China is small miracle. With a population approaching 1.4 Billion, rapid expansion and new wealth have created a wave of citizen interactions with government. The conditions for a digitally enabled government are ripe and new opportunities for enhanced decision making, redress and democracy await their potential. The challenge of scale and pace of change are not to be underestimated yet it is the culture of participation, its legitimacy and its legacy among citizens which is largely an unqualified factor in terms of achieving participatory success.
Favourable conditions for eDemocracy and eParticipation have been created by the Chinese government since 2008 when the State Council issued the Regulations on Disclosure of Government Information and implemented it across China, providing prerequisites for public involvement in public decision-making. Moreover, the 2014 Peoples’ Congress report says that the Chinese aim is to make legislation making “Scientific, democratic and of high quality”. It follows that an amplified citizen voice is an active ingredient in achieving this aim and that the digital channel is a natural fit in terms of effective benefit realisation – such being able to deploy rapidly and scale to serve an unmet need.
In terms of readiness, Chinese internet trends are similar to those in Europe – albeit with alternative conditions or stimuli. For example, there is a rapid rise in mobile access but this is due to a limited fixed line broadband infrastructure. Chinese internet users are also likely to have a social media account, just not on one of the established American networks. It is only a matter of time before Chinese citizens push the government to be involved in decision making using the digital medium.
Actually, China is no laggard when it comes to online participation. Good examples exist at the national and local/regional level. For example, the State Council Legislative Affairs Office (SCLAO – www.chinalaw.gov.cn) have been soliciting feedback on legal texts online since 2007 and the process is mandated for all new legislation. Twenty four legal drafts have been through this process in the last three years alone. By comparison, that’s 21 more than in the UK in the same period and a significant head-start. What’s more, there are recent improvements in other forms of e-enabled instuments such as the ePetition facility provided by the Chinese State Bureau for Letters and Calls.
The SCLAO system for soliciting feedback on legislative drafts has three core tasks – firstly, release legal drafts for public comment. Secondly, process the opinions and thirdly enable legislators to carry out basic statistical analysis of the public opinions. The UK public reading stage pilots make for an interesting comparison. For example, the UK system undertakes the same tasks but the Chinese system is comparatively email heavy. Online comments submitted in the Chinese version are not in the public domain like the UK system yet Chinese authorities take care to provide regular feedback which is less dynamic than the UK example. Simple yet effective measures such as the publication of preliminary studies by legislators in the Chinese system could easily be adopted in the Eurozone.
Yet the Chinese experience is far from perfect. The problems of low turn-out, poor usability, low quality feedback, short feedback timeframes and the burden of back-office information management are all too familiar.
Enter the EU-China Policy Dialogues Support Facility . The PDSF is a project co-funded by the European Union and China to facilitate and support current and future implementation of Policy Dialogues between the EU and China on a broad range of key sectors and issues, with the overall aim to strengthen strategic relations between the EU and China.
The Consultation Institute is rooted in the European arm of this expert exchange and will play host to the Chinese delegation later in the year. The aim will be to exchange experiences and gather together the good practices to convert into practical actions.
I’m looking forward to being part of the action – not least I am inspired by the Chinese ambition and aspire to improve the effectiveness, quality and quantity of interactions by everyday people in ‘having their say’ on matters which effect their lives and livelihoods.