Participation and public debate

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Citizen participation in public policy allows to develop inclusive decision-making processes that help administrations understanding the needs to be addressed and making better choices, thanks to the contribution of the recipients.

A participatory process must address issues in a proactive way, without limiting itself to recording preferences on options defined a priori. A true participation generates a confrontation open to all interests, including those of individual citizens and, unlike what happens in assemblies, encourages exchange and mutual learning among participants. For this to happen, it is essential that the process is strongly structured – facilitating mutual listening and dialogue – and technically managed through facilitation processes. In addition, in order not to generate frustration in participants, every participatory process should be oriented towards the production of a shared result, through the definition of a public and transparent pact, which should be established at the beginning with the participants who agree to take part in it.

The theoretical framework of reference in the field of participation chosen by Open Government Partnership (OGP) is that of “deliberative democracy“, a paradigm developed in order to improve democracy through dialogue and informed debate among citizens; the word “deliberation” (from the verb “to deliberate“) does not mean “decision”, but “evaluation” deepened through discussion and comparison of different points of view.

The relationship of trust between citizens and institutions is the essential ingredient for the implementation of public policies; numerous international studies have shown that trust towards institutions has a fluctuating trend, also for contingent reasons. The Government at a Glance 2019 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that only 45% of citizens in member countries trust their government, while the Edelman Trust Barometer reports that 66% of citizens in 28 countries globally think their governments are unable to meet the challenges they face. In this context, the percentage of citizens who want to make their voices heard on issues that affect them is increasing; a “voice” that constitutes a resource for governments and administrations.

The promotion of sustainable practices also from the social point of view, in the policies of member states, is also a request from Europe: in fact, the Action Plan for European democracy, approved by the Commission in December 2020, recommends deliberative democracy for the implementation of the Next Generation EU. Moreover, President Ursula von der Leyen herself stated in her inaugural speech that “the European Union is not just about parties and politics, rules or regulations, markets or currencies: it is, first and foremost, about people and their aspirations“.

For this reason, it is essential that, on the eve of the most impressive plan of public and private spending supported by the NRRP, measures are implemented to prevent the emergence of conflicts with citizens, caused by scarce information and lack of involvement, in the implementation of projects for the development and modernization of the country.

 

The national context between quality of democracy and NRRP

For more than 20 years in Italy, participatory processes have been carried out to involve all stakeholders in discussions about decisions or implementation of public works, at a preliminary stage, when projects can still be improved. The process usually takes place through in-depth meetings managed in a structured way, with the presence of experts, characterized by dialogue and not conflict. This approach, however, should not be confused with the use of e-democracy platforms to foster direct democracy, which has recently seen a strong acceleration in Italy. The e-democracy platforms can represent a useful tool for the promoters of inclusive processes, to extend the pool of participants thanks to the possibility of overcoming the space and time barriers of the network. The use of these tools must be accompanied by deliberative processes that guarantee the quality of the active involvement of participants, even on a local scale and with meetings that encourage dialogue, in order to pursue the research for more shared solutions.

In the past, many participatory processes have been promoted spontaneously by regions or municipalities interested in the quality of democracy in their territories, in some cases with regional laws or municipal regulations to promote and finance such processes. On a national scale, an important novelty has been introduced in our legal system and concerns public works: the deliberative approach was introduced in 2018 with mandatory public debate for all works above a certain threshold of cost or size.

 

Participation in National Action Plan for open government

The Italian Government is committed to promoting online public consultations among administrations as a useful tool for public decision-makers to improve the quality of decisions.

To this aim, in the 3rd National Action Plan, the “Guidelines for Consultation in Italy” were co-produced in 2017, recently used by Sogin to set up the National Seminar on the Radioactive Waste Repository.

Subsequently, with the 4th National Action Plan, in 2019 the Government made available to all central public administrations the open-source platform (ParteciPa) and to all local public administrations the same application, as useful tools to implement online participatory processes.  Overall, the ParteciPa platform has hosted to date around 15 consultations on a national scale.

About this, it should be noted that among the recommendations expressed by the Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) there is one related to strengthen the level of collaboration by increasing the active participation of civil society in the process of defining the commitments that should be included in the National Action Plans for open government. Not less important, to this recommendation it has been added the general indication to develop and implement a system of civic monitoring to ensure transparent allocation and use of funding provided in response to COVID-19.

With this in mind, the following goals were identified as part of the co-creation process for the 5th National Action Plan:

  • Promotion of the opportunities for participation provided by the national legislation for the NRRP and for the plan of complementary funds, in order to support the implementation of citizen engagement pathways aimed at improving the planned measures;
  • Support for advanced participatory practices at the various levels of government.