C Explanatory memorandum, by Mr Gerd
The opinion of the Committee on Rules of Procedure,
Immunities and Institutional Affairs will deal, in the first place,
with an essential dimension of e-democracy, namely e-parliament.NoteNote
It will contribute to the considerations
of the Political Affairs Committee in respect of:
- the new relationship between
citizens/stakeholders and parliaments/MPs, for their mutual benefit;
- easier and better access to the work of parliaments and
MPs through information and communication technologies (ICT).
The relationship between these subjects and the procedures
and practices of parliaments, including those of the Parliamentary
Assembly, will be highlighted.
2. Furthermore, the opinion will submit considerations
regarding some e-democracy instruments not directly related to parliament
and include a section on ICT tools in the Parliamentary Assembly.
2 Parliament, information society, information and
communication technologies (ICT) – what is an e-parliament?
3. The world we are living in, the information society,
has been marked by ICT and by the Internet in particular. Parliaments
could not ignore the growing influence of ICT and, under the impact
of these technologies, parliamentary activity has undergone a fundamental
change, particularly in how parliaments interact with the electorate
and civil society. Many consider that parliament has a “new status”
in the information society. The Secretary General of the Interparliamentary
Union has recently said that e-parliament is synonymous with parliament
in the modern world.
The World e-Parliament Report 2008 defines e-parliament as
a legislature that is empowered to be more transparent, accessible
and accountable through ICT. It enables people to be more engaged
in public life by providing greater access to its parliamentary
documents and activities. It is an organisation where connected shareholders
use information and communication technologies to support its primary
functions of representation, law-making and oversight more effectively.
Through the application of modern technology and standards and the
adoption of supportive policies, e-parliament fosters the development
of an equitable and inclusive information society.Note
3 The new relationship between citizens/stakeholders
3.1 Disenchantment of citizens concerning democracy
and parliamentary institutions
5. Already in the past, parliaments and their processes
did not meet with much interest from citizens. Black and white photos
of elderly, little known people sitting in parliament were not very
attractive. Rather abstract texts by political professors describing
parliament in general publications for citizens did not generate
interest in parliamentary work.
The report of the Political Affairs Committee by Mr Szabó
has pertinently described the current alienation of citizens from
political processes and referred to the Assembly’s debates and texts
adopted on this subject (for example, paragraph 45 of Resolution 1547 (2007)
. Many people believe that they are powerless to change or
influence the system of government. Parliaments appear to be particularly
affected by the citizen’s disenchantment. Indeed, in states where
the executive power is elected by universal and direct suffrage,
the rate of abstention in legislative elections is substantially
higher than in executive elections. This is a general and structural
phenomenon which goes beyond individual states and which concerns
both long-established and more recent democracies. It becomes manifest,
for instance, in electoral behaviour characterised by high rates
of abstention and recourse to protest and sanction votes.
7. Astonishingly, citizens remain committed concerning certain
favourite political issues. The situations in Iraq, in the Middle
East and in other areas of the world regularly motivate citizens
to organise and participate in major demonstrations. Furthermore,
in several European countries, there have been closely contested elections
with narrow results.
3.2 New ways to improve participation by citizens
in parliamentary and political life
3.2.1 Increased contacts between the public, parliaments
8. The solution to citizens’ political disenchantment
and to the distance between citizens and the state is often seen
in more active participation, in more participatory democracy and
in e-governance. The report of the Political Affairs Committee rightly
underlines that ICT offers great potential for improving democratic
practice and participation, transparency, accountability and the
responsiveness of democratic institutions. ICT is also a major tool
that can be used to promote citizens’ engagement and to increase
the empowerment, accessibility and inclusiveness of the political
9. This applies fully to parliaments and MPs. The relationship
between parliamentarians and citizens, which is vital to democracy,
is being reshaped by new technologies and applications. For years,
active citizens and other stakeholders have demanded better information
and transparency, as well as greater possibilities to contribute
to and influence politics. In former times, parliamentary transparency
consisted of the presence of citizens in the public galleries of
parliamentary buildings and having the possibility to read the verbatim
reports of the debates some time after the event, although it was
not always easy to get them. Today, everybody may follow parliamentary
debates that are broadcast live on the Internet. Several parliaments
allow interested citizens to follow the progress of legislative
work in parliaments and, if appropriate, to make comments electronically.
Most parliamentarians now have an interactive dialogue with their
citizens. More details will be given in chapter IV of this opinion.
10. In order to improve interactivity and operativeness, the parliament’s
websites should include programmes by which voters can express their
opinions and proposals and can suggest legislative initiatives or
amendments, which parliamentarians should take into consideration.
In order for legislators to become more interactive and operative,
there will need to be programmes which through the Web 2.0 and the
development of political networks by political parties (along the
lines of LInkedLn and similar networking tools) make it possible
to view citizens’ participation in political life in a new way,
namely as a kind of “participative parliamentarism”, in the sense
of a participative democracy. Such a development could offer new
alternatives to members of parliament and could take inspiration
from the American presidential campaign in 2008. In order for this
to function, the active participation of MPs, their willingness
to give satisfactory replies and the involvement of well-trained
technical staff would obviously be important.Note
addition, there may be some competition between citizens and NGOs,
as well as between businesses, concerning the political issues being
raised electronically with parliamentarians. Admittedly, while NGOs
and businesses are likely to want broader involvement with political
actors, many citizens are generally interested in just a few political
3.2.2 Do the new instruments increase political participation
by the general public?
It is probably too early to raise this question and
therefore also to propose answers, as there is not yet sufficient,
generally-accepted appreciation material available. At this stage,
it is therefore sufficient to discuss some of the arguments put
forward by political scientists and by the media, without proposing
any evaluation. Political scientists:Note
- are not unanimous in believing that those citizens who
are traditionally uninvolved in politics can be mobilised via the
- suggest that while ICTs increase the formation of political
opinions they do not markedly promote political participation;
- consider that there are increased exchanges between well-known
bloggers and the traditional media and that these bloggers increasingly
manage to launch subjects or revive neglected issues; this demonstrates
only that ICTs have changed the instruments and methods of communication;
it does not necessarily mean that these new instruments are being
used by persons who have formerly been uninvolved in politics, and
that, in general, more citizens are becoming interested in politics;
- underline that only 0.5% of all Internet pages deal explicitly
with politics and observe that the presumption that the Internet
would create political interest had not proved to be accurate;
- most websites of political parties, and also of MPs, in
the member states essentially follow marketing strategies and encourage
real political participation to a much lesser extent.
13. It would appear from the EU Commission-funded EPRI knowledge
study on Information Society Technologies for Parliamentarians (January
2005) that, as regards relations between parliamentarians and citizens,
new groups of citizens are not necessarily reached through ICT,
that increased (electronic) contacts with citizens do not always
lead to a better understanding by parliamentarians of their citizens’
needs or interests, and that citizens do not often make innovative
statements in their electronic communications with parliamentarians.
On the other hand, parliamentarians appreciate the faster dissemination
of information about their views and activities through ICT and
are able to make contact with citizens more easily and broadly.
The study further reports that negative side effects of ICT are
a constant overload of information and the receipt of too much spam.
Moreover, ICTs create higher expectations by the public for faster,
direct and personal responses from their parliamentarians.
14. Concerning citizens’ participation in elections, it is argued
that a majority of those abstaining do not omit to make use of their
right to vote because they are not in a position to do so, but because
they simply do not wish to do so. This also has to be borne in mind
for e-democracy tools.
3.2.3 Electronic monitoring of the activity of parliamentarians
15. Electronic monitoring of the activity of parliamentarians
consists of informing the public electronically on the work being
performed by its elected representatives. Such monitoring is sometimes
initiated by the representatives themselves. It would, in this case,
be organised in the form of a blog or a website dedicated to a parliamentarian’s
Alternatively, electronic monitoring of parliamentarians can
also be organised by civil society, which collects information on
parliamentarians’ activities and performances and makes this information
available to the public electronically. A good example of a website
of this kind is www.theyworkforyou.com,
developed by the NGO UK Citizens
, which provides detailed statistics
on the participation in debates and electoral behaviour of parliamentarians
in the UK. Other examples are www.stemwijzer.nl,
developed by the Dutch NGO Instituut
voor Publiek en Politiek (IPP)
or the Austrian www.wahlkabine.at.
The report by Mr Szabó for the Political Affairs Committee
notes (paragraph 65 of Doc.
) that MP-watch websites are becoming more and more popular
and that one may expect, once they are well established in the political
landscape, that they will be followed by the citizen’s right to
recall their representatives.
17. Furthermore, the websites of several national parliaments
(Switzerland, for example) allow one to find, when clicking on the
name of a member, his/her parliamentary initiatives in the chamber
and his/her votes and speeches in plenary sittings.
18. Participation of members in plenary sittings and votes in
plenary are also available on the website of the Council of Europe’s
19. It has to be borne in mind that systematic monitoring of the
activities of parliamentarians could result in additional pressure
on individual members and on parliaments as a whole. This and other
aspects could be analysed once more information on the practice
of monitoring becomes available.
In some international assemblies, the presence of members
is monitored in order to reduce absenteeism. This is the case in
the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, following the preparation
of a report on this matter by Mr Andreas Gross (Resolution 1583 (2007)
. Experience will show if the measures taken by the Assembly
will result in an increased presence of members in plenary and committee sessions
and a greater participation in the Organisation’s work in general.
21. In at least two Council of Europe member states, democracy
platforms use the Internet to fight for the right of citizens to
ask for the dissolution of parliament by referendum. Following a
very successful initiative in Latvia, the Latvian Parliament decided,
in August 2008, to provide for the possibility of dissolving the
legislature by referendum. It is likely that by March 2009 the Latvian
Parliament will adopt a corresponding constitutional amendment.
According to a study by the Venice Commission of the Council of
Europe (CDL-AD(2007)037 add. 4), currently only Liechtenstein allows
a dissolution of parliament following a popular initiative.
4 Easier and better work for parliaments and members
4.1 Faster and better information on the work of parliaments
4.1.1 Reporting of plenary debates of parliaments and
22. Some years ago it was acceptable if provisional verbatim
reports of plenary sittings and meetings were published one or two
days after the sitting and the minutes of committee meetings one
or two weeks later. The proceedings of parliamentary hearings were
often produced much later. The current norm is that members, and increasingly
the public, are able to follow parliamentary events, including public
parliamentary hearings, via real-time Internet broadcasting. Such
web television often provides background information on the parliament, its
members and its legislative work.
Within international parliamentary institutions, access to
information on sittings and meetings is often given to professionals
and citizens through RSS feeds and pod casts. Difficulties resulting
from several official languages were, or are about to be, successfully
overcome. In the European Parliament, the plenary sittings are web-streamed
in 23 languages. The Parliamentary Assembly transmits its debates
by video. Interpretation into several languages is foreseen for
2009. Some parliaments have extended web television to committee meetings.Note
in certain national parliaments and international Assemblies committee
meetings are not public unless specifically agreed by the relevant
committee. Another important type of documentary material used by
committees is that relating to hearings involving witnesses. Audio
and video technologies are used to make this material increasingly
available in real time.
4.1.2 Instant retrieval of parliamentary documents including
draft legislative documents
24. Practically all parliaments in Europe, including
international assemblies, give citizens electronic access to all
public parliamentary documents. Increasingly, this includes committee
documents. Depending on each parliament’s rules for distribution
of committee documents, these are either generally electronically
available or available after declassification by the committee.
At the Parliamentary Assembly, two of the ten general committees
have put on the Assembly’s website recent committee documents which
were either not classified or which had been declassified. Restricted
or confidential documents are electronically accessible through special
systems, such as Intranet or Extranet, for members, the secretariat
of the institution and other authorised persons.
Most parliaments enable the public to track the progress of
draft legislation from the first deliberations in committee and
amendments in plenary until the law is adopted. This is valid mutatis mutandis
for some international
assemblies. As the latter do not have legislative competences, it
is possible to track the process electronically, from the tabling
of a motion by members until the adoption of a resolution (or a
recommendation to a Committee of Ministers).Note
This facility will be
provided in the Parliamentary Assembly in 2009.
Users of parliamentary websites vary greatly (from party whips
and professors on the one side, to the general public on the other);
they have a different level of knowledge concerning legislative
processes and their ability to understand legislative texts varies.
It is very difficult to develop systems enabling such diverse users to
find useful information quickly. In any case, information available
on parliamentary websites regarding draft legislation should not
be complex. Parliaments which explain processes and assist citizens
to understand issues would therefore make the difference. Experts
propose that there should be as many links as possible to the necessary
background information on parliamentary bills. When parliaments
make draft legislation, draft amendments, etc. available to the
public, this opens them up to scrutiny, questions and possibly also criticism.Note
would particularly be the case if public legislative websites of
parliaments allowed the public to indicate their views on bills
and on policy issues. Depending on the workload of parliaments and
MPs it would be appropriate not to raise too high expectations concerning
possible responses to citizens’ requests.
4.2 Members’ websites
27. A wide range of users increasingly expect to find
appropriate information on members of their parliament or their
constituency. Furthermore, they hope to be able to communicate electronically
with the MPs and to communicate their own views on policy issues.
From the user’s point of view, it is most important that the website
contains information on the policy issues and on the MPs’ positions
and actions in addressing them. There may be problems depending
on the number of information requests and also on whether NGOs and lobbyists
make use of them.
4.3 Changed working methods for parliaments and members:
a more informed legislature
28. Most national parliaments have web-based systems
for managing library, research and/or archive resources. They generally
provide information services linked specifically to policy issues
and legislation being considered by parliaments. To draft bills,
motions and prepare questions to governments, MPs can use these services
and have recourse to numerous other data and information, some of
which will be available only on internal networks of their parliaments
(Intranet) and not be available to the general public.
29. MPs and their staff can, thanks to ICT, build their own databases.
Closer contacts with citizens and stakeholders will also give them
more information concerning the implementation of laws. Members
will thus be better equipped for their supervisory role.
4.4 “Mobile” legislature – remote tabling of documents
30. New information and communications technologies allow,
for instance, parliamentarians to be provided with all resources
and documents in electronic form, hence in a simple and personalised
way. Thanks to a personalised “warning system”, parliamentarians
can be automatically informed on events which are of interest to
them (for example, the tabling of a motion on a particular subject;
the availability of committee and plenary documents). Access to
the resources over a secured internet connection would provide parliamentarians
with the possibility of carrying out their tasks irrespective of
their whereabouts, including, for example, remote tabling of documents,
contributions to committee meetings (statements and amendments,
for example) and voting on parliamentary decisions.
Some argue that e-voting is contrary to the imperatives of
democracy. An MP should always vote in person rather than through
the medium of e-voting. A paper submitted to the 2007 World e-Parliament Conference
noted that although they had considered allowing remote or offsite
voting, few parliaments had allowed its application.Note
A project financed by the European Commission aiming at developing
a “virtual desktop” for parliamentarians involves the national parliaments
of the Netherlands, Lithuania and Hungary. In the Lithuanian Parliament
it is now also possible, for instance, to raise questions electronically
during press conferences. This allows press conferences to be held
more efficiently and thus enhances satisfaction among both participating
parliamentarians and media representatives.Note
33. While some of these remote e-parliament tools may be interesting
for the Parliamentary Assembly, others would have to be analysed
with caution in regard to their possible implications. As is shown
by the work of the European Centre for Parliamentary Research and
Documentation (see ECPRD Request No.1128/2009), the question of
the electronic submission and distribution of documents (“paperless
parliament”) is currently topical at the level of parliaments in
Europe. This facility, completed by an electronic signature, is
not yet provided for in the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure and also
not yet applied in practice. Because of the Assembly’s problems
regarding the presence of members in plenary sittings and committee
meetings, remote voting on parliamentary decisions should not be
A final possible development of remote parliamentary tools
could be the image of the “mobile parliamentarian”, who would no
longer have to physically take part in committee meetings and plenary sessions.
There is no need to discuss such eventualities in depth here. Currently,
the serious studies on e-parliament consider thatNote
ICT-based decision support
tools can never replace the role of the elected representative in
making challenging and often difficult choices.Note
of policies generally requires a high level of negotiation, direction
and administration, particularly in parliaments.Note
At the meeting of the Association of
European Senates in Vienna on 18 April 2008, several presidents
of senates underscored the importance of the personal element in
parliamentary work. In this connection, it also has to be borne
in mind that the work in parliament is subject to special procedure
and practice which have evolved over many years to ensure fairness
and efficiency in the legislative process. Some procedural motions
may be difficult for the layman to understand, and this can also
be the case for the interpretation of votes by individual members.Note
4.5 Electronic petitions (“e-petitions”)
35. The term “electronic petitions” refers to proposals,
expressions of opinion, or complaints relating to the work of the
parliament and expressed by members of civil society in electronic
36. A way of promoting electronic petitions would be to create
a website which provides electronic procedures for submission of
proposals to parliament by civil society. The follow-up to be given
to these proposals would then have to be considered by a competent
parliamentary committee or sub-committee and at the end of the process,
at the latest, feedback would have to be presented to the petitioners.
Comparable structures are already being successfully implemented
by the German Bundestag and the Scottish Parliament. Likewise, citizens
of the European Union enjoy the right to submit their petitions
addressed to the European Parliament electronically, in accordance
with Article 194 TEC.
According to Rule 63 of the Assembly’s Rules of Procedure,
citizens enjoy the right to submit petitions to the President of
the Assembly. A petition declared admissible is referred by the
Bureau of the Assembly to the competent committees for examination.
Since 1990, 15 petitions have been referred to the Bureau for further
action; 8 petitions were declared admissible by the Bureau; of these
8 petitions, 4 had no immediate effect,Note
whereas 4 petitions resulted in the
adoption of resolutions by the Assembly or the Standing Committee.
38. Despite the limited number of petitions submitted to the Parliamentary
Assembly, the development of a system of electronic petitions could
be considered in due course, after the achievement of other, more important,
5 Instruments of electronic democracy not directly
related to parliament
In Paragraph 17.11 of Recommendation 1791 (2007)
on the state of human rights and democracy in Europe,
the Assembly recommends that the Committee of Ministers encourage
member states to “consider the introduction of elements of direct
democracy, such as the right of citizens to ask for referenda and
propose legislative initiatives”. This also includes electronic
40. On the one hand, electronic consultation consists of the launching
of a website inviting its visitors to express their opinion on a
particular question. The impact of such an initiative depends on
the number and quality of opinions expressed.
41. On the other hand, electronic consultation also consists of
the collection of the opinions of a predefined population on a particular
question. The impact of such an initiative depends on the legitimacy
of the chosen group. The main difficulty in the predefinition of
such a group is technical in nature, as it must be guaranteed that
all members of the group have the capacity to submit their opinion
electronically. In 2004, the Council of Europe organised an electronic
referendum in 80 European schools, during which 94% of the consulted students
expressed themselves in favour of a new European school charter.
One problem posed by electronic consultations is that of the
legitimacy of such an expression of popular opinion. In an extreme
case, electronic referenda could be used to validate and give legitimacy
to decisions which are contrary to international obligations. The
problem of a discrepancy between the will of the people expressed
by means of direct democracy on one side, and international law
on the other, is particularly well-known in Switzerland.Note
Currently, the constitutions of 15 of the 47 Council of Europe
member states provide for the right of citizens (or a group of citizens)
to introduce bills in parliament (popular initiative). A recent
report by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission on legislative
states that the government normally
dominates the legislative process, because the executive power,
combined with the necessary confidence of the parliamentary majority,
is inclined to give preference to the proposals of the government.
According to the Commission, the right of legislative initiative
of parliamentarians is more significant with regard to their right
to make amendments.
6 E-parliament tools at the Parliamentary Assembly
44. It is not possible to describe here the numerous
electronic innovations introduced in the Assembly in recent years.
Electronic instruments which enhance efficiency of the work within
the Assembly include, inter alia,
an electronic voting system and electronic devices for dealing with
amendments. Electronic innovations aimed at increasing transparency
of the Assembly’s work comprise video transmissions of Assembly
debates, communications on the Assembly’s daily work on the Assembly’s
website, and an electronic collection of different types of Assembly
documents since 1949. On 19 January 2009, the Assembly installed
an RSS feed on its website. Moreover, interaction between Assembly
members and staff on one side and the public on the other is considerably
facilitated by the availability of the e-mail addresses of parliamentarians
and Assembly staff to the general public.
45. New initiatives for further introduction of e-parliament instruments
include the provision of video podcasts, interpretation into several
languages for videos on Assembly debates and the establishment of
an electronic system allowing one to follow the fate of a motion
from its tabling until the adoption of a resolution or recommendation
by the Assembly. Moreover, it could be envisaged to follow the efforts
already made by several national parliaments to involve parliamentarians
more closely in the development of their parliaments as regards
the introduction of electronic devices.
46. At this stage, it might be appropriate to proceed to an assessment
of the costs incurred by this additional setting up of e-parliament
instruments. Member states could thereby serve as a valuable source
of information in this respect, as good practice is already widespread
47. The possible application of new ICT instruments for the Assembly,
such as the electronic submission and distribution of documents
in the Assembly (see paragraph 33 above) and possibly, at a later
stage of e-petitions (see paragraph 38 above) and other tools, would
require the adaptation of the Rules of Procedure. This has already
been done with respect to electronic reporting of Assembly debates.
Building on the excellent report by Mr Szabó for
the Political Affairs Committee, this opinion has tried to highlight
how ICT tools, and the new relationship they create between MPs
and their electorates, may improve key functions of parliament.
Of particular importance is that electors have the desire to influence
the system of government. This has been well expressed by the former
leader of the United Kingdom House of Commons, Robin Cook:
“There is a connection waiting
to be made between the decline in democratic participation and the explosion
in new ways in communicating. We need not accept the paradox that
gives us more ways than ever to speak and leaves the public with
a wider feeling than ever before that their voices are not being heard.
The new technologies can strengthen our democracy by giving us greater
opportunities than ever before for better transparency and a more
responsive relationship between government and electors.”
Political Affairs Committee.
Committee seized for opinion:
Committee on Rules of Procedure, Immunities and Institutional Affairs.
Reference to committee: Doc. 11414, Reference No. 3388 of 21 January 2008.
approved by the committee on 26 January 2009.
Secretariat of the committee: Mr Heinrich, Mrs Clamer.