Smart Solutions

Utilising e-participation tools in the framework of Smart Village Strategy development and/or implementation

How can e-participation tools be harnessed for joint strategy development in rural communities?

Smart Villages are communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience, building on local strengths and opportunities. They rely on a participatory approach to develop and implement their strategy to improve their economic, social and/or environmental conditions, in particular, by mobilising solutions offered by digital technologies. In this context, the question often arises whether digital technologies can be used not only as a tool for solving specific problems of rural communities, but also for supporting the cooperation of local actors in joint strategy development. So-called e-participation tools or platforms are often referred to in this context.

Indeed, over the last years, several digital tools have become available to better engage local citizens in political or strategic decision-making. In addition, so called digital neighbourhood platforms have emerged where people can meet others in a virtual space and share ideas. However, the digital participation tools currently available differ considerably in terms of the functions they offer, and not every tool is well suited to support every participation or collaboration process. Core functions that are often supported by specific e-participation tools can be summarised as follows:

  • bringing a problem identified in the local community to the immediate attention of a responsible party or an interested group,
  • crowed sourcing of knowledge, ideas and aspirations in relation to identified problems or specified themes,
  • community mapping of local resources and proposals when spatial aspects of a particular issue are at the heart of the local engagement process,
  • collective proposition development in terms of a structured and transparent deliberation process,
  • democratic decision making in terms of voting.

More generally, e-participation tools offer the possibility to participate in collective consultation processes independent of time and space constraints. Practically speaking, this means that individual members of the local community can get or stay involved even if it may not always be possible for them to meet with others at a certain time and/or place. This can be particularly helpful in communities that cover a large geographic area or where some community members live in remote areas.

How does it work?

The choice of the right e-participation tool does, however, not in itself guarantee a successful participation process. Experiences suggest that e-participation requires embedding an appropriate technical tool into a comprehensive strategy towards community engagement. Such a strategy may entirely rely on digital engagement means. However, it can also rely on a mixed approach that combines online engagement with “classic” engagement formats such as citizens’ meetings, round tables, on-site visits, or others. The first step should therefore be to develop a clear idea of what exactly the goal of the envisaged digital participation process should be and what concrete benefits are expected to flow to the local community from the e-participation tool to be selected. In general, such benefits may concern two somewhat different aspects of the overall engagement process, namely:

  • facilitating a transparent flow of information within the local community,
  • facilitating discussions, opinion-forming and public discourse in terms of a deliberative online process,

Both aspects can be supported in different ways by currently available e-participation tools. As part of the Smart Rural 21 project, empirica (partner in Germany) has therefore, developed a short guidance paper to support you in assessing whether the utilisation of an appropriate e-participation tool might be helpful in the context of your own Smart Village initiative.

Who is the tool for?

  • The e-participation guidance paper is essentially for villages leaders (e.g. mayors and their team, village advisors, village associations, municipal boards or local stakeholder groups) who consider harnessing digital solutions for supporting collective opinion formation and community engagement in the context of Smart Village Strategy development and/or implementation.
  • Members of the local community should be engaged in Smart Village Strategy and policy development by means of an appropriate mix of engagement formats. The participation of those having access to online communication means can be further facilitated by means of an appropriate e-participation tools.

Do’s and Dont’s

  • Don’t take for granted that all stakeholders in your local community share a common understanding on what e-participation tools are and what they are good for.
  • Don’t deploy any e-participation tools without first defining a comprehensive strategy towards stakeholder participation in the envisaged deliberation process. For instance, the technology as such won’t prescribe in what way stakeholder knowledge, expertise and opinions communicated by means of an e-participation tool are ultimately to be brought to bear on the further shaping of your Smart Village Strategy and/or any related activities.
  • Clearly spell out in advance the responsibilities of any stakeholders who will have a role to play in putting a digital participation process into practice.
  • Carefully consider what human, technical and financial resources are required to put a desired participation process design into practice with the help of a specific e-participation tool.
  • Carefully consider whether a mix of online and offline participation opportunities is needed to ensure that all community members can actually be appropriately involved in the desired consultation process, whether they are technologically savvy or not.

How was the tool used already?

Generally, e-participation is about fostering civic engagement and open, participatory governance through digital technologies. There is a growing body of evidence pointing into the direction that e-participation is increasingly utilised as a tool for engagement and strengthened collaboration, in particular, between governments and citizens in general. There are however, also examples where the potentials generally provided by e-participation tools have successfully been exploited by non-government organsiations and grass roots level movements.

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