Podcast 🎧 & blog: Two decades of lessons in digital engagement and new horizons

22.03.2023 | Federico Plantera


Digital development has gone fast in the past two decades. Largely on its own momentum, as tools and their applications come to impact both more deeply and extensively different spheres of life. Also, due to unprecedented events and circumstances – see, the pandemic – that sped up digital adoption.

The more and more topical is the question, what fell in the cracks of such transformation? Who, if at all, has been left behind? And how to get them back in track.

Two of e-Governance Academy’s top e-democracy experts come together in this podcast episode – Kristina Mänd, Senior Expert on hosting duties, and Kristina Reinsalu, Programme Director of e-democracy. Twenty years of digital engagement and participation deepened ties between governments and citizens, but not without challenges and new, digital social risks to address.

This podcast is dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the e‑Governance Academy, to sum up the most influential digital developments in the last two decades and shed light on how it shapes the digital transformation topics and priorities in the near future.

Promises, successes, and setbacks of digital engagement

Participation and e-democracy are among the areas of government-to-citizen interaction that, for long, were seen as destined to change the most with increased technological development. And still, even in one of the countries with perhaps the highest levels of digital penetration and adoption, some promises remained unfulfilled.

“There were hopes that technology would transform completely the way citizens participate in decision making, but we can say now that obviously, this hasn’t happened,” Reinsalu begins with. “At the same time, we cannot say that technology hasn’t changed anything. It may not have increased the number of active citizens, but made it much easier for them to provide their contribution.”

Citizen engagement in digital form is not happening overnight. “This depends on a variety of factors, political and social, individual and contextual. But local governments who engage citizens using digital tools report ending up with better decisions and better service development,” at least in Estonia. Not a result to discount.

Participatory budgeting – the practice of involvement and participation

Engagement and participation can’t be looked at as a one-way relationship. The two terms, actually, do create a complementary dynamic. One that the practice of participatory budgeting, a ten-year-old custom in Estonia, serves to describe pretty effectively.

“Participation and engagement are not the same thing. Yes, at first one might say that engagement, as a word, stands for a larger framework within which participation takes place.” But it’s also a matter of angles, points of observation. “In engagement, we rather take the lawmaker perspective, while participation focuses more on the citizens’ viewpoint,” Mänd highlights. “And participatory budgeting is clearly a very good learning-by-doing exercise where both sides are valued and represented,” Reinsalu adds.

Speaking of engagement, it often appears as if the initiative – and credits for it – lie solely on the public sector. Effective and good participation, instead, moves beyond the simple merits of who initiated the process. “To work out, regardless of the type of actor that gives it a start, engagement is also a matter of responsibility. Making sure that organizations set the right aims, why are we doing this, and the right tools, how to get the right stakeholders involved,” Mänd says.

Crowdsourced expertise to tackle digital vulnerability

Engagement practices bring about clear benefits. But it’s when this becomes a recurring, systematic approach to co-creating solutions and services, that a better society is in sight. To that end, “we really have to make sure that we don’t leave people behind, that we don’t create or increase digital vulnerability. We must make sure to work on systems, approaches, that deal with the issue of people’s digital skills and access to tools,” Mänd warns.

Participation opens up the box of crowdsourced expertise. “Nobody is smart enough on their own,” as Reinsalu puts it. “I can be an expert in one field, but I cannot claim to know the perspective of people living in different neighbourhoods, geographical areas, or dealing with disability. It is smarter to involve these groups from the get-go, signalling problems that matter to them, and encourage them to participate in the design of appropriate, shared solutions,” Reinsalu says.

‘Nothing for me without me’, in fact, as the fitting title of the e-Democracy session at the upcoming 2023 e-Governance Conference highlights. “The more digital and connected we are, the more societies are exposed to new types of vulnerability,” Reinsalu points out. Tackling digital vulnerability means preventing people from falling into the cracks of the new, digital social risks stemming from accelerated development.

Something that only effective engagement can support. “Because engagement makes us bigger, as a nation, culture, society.” The point of engagement, “is not to find a solution that makes everyone happy, but to take decisions that solve particular problems the best way,” Mänd concludes. “And it’s not just the result that you can be happy with, but the process too, how we get there.”