability for citizens to engage government administrations in a dialogical process. Thus we suggest that a system for revising and resubmitting ideas be incorporated into TID+. Depending on the type of response a TID+-generated idea received from the government, the resubmission facility should allow users to amend the legislative proposal accordingly. It seems only appropriate, however, that a newly-amended proposal for resubmission also be subject to a new vote by the community of users. In this was spurious amendments of rejected ideas could be avoided whilst also creating an incentive for ministries to consider proposals more seriously as ideas too hastily shelved would be likely to be resubmitted. Moreover, resubmission might be taken by other parties to whom TID+ ideas are circulated as proof of a strong constituency and thus adopted by these same interested parties.


Impact Recommendation Number Five – a quorum of votes is needed for adopting TID+-generated ideas, which could rise in line with user numbers.


Impact is directly related to the number of TOM users, in particular the number of user votes each idea musters. The current TOM tool only requires a simple majority of votes to allow an idea to pass; there is no quorum. This was interpreted by civil servants as a major weakness because it meant that they had to respond to ideas through a formal, cumbersome process on the basis of a mere handful of votes. To avoid this awkward situation, we thus propose the introduction of a formal quorum to ensure that the ideas presented to the various government ministries have the backing of a more significant number of users. In fact, it seems appropriate to relate the quorum to the actual number of users so that greater citizen mobilization can be reflected directly in the voting process. As a result, the ideas voted in will have the sanction of a greater number of users, thereby increasing the chances that the government and other parties will take them credibly.


Impact Recommendation Number Six – rejected TID+ ideas should be linked to future statute amendment.


The final suggestion for improving the impact the new TID+ tool will have on public policy concerns the relationship between e-participation and future statute amendments. To maximize the possibilities that TID+-generated ideas will have to influence Estonian legislation, we suggest that rejected ideas nevertheless be kept on file in the relevant ministries, especially those rejected for their lack of congruence with current government priorities. In this way, subsequent statute amendment that might correspond with or relate better to earlier TID+-generated ideas will not be lost and might well benefit from the input of earlier TID+ debates.


3. Conclusions: Creating a Virtuous Circle of Mobilization and Impact through TID+


The various recommendations presented in this report are designed to address specific weaknesses in the existing TOM tool for e-participation as revealed in the analysis report. Poor citizen mobilization and the weak legislative impact of TOM were singled out as the two major drawbacks of the current tool. This was seen to lead to a negative feedback loop whereby low mobilization inevitably hampered the positive impact TOM could have on public policy.


To address these problems – which were often formulated as concerns on the part of users and public officials interviewed for the analysis report – we have compiled a list of remedies in the form of four proposals for engendering citizen mobilization and six aimed at increasing legislative impact. These recommendations are not assumed to be exhaustive although they are considered, at this stage, the most compelling. They are also, as should be clear from their descriptions, relatively easy to implement. In addition, the recommendations for mobilization and impact are intended to complement one another, working in tandem so that a greater legislative impact can improve mobilization whilst the latter serves also to increase the former. This complementarity can be illustrated as follows:


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