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When top down visions meet grassroots digital activism: notes from Netherlands

Date added: July 21, 2017

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The Netherlands provides several avenues for citizen participation in formal policy-making, and is often described as a global leader in e-participation and e-government. Yet, even in a context where citizen participation has become a policy principle, the desired format of and the actual opportunities for participation can be problematic.

The Dutch case raises awareness on four pitfalls:

  • the appropriation of citizen participation as a means to legitimise cuts to public services
  • the development of a limited (and limiting) vision of participation
  • the difficulty of a systematic review of the landscape of participation opportunities
  • and the limited approach to the role of ICTs in policy-making.

This Brief seeks to understand what lessons can be learned from the integration of ICTs in the governance process in the Netherlands. In particular, it looks at the visions and opportunities for citizen engagement opened up by the use of digital technologies in governance processes. This research presents the top-down visions and opportunities for citizen engagement, comparing them to those emerging organically out of a specific case of grassroots digital activism - Ons Geld (Our Money).

The empirical case study of Ons Geld indicated that ICTs are widely relied upon to mobilise support for the initiative. Yet, ICTs were primarily used in a top-down fashion, in order to circulate the message of the organisers and to persuade fellow citizens to lend their support for particular proposals.

The study revealed four lessons:

  • technology is only one component of citizen participation - citizen participation is shaped by the wider political culture, the availability of resources, as well as contingency
  • the current format of the formal mechanism for citizen participation is not conducive to a deliberative model of democracy - instead, they encourage a top-down approach to politics that entrenches itself as a "practice" on the grassroots level. Citizen activists have little incentives to engage fellow citizens in elaborating joint proposals in a deliberative manner
  • the cost of citizen participation requires more careful attention - successful use of ICTs for civic mobilisation purposes rests upon the skills and resources of the citizen organisers. This emphasises the necessity of investing in the development of technical literacy skills for civic purposes
  • ICTs are yet to be fully integrated within the existing formal avenues for citizen input into policy-making - successful use of ICTs for civic mobilisation purposes also rests upon the possibility to access suitable online tools – software or platforms. However, such platforms need to be developed in partnership with citizen organisers and civil society representatives in order to capture their needs and respond to their concerns.
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