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E-Democracy at the Time of COVID-19: Elements for the Construction of a Digital Platform for “Virtuous” Decision Making Processes

Una ricerca mixed method per capire, a partire dall’esperienza della pandemia, come possiamo migliorare i processi decisionali e partecipativi delle pubbliche amministrazioni usando la tecnologia


One of the many impacts produced by COVID-19 pandemic has been the transfer of several work and education activities at distance (es. smart working, telework, school and university distance education). The possibility of using digitai technologies (both in terms of accessibility and skills for use) has been decisive in allowing the maintenance of essential services and functions during the lockdown. In the Italian context, still far from achieving the objectives of the European digital strategy (E-Government action plan 2016-2020) and at the bottom of the digitization index rankings, this change represented a challenge, since it required citizens — in particular, workers in public administration (PA) — to undergo rapid adaptation processes, often without adequate preparation and training. Despite the difficulties and inconveniences, the lockdown represented a unique opportunity to experience directly, on a large scale, the benefits and criticai issues of digitai technologies in the processes of PAs and their impact on the provision of services, destined to produce profound changes in the society in the near future. Many sectors of the PA have transferred remotely meetings of working groups, councils and commissions, using collaboration platforms to carry out deliberative and decision-making processes, both for “ordinary” decisions and to deliberate on the emergency. Furthermore, participatory processes with involvement of citizens, which are spread in many areas of the territory at the level of locai authorities (Municipalities, Regions), have had to face the changes imposed by the condition of social distancing. What are the changes brought about by the use of digitai tools in practices that substantiate the democratic process? Are these tools capable of making improvements to decision-making processes? Under what conditions? From a psychosocial perspective, the group processes and dynamics that characterize online communication and social interaction, compared to those in presence, present various peculiarities, well documented by empirical research. The peculiarities of the deliberative and decision-making processes that take piace on digitai platforms (e.g. consultation, exchange of opinions and decision-making by vote) are less known. At the European level, various pilot e-governance and e-democracy projects have been carried out by public administrations in the last twenty years; however, the available research does not yet allow to clarify in all their aspects the benefits and criticai issues of the deliberative processes supported by online platforms, although the potential to improve the functioning of public administrations and their relationship with citizens is highlighted by many. A further complexity lies in the fact that the architecture of the platforms and the proposed features have a fundamental role not only in allowing and facilitating the processes, but also in guiding and orienting them. The condition created by COVID-19 has imposed an online reorganization of the activities and processes of public administrations, which have found “emergency” solutions relating to the phase of overcoming the pandemic. These should be assessed in a timely and systematic way, to prepare stable and quality solutions both in response to possible similar threats in the future, and in relation to the need for digitization of PAs. The available evidence focuses the attention on the need to identify the conditions that make participation on platforms more effective, constructive, and of greater impact, so that the “emergency digitalization” imposed by COVID-19 can be used to develop technological solutions that can facilitate the decision-making processes in an emergency, but also to overcome the dysfunctional elements of the online consultation and decision-making processes (e.g., known social phenomena such as the spread of fake news, the echo-chambers effects and similar), also through interventions on the functionality and architecture of the platforms themselves (e.g., use of “disruptive” technologies, such as Al, gamification, virtual reality, etc.). Aims The 6-month project aims to analyze the quality of participatory processes supported by digitai platforms implemented by public administrations in the Emilia Romagna Region following and in relation to the introduction of measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic (DPCM 8.3.2020). The Region is among those that have experienced the most serious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and it was one of the first to be affected by lockdown measures (and by the need to make decisions on this through digitai tools). Two types of public administration will be examined: Universities (for the analysis of decision-making and internai decision-making processes within units and commissions) and Municipalities (for the analysis of internai decision-making and decision-making processes and citizen involvement processes). These are contexts that are easily accessible for the research team and that allow the project to be carried out within the deadlines set by the call. In particular, the project aims to: (1) to map the participation experiences (consultation, deliberation, decision making) carried out by public administrations with the support of digitai platforms during and in relation to the pandemic and to explore the experience of participation, from the point of view of those (civil servants, citizens, etc.) who have been involved. The analysis aims to focus on positive elements and criticai factors inherent in the platforms and in the related group processes and dynamics. (2) on the basis of the analysis of the positive aspects and, above all, of the criticai issues, we want to identify useful elements for the development of properties, functionality and architecture of a platform capable of supporting “virtuous” deliberative processes, also in the face of emergency conditions, and that can generate more acceptable and satisfactory results for the participants, while being efficient for the Public Administrations, thus contributing to the achievement of the objectives of the Digital Agenda strategy and to the increase in the capacity of the PAs to cope with emergencies.

Actions, resources, competences

The research group, which has a pre-existing collaboration, includes: social and community psychologists who are experts in citizen involvement and participation processes (Department of Psychology, PSI ), and are already involved (Albanesi) in ongoing investigations of the impact of COVID-19 on the relationship between citizens and technology; and an expert in engineering analysis of computer platforms (Department of Computer Science - Science and Engineering, INF). It includes the expertise necessary for the implementation of the planned actions and will work in close collaboration for the duration of the project. Two online questionnaires will be used to achieve the first aim (4 months: 3.5 PSI, 0.5 INF). The first questionnaire, addressed to all PAs, intends to assess the modalities of reorganization of participatory processes, the use of platforms and their diffusion, the areas of decision-making, units or sectors involved, the participants, the frequecyn/ intensity of use, the impact in terms of the intensity of participation, and the indicators of effectiveness from the point of view of public administrations. The second anonymous questionnaire will be sent, with the support of the PAs themselves, to the participants in the decision-making processes (civil servants, citizens, etc.). The aspects that will be investigated include: attitudes towards digitai technology, the perception of changes in terms of personal skills and expertise, the assessment of benefits, impact, utility and limits of the platforms used and their functionality, the communication processes, the social interaction, the group dynamics mediated by the platforms, the perception of empowerment and efflcacy, and the extent to which the platform can facilitate or hinder the expression of one's points of view, the listening and inclusion of the different perspectives, the level of participation (e.g. motivation to participate, extent and complexity of the contributions produced, etc.), satisfaction. Respondents will also be invited to participate in a remote interview, to further explore their experiences and the experience of participation. The results will be presented in a report, which will be shared (on the website) and discussed (with an ad hoc online event at the end of the first phase) with the public administrations that have collaborated. To achieve the second aim, the INF unit, in collaboration with PSI (2 months: 1.5 INF and 0.5 PSI) will proceed to define the properties, functionality and architecture of a platform for participatory processes in support of public administrations, based on evidence of effectiveness emerging from the analysis of the collected data, by outlining the conditions and resources for a possible future concrete realization. These conditions will also include guidelines and training of PA staff to manage participatory processes through the support of the platform. The results will be described in a report, which will be made available to the involved administrations. The project will contribute to the aim of digitalisation of PA, by offering guidelines and solutions to increase the quality and effectiveness of decision making processes and their impacts, both in “ordinary” and in emergency situations.