Platform For Democratic Innovation Launches Transparency App

September 15, 2011 | 21:55
Platform For Democratic Innovation Launches Transparency App
Platform For Democratic Innovation Launches Transparency App
Information technology is changing the face of democracy. The newly established Dutch foundation Netwerk Democratie (Network Democracy) offers a platform for democratic innovation. Today, on the International Day of Democracy, the network launched the Open Agenda web application.

Mieke van Heesewijk is an internet strategist and co-founder of Netwerk Democratie (NetDem). In an interview with TechTheFuture she expands on the aims of the platform and the Open Agenda.

TTF: Why the name Netwerk Democratie?
MvH: Society used to be hierarchically structured. Much of the democratic process was organized around powerful institutions. The people were informed about the outcome through mass media outlets. But the democratic process is definitely changing. Today, democracy is much more interwoven with society. And that participation should be better integrated in the institutionalized democratic process.

It is also about making information available. Knowledge relevant to the decision making process is everywhere in society, not just in specialized institutions. Institutions should rely more on the networks around them to get themselves informed.

How does information technology change the democratic process?
IT has made it much more easy to share data. It can be applied to keep people better informed. But it also works the other way around. New channels of communication make it possible for constituents to share knowledge with their representatives so that they can make better informed decisions.

Another point is the radical transparency that the internet generates. Take WikiLeaks for instance, it released a fire hose of information which political institutions successfully kept away from the public in the past. It is not so much a debate about whether you agree with such developments. The fact is that all kinds of information increasingly will be available in the public domain. The internet disrupts traditional systems. It did so with the music industry, the clothing industry and it undoubtedly has an effect on democracy. The question that should be addressed is how to anticipate these developments.

Democratic decision making is increasingly taking place outside of institutionalized politics. We work a lot with civil initiatives. In the Netherlands there used to be a strong conviction that the government should solve the problems that confront society. But nowadays people increasingly organize themselves and take action. Communication technology is enabling people to find fellow citizens who take interest in the same issues. If the government isn’t able or unwilling to actively participate in self-organizing initiatives, the very least it could do is not stand in the way of them.

What kind of initiatives does NetDem take to make information available?
Institutions sit on a lot of data that is relevant to people outside those organizations. We try to make the owners of such data aware of that. And we can help them think about ways to make that data available to the public. We also try to liberate data by taking initiatives such as the Open Agenda.

What is the Open Agenda?
We have asked political representatives to make their schedule publically available. The idea behind it is that constituents can see what the people they elected are doing. And it works as an incentive for representatives to balance out whom they are spending their time with. President Obama has made his agenda publically available. During the Gulf of Mexico oil spill the president’s schedule showed that he had four appointments with representatives of the oil industry. Public pressure led him to invite Greenpeace for a meeting as well.

In the process we try to initiate a public debate about the transparency that information technology has brought about. An agenda is something very personal. Can representatives be asked to make that public because they hold a public position? It’s a question that lays bare the tension between privacy and transparency. And I don’t think that there is a univocal answer. Which is why we should have this discussion.

How did the representatives react to the Open Agenda?
We sent them a request by email to make their agenda public through our web application. Some of them reacted enthusiastically. Others replied they decided not to participate. But in general the established political parties react positively to our efforts. They are willing to debate the issues we raise. What surprises me is that there isn’t a clear dividing line between left and right leaning parties. The level of interest in this subject is not connected to political color. Maybe there is a generational divide but it is to early to really tell.

For more information on Netwerk Democratie: (Dutch)

Photo: source Netwerk Democratie
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