Alberto Alemanno, Founder and CEO
Stable, legitimate democracies require direct citizen engagement.
There has never been a stronger case for citizens’ involvement in public affairs both at national and EU levels.
Yet, the incentives to act, take sides, mobilise, and expose yourself for a public cause are virtually nonexistent in today’s mature democracies. As a result, we are experiencing a profound civic empowerment gap in our societies: political power is distributed in vastly unequal ways among citizens. This gap challenges the stability, legitimacy, and quality of our democratic republics, discourages average voters, and may lead to a rise in radical political parties. In these circumstances, leaving the business of government to elected representatives is a mistake. The future of European democracy demands a new model, and towards this end, eLabEurope is experimenting with new ways forward.
Today, the intellectual pendulum is swinging back to the belief that state action is needed to regulate human affairs and away from the idea that the state is the main cause of economic dysfunction. As the only institution standing between individuals and non-state actors, such as corporations and banks, the state – be it national or European – is poised to regain some legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. EU citizens, especially the young, are progressively realising that a ‘larger’ state may solve many of their personal and immediate struggles, whether they are denied a small loan by heavily and publicly subsidized banks, or whether employers use threats to impose unreasonable working conditions. Moreover, given the size of the major challenges facing society, such as climate change, welfare, and immigration reform, only the state – notably the EU – seems able to respond to these dilemmas on an adequate scale. In other words, the state is back and is here to stay.
Second, this revamped state is reorganizing itself in light of the Open Government trend as a public digital platform. After having being advised that economics, social policy, and taxation are matters for experts and are therefore far beyond the understanding of the layman, public administrations have shifted their postures and today are in the listening mood. As such, they are increasingly expected to act as catalysts to disperse information and expertise in society. In particular, rapid and pervasive technological change – as epitomized by social media – has created new ways of rendering accessible to everyone data and information traditionally held solely by public administrations. As a result, the monopoly that politicians have long enjoyed on governmental affairs has been broken. The release of public data in open government is, however, only a means to a higher end: that of creating the conditions for engaging citizens in government actions. The emergence of empowered citizens able to take informed decisions is likely to complement the roles of the representative decision makers currently running our democratic societies. Indeed, elections to Parliaments and local governments are no longer our only means for converting public opinion into collective action. The realities of crowdsourcing – as exemplified by wikis, social media platforms, and plenty of apps – illustrate how there has never been a better time for channelling collective action into the pursuit of the common good ?
Third, as governments become more inclusive in their decision-making, their policies are becoming more evidence-driven than ever. Given the advent of ‘big data’, emotional politics no longer sells: we need facts to choose one policy option over another. Moreover, thanks in particular to the emergence of behavioural sciences, it is increasingly possible to test the effectiveness of our public policies, exactly as we do when we authorise new medicinal products. Only those policies that work deserve to be implemented, and should generate popular support.
Today, as reflected in the Lisbon Treaty, representative and participatory democracies are expected to progressively blend. Experiments like liquid democracy are probably the beginning of this process.
In these newly created circumstances, young people should not abandon faith in political institutions, but rather exercise oversight on elected personnel, and meaningfully contribute to these representatives’ work. In turn, policymakers are expected to create – by relying on social media and other participatory channels –conditions that ensure that civic input may contribute and shape the fabrics of government. Thanks to technological development and rapid access to information, young people, by enjoying a generational comparative advantage, have never been better placed to achieve these democratic outcomes.
It is against this backdrop that eLabEurope will promote civic engagement and participation in Europe and beyond through an unconventional mixing and matching of academic research and consultancy in the public interest. We will fill the gap between academic thinking and action by creating synergies between scholars and policymakers to engage underrepresented citizens and civil society organisations.
Our mission is improving people’s lives by changing how we govern. The time is now for lobbying for the public interest, in Europe and beyond.
Alberto Alemanno, Founder and CEO