Inclusive Local Digital Participation in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine
Citizens’ engagement and participation are key features of a democratic society. The rapid digital transformation of society over the recent years has further strengthened the phenomenon of participation in virtual space better known as digital participation or e-democracy. Digital participation is easy and affordable, and it can reach a wide audience. It has also proved to be effective in achieving better transparency, accountability, and efficiency of the public sector. Moreover, digital participation comes in handy at times of crises and disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic.
E-democracy is of particular importance for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Democracy-building in these countries began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and somehow coincided with the world’s fast-paced digital transformation. The three young democracies were impacted by the nexus between democratic development and digital transformation, which resulted in many successful cases of digital governance and participation. While some national-level cases like Ukraine’s Prozorro or Georgia’s e-service portal my.gov.ge are more famous, digital participation and its ability to engage vulnerable groups at the local level receive significantly less attention.
This paper explores to what extent digital participation in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine is inclusive and how to boost it for the most vulnerable groups. It argues that e-democracy is a bottom-up phenomenon and is most effective at the local level. Given that the three countries have prioritized decentralization and local-administration reforms, it is of particular importance to examine their existing e-democracy tools and how well they include vulnerable groups. In particular, the paper looks into such forms of digital participation as e-petitions, participatory budgeting, and e-consultations, which are among the most advanced and widely used in the three countries.
Digital participation tools at the local level are relatively new to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. While some services are better developed and achieve wider participation, including e-petitions in Ukraine or participatory budgeting in Georgia, other instruments like e-consultations are not regulated by law, are non-binding, and are therefore less effective. Digital participation in the three countries faces several challenges that prevent it from reaching wide inclusion of vulnerable groups. These include poor connectivity, lack of digital skills, weak data protection and cybersecurity, low trust in local government, and low awareness of existing digital participation tools. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the “digital divide” and shed light on the existing challenges related to digital inequalities. All these challenges negatively impact the use of e-democracy services. While there has been a higher demand for digital participation during the pandemic, the digital divide and other challenges in the digital space has made it impossible for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine to leapfrog to full-fledged digital democracy at the local level.
Finally, the paper suggests important conditions and makes recommendations for achieving inclusive digital participation at the local level. Elements such as the Internet, access to personal computers and mobile phones, and digital skills must be recognized as essential and be accessible to all citizens. This should be reflected in legislation and its implementation. Moreover, these must be accessible for people with disabilities and guarantee personal data protection. Trust in local authorities and awareness of the impact of digital engagement could ensure the wide participation of citizens in local decision-making in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Finally, cooperation with the EU would help to ensure that best practices on digital inclusion are implemented.
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