Greece is often referred to as the birthplace of democracy, and that might well be the case, however the country’s rich historical heritage should not be perceived as a de facto guarantor of its democratic future. The admirable, albeit relatively recent democratic tradition of this country often acts as a veil which coincidentally, if not conveniently, adorns and covers a rather problematic political present.
The rise of extreme nationalism and the normalization of alt right rhetoric in the public sphere; the increase of social and economic inequality; the ever growing delegitimization of political institutions and parliamentary democracy in the eyes of citizens; the proliferation, if not to say the institutionalization of fake news and often state sponsored disinformation, and the continuing decline in voter turnout in elections are all sound indicators that Greek democracy is – if not failing – at least facing some serious challenges that need to be addressed with urgency.
Every issue mentioned in the long and bleak list above is, I believe, horizontally permeated by a constant variable, which is that a large number of citizens in western democracies, and to an even greater degree in Greece, feel let down by the political elites and the democratic process. Citizens all too often feel that they have no influence over their elected representatives, that their voices are not really being heard and that they have no access to what is being discussed and decided behind closed doors. It seems that politics has reverted to an exclusive sport of the elites, where you need to be highly educated (and preferably rich), to not only actively participate but even to understand the legislation that concerns your everyday life.
Voting once every four years is not enough; democracy is not there to give a carte blanche to a government to act as it pleases for four years. Citizen participation, oversight and access to information are essential elements of a truly democratic system of governance. Without these I am afraid that the issues mentioned above will continue to gradually intensify, rendering democracy obsolete in the eyes of many.
At Vouliwatch, we believe that this vicious cycle of stagnation and the gradual erosion of democracy can and must be broken once and for all. It is a long term process which will require significant effort and commitment from all relevant stakeholders (politicians, citizens, civil society) however it is imperative that the seeds of change are sown and that the right conditions are created for a gradual shift towards a new, more open and inclusive political paradigm; a political paradigm based on trust, accountability and transparency.
The role of Civic Technology
So how do we go about restoring public trust while creating the right conditions for increased citizen engagement? Well I think that the answer to this question can be fairly simple…namely through the integration of digital technology and more specifically civic technology in the political realm.
Broadly speaking civic technology is an umbrella term for a currently emerging field of organisations and initiatives which are developing software in order to help solve the societal, governmental or democratic challenges our societies are facing. These challenges encompass everything from promoting government transparency, accessibility of public data as well as developing better public decision-making and co-creation processes.
Civic technology is viewed by many, including myself, as the platform upon which we can jumpstart civic engagement and public trust, and enhance democracy’s main tenets. Through its use we can extract- codify – aggregate – visualize and disseminate information to a wide audience in a very short space of time. We can enhance checks from the bottom up and provide citizens with monitoring tools, therefore promoting accountability as well as citizen participation. In other words civic tech can contribute towards bridging the trust gap between the political system and citizens.
The realization of the important role that civic technology can play in restoring trust in the political system whilst promoting transparency, accountability and civic engagement is what led to the birth of Vouliwatch in 2014.
Vouliwatch (“Vouli” means Parliament in Greek) is an Athens based non-partisan parliamentary monitoring/transparency promoting organisation. Its main goal is to bridge the gap between citizens and their political representatives whilst promoting a culture of transparency, accountability and active citizenship. Vouliwatch develops and makes use of innovative digital technology applications to facilitate the monitoring of parliamentarians’ activities, transparent communication between MPs/MEPs and their constituents, as well as the recording of all parliamentary activity (legislative process).
The platform offers an “ask your MP/MEP” function that gives citizens the ability to publicly pose questions to MPs/MEPs and receive answers, all moderated by Vouliwatch’s team to prevent misuse. The Votewatch application allows users to monitor the voting behaviour of each MP and provides detailed information of each bill put forward for voting. Vouliwatch also offers a ‘policy monitoring’ tool, which allows our users to learn about and compare what the positions of the main political parties are on given policy areas. The “parliamentary data” tool scrapes data from parliament and presents in detail all parliamentary activity including the legislative process as well as the means of parliamentary control. In doing so, citizens can have a full picture of parliament’s and MPs activity, make comparisons with previous parliamentary periods and of course download and reuse the data available as they please as it is provided in open format. Furthermore, Vouliwatch has recently developed a new civic tech tool which presents and analyses via comparative graphs and visualisations the contents of the asset declarations of politicians. Therefore giving citizens the opportunity to monitor the financial activities of their elected representatives in an easy and user friendly fashion.
Vouliwatch, in parallel with its parliamentary monitoring activities, has managed in a very short space of time to establish itself as the leading advocacy and campaign organisation in Greece in the fields of transparency, open government and the freedom of access to information. Vouliwatch in fact, has launched a series of campaigns and advocacy initiatives which have been instrumental in bringing forward legislation and decisions improving transparency and accountability. Some examples include the improvement of the legal framework related to politicians’ asset declarations, the increased transparency in the works and findings of the parliamentary auditing committee and most recently the adoption of a lobbying regulation (the bill in question contains a series of recommendations that Vouliwatch had presented in front of parliament).
Democracy is not tangible, it is not material, it is not a solid, fixed, inflexible mass of political beliefs set in stone thousands of years ago hanging over our heads ruling our everyday lives. Rather Democracy should be viewed as the result of progressive thinking, collective struggle and the will to constantly strive for a more just and inclusive system of organizing complex and constantly evolving societies. Democracy therefore is a reflection of society and its historical course and as such it should constantly reshape itself, evolve, keep up with technological advancements and adapt to the ever changing needs of the people.
The task at hand is by no means an easy one, creating the right conditions for rebooting Democracy is one that requires commitment, perseverance and clarity of vision. Most of all however it requires strong synergies across the political and societal spectrum which will allow citizens to truly occupy the center stage of public life. Democracy after all works when people claim it as their own.
A research seminar on the topic, organised by the Hellenic Observatory, took place online on 2 November 2021. For more information please visit the event page.