The Times They might be A-Changin’. It feels as if people are becoming more actively involved in politics lately. The School Strike for Climate led by Greta Thunberg and taken up by many, for instance @WeDontHaveTime0, is a prime example of political activism, which when we look back into the past bears some resemblance only to the protests of 1968. However, “political disengagement” is a buzzword more often used to describe a gradual process that occurred between “then” and now.
The weakening link between citizens and politics remains a major concern across Western democracies. But there is some counteraction, for example, digital platforms that try to revitalize this link and make politics more accountable.
“abgeordnetenwatch.de” (Parliament Watch) is the biggest political web platform in Germany with about 125.000 active users. Since 2009 over 90% of the politicians that stood for election into a German or the European parliament engaged in some political dialogue with citizens on the platform. It aims to increase political transparency and engagement, and tries to reduce covert political influence by lobbyists.
To achieve this, the social enterprise running the platform does a number of things: They range from enabling public communication between citizens and politicians on the website, to providing statistics on the voting behavior of members of parliament (MPs), to suing the Bundestag to issue a public register of lobbyists with permanent access permits to parliament.
Now, how do citizens (or users) of the platform and politicians assess its social impact? 745 citizens and 255 MPs (on the federal state, national and EU level) participated in an online survey on this question.
To contextualize: It is rather obvious that the average user of abgeordnetenwatch.de somewhat differs from the general population. There were for instance fewer “conservative users” than people in Germany describing their political attitude as conservative. Besides, users were generally more interested in politics than the average German. They also exhibited a higher level of solidarity and trust, but were more sceptic of the German political system.
These specifics were controlled for statistically and my results do not depend strongly on the special circumstances. In other words, the statements that follow would remain the same, even if the group of users perfectly mirrored the German population.
Here are the main results:
Many of the indicators used connect to established measures in population surveys, such as the European Social Survey.
Users indicated the platform had made them more aware of important political and social issues. It also spurred interaction with politicians. One of the most striking findings was that the share of users that had „never been in touch with an MP“ fell from 39% to 17% after starting to use the platform. In addition, users had an average score of 8 (on a scale from 0 to 10) on “motivating others to vote” and stated abgeordnetenwatch.de had had a “high” influence on that level.
Other main effects of the platform included:
- Increasing the need for MPs to be accountable (supported by 87% of users);
- Providing useful political information (supported by 84%);
- Raising public awareness of lobbying (supported by 83%).
Besides, using the platform encouraged political engagement, but mostly in the “virtual arena”: almost 99% said they had supported a petition in the last 12 months, 90% had shared political information electronically, 84% had boycotted products for political reasons. About 70% of users had even attended a political event.
However, the platform was not seen as a way into formal political engagement in established organizations or parties. Instead it seems to serve as a substitute. Users’ answers showed further areas of restricted or negligible impact, for example it did not really push citizens’ ability to influence politics, or to effectively have a say in the political dialogue.
In stark contrast to the assessments of users, MPs were much more skeptical of the social impact of the platform throughout. The only two items on which they saw some impact were: that the platform increased (1) “transparency on MPs’ political attitude” and (2) “the public exposition of politicians”. Effects in all other areas were largely dismissed. This “negative” or indifferent assessment might stem from the fact that the abgeordnetenwatch.de increases the pressure on politicians in a number of ways.
Most users belong to the target group of all democratic parties, and from their perspective the platform stimulates citizens’ level of political activity in a profound way. So it seems there is a way of re-engaging citizens digitally.
Of course it is not without restrictions. But given the “political disengagement” we started off with, the indifferent attitude of MPs vis-à-vis the platform could have further negative consequences for the bond between citizens and politics. Something to consider beyond the immediate context of this study.
Another key learning from the analysis is how interventions (here: political & digital), whose impact is often deemed hard to impossible to assess, can be measured, presented and interpreted in a meaningful way.