This post comes to us from the birthplace of democracy. Authors Antonis Schwarz and Harvard Kennedy School alum Panagiotis Vlachos, MPA ’13, paint a dark picture of the political landscape in Greece, from distrust to fury. Yet out of this unrest and pessimism they describe launching VouliWatch, a new online platform encouraging dialogue between Greek citizens and their elected representatives. VouliWatch, whose beta version launched this week, is the latest iteration of ParliamentWatch, a German innovation that has spread to six other European countries.
By Antonis Schwarz and Panagiotis Vlachos
Recent developments in Greece have exacerbated public distrust in the current political class. Opinion polls show a vacuum of political representation, disrespect for traditional political institutions, and widespread pessimism about the future. Once a symbol of democracy, the Greek Parliament in particular represents to the majority citizens a painful systemic failure.
A small team of social entrepreneurs, communication consultants, public policy experts, and open government geeks came together to make change. Many are pioneers in the Greece’s movement toward open government reform, open source software, surge of politically active citizen groups, a new entrepreneurial culture that has seen the mushrooming of digital start-ups, and crowd-sourced political and social initiatives.
While many doubt the potential for digital initiatives to reshape traditional democratic institutions, this group was inspired to act by online “Parliament Watch” platforms abroad.
The German organization Parliament Watch offers citizens the opportunity to publicly question members of the German and European Parliaments (MPs and MEPs). To prevent misuse of the platform, citizen questions and politician answers are monitored against a code of conduct. Parliament Watch has been replicated in six countries (Ireland, Luxemburg, Tunisia, Germany, France and Austria), so the team considered it a possible solution for Greece.
With technical help from Crowdpolicy, the team recently launched VouliWatch (Vouli=Parliament in Greek), a collaborative Internet project aimed at bridging the divide between citizens and Greek MPs and MEPs. VouliWatch aims to boost participation in the political process by providing a platform through which citizens can have their concerns and claims heard, influence legislation, and contribute to increased political accountability.
VouliWatch will not only monitor Greek MPs and MEPs and provide a forum for voters to ask questions outside the traditional channel of parliamentary control. The Greek version of Parliament Watch also leverages the expertise and experience of its founding team to introduce two crowd-sourcing tools that will enable citizens to identify and elevate issues of greatest concern:
1. “Crowdsourcing Legislation”: Citizens have the ability to contribute their experiences, ideas, and proposals and the community of users can then comment and rate each contribution. A Google map presents all submitted data with the option of filtering by location and subject categories such as education and tourism. Every month, all submissions are summarized and reported to MPs and MEPs as “food for thought” and action.
2. “Issue of the Month”: Every month, an editing team will highlight a salient issue to engage more users in online and offline discussion, in the form of debates or political labs. In-person debates and labs are likely to be supported by organizational partners that support institutional reform, open government, transparency and accountability. Since Greece has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in Europe, it is imperative to combine the online platform with offline events.
After the completion of an early version, the VouliWatch team organized a series of closed sessions with influential thinkers, digital innovators, public officials and social entrepreneurs to review and modify issues related to content moderation, personal data protection, parliamentary procedures, and participation.
An information/training session with parliamentarians and their staff revealed concerns and skepticism related to the parliamentarian offices’ capacity to respond and with VouliWatch’s effectiveness in moderating and filtering malevolent content or spam. As part of its response, the team prepared a detailed “how to” manual and appointed a team of experts to provide customized consulting.
VouliWatch went live on March 17 and is relying on social media to reach traditional media and the press. The team’s ambition is to generate traffic and content in order to test its own capacity to respond. It will also measure both the degree and quality of public participation and the responsiveness from the parliamentarian side.
Given the lack of tradition in Greece of questioning MPs directly on constituent-related issues, VouliWatch exoects to generate most traffic through the crowdsourcing functions, rather than the accountability functions, for at least the first 2-3 months, which will include local and European elections.
On the development side, a challenge for VouliWatch is to keep the platform user-friendly, which will help attract young voters and students, who generally abstain from politics and neglect representative democracy. Further, VouliWatch will seek to become self-sustaining through the creation of new revenue streams and away from a donation-based financing model and to maintain its independence. The team would also like to transfer its expertise to other countries and pioneer an innovative network of “ParliamentWatch-ers” worldwide.
VouliWatch is an innovation among crowd-sourcing platforms as it represents a ‘learning by doing’ effort to move the dominant political paradigm in Greec and beyond from citizen-as-spectator and passive democracy to genuine participatory democracy.
Antonis Schwarz (Founder) is a social entrepreneur of Greek-German origin, who previously worked in the venture philanthropy sector, as well as for the Ashoka Germany office. He is a recent graduate of IE Business School’s Master in International Management program.
Panagiotis Vlachos (Head of Strategy and Public Policy) is a lawyer and a public policy expert who has worked for the Greek government, the Hellenic and the European Parliament, consulting companies and political technology start-ups. He commenced from the mid-career MPA progam at Harvard Kennedy School in 2013.