Gentian Elezi, Knowledge Management Consultant
Saimir Musta, Grant Manager, LevizAlbania
This article summarizes an analysis conducted on the Albanian context in the framework of promoting digital democracy, looking at the role of LevizAlbania (LA) in this area. Considering the space that combines two already vital components for social development, democratization and technological innovation, the article explains the main features of this interaction. This is done first by traversing the main existing theories and models, and then analyzing and categorizing the Albanian experiences. Finally, the experience and lessons learned from LA are discussed, focusing on the recommendations for the future of digital democracy and the necessary interventions in this area.
Following a successful wave of democratization during the 1990s, democratic systems around the world are experiencing stagnation or deterioration (Freedom House). Rapid developments and fundamental societal transformations have put insufficiently consolidated democratic institutions to the test. This situation has gradually led to a deepening of the distance between citizens and decision-making, as well as an increase in lack of trust in democratic institutions. Albanian citizens show a low level of participation in democratic processes. Lack of transparency and accountability has further widened the gap between them and institutions (See article). Specifically referring to local democracy, the 2015 territorial reform seems to have added to the challenges in this regard (See article). However, technological development and advances in the digital field have also affected the realm of democracy, offering new forms of online citizen participation. In this context, LA is committed to the Albanian context to encourage and support such alternative participatory practices to strengthen local democracy.
The purpose of this article is to introduce and discuss the dimension of institutional interaction of LA-supported projects in the field of digital democracy. More specifically, the authors provide a brief analysis of the response and institutional readiness in relation to these forms of participation, focusing especially on good practices, obstacles and lessons learned for a successful collaboration.
Initially, the article will briefly present key theories and models in the field which will be followed by the broad framework and context in which LA's efforts for digital democracy have been made. We will then focus specifically on LA's experience in interacting with the institutions involved and the efforts of other actors in the country. This section will also provide concrete data from the interaction that grantees have had with local institutions, providing an analysis of the main features of this relationship and the attitude that these actors have held towards the instruments of digital democracy. The analytical part will continue with a discussion on the lessons learned from LA in relation to institutions in this field. From this experience and lessons some conclusions will be drawn, which will close the article in the form of recommendations for the future.
Conception and theorization of digital democracy
Participation through digital instruments empowers citizens to monitor and provide support to public authorities so that they can perform their duties more efficiently, thus creating a closer relationship between all actors involved. In many parts of the world, citizens use the Internet for all their interactions, including their governance decisions (See article).
According to Erkul’s article (2014) some of the key advantages of e-participation are: Greater government transparency; increasing citizen involvement; improved government accountability, etc. First, through open initiatives, public authorities provide citizens with access to information that was not previously available. Thanks to the means provided, transparency reaches a higher level, so that citizen participation is improved and democratic processes are simplified. Second, countries improve online methods of providing public services in order to meet the needs and requirements of citizens, thus strengthening their electronic information, consultation and electronic decision-making activity. Finally, in order to have successful democracies, government authorities must respond to citizens. For example, public authorities can create sites where citizens can start petitions on various issues of interest or they can vote on specific issues.
According to existing models and theories in this field, web solutions and digital instruments as a whole can be used: 1. to strengthen democratic institutions (e-voting); 2. to change existing institutions (webcasting for transparency); 3. to replace current practices with new ones (online newsletter and other new communication tools); 4. to develop democratic institutions (online forums and new ways of reflective approaches) and; 5. to expand democracy by using online platforms to include groups that are marginalized or far from decision-making (Pratchett 2016).
It should be noted that from the point of view of their approach and goals, the models implemented around the world so far are numerous and different from each other. Key models that can be distinguished include:
- The consolidated Swiss model, which also stems from the relationship built over decades between the citizen and the institution;
- Estonia's fast-paced and innovative model, led by the municipality of Tartu, where participatory budgeting has been set up and sophisticated in its most optimal form;
- Romania's model, to be further approached in the context of the region, which increased transparency and direct citizen engagement, leading to constitutional changes to include instruments of continued participation;
- The case of Kosovo (GAP) where online monitoring of public revenues and expenditures at the local level has produced significant results.
Leviz Albania has supported a considerable number of projects focusing on democracy and digital participation (see article by Blerjana Bino and Anahi Martinez). But how are these instruments integrated in the wider Albanian context and how have they dealt with institutions and decision-making actors?
Digital democracy in the Albanian context
Efforts for democratization and civic engagement have been numerous in Albania over the past three decades, both by domestic demand and by external factors (Albanian Institute for International Studies). So far, we have identified and then categorized these experiences into three main groups:
1. In the context of the digital agenda, some donors and international organizations have contributed to pilot projects or local experiences that have served as a good test to understand the main features of the Albanian context and related challenges. Almost all of these efforts have had one thing in common: working with institutions. Their purpose and objective has been to strengthen institutional capacity, providing models and instruments to enable civic engagement in information, accountability to institutions, service delivery and participation. So, their direct and main beneficiary have been the institutions and the improvement of the service they provide to the citizens, especially in terms of access to governance and expression of opinion (For instance ISDA project and STAR 3 project).
2. A second group, more complex and more debatable than the first, relates to the efforts of public institutions themselves to create and disseminate instruments of civic participation in decision-making. These experiences have mainly been ad hoc and have shown lack of transparence in functioning and management. Despite the shortcomings, these cases have played a useful role in educating citizens about online practices and familiarity with various instruments from the point of view of functionality. However, from the point of view of democratization and improving civic engagement and participation, these formats have had less effect on increasing civic trust in these processes. This could be the case for government platforms (co-governance) or a few attempts from big municipalities to introduce instruments of gathering public opinion.
3. The third category, which we have chosen to list separately, consists of the contribution of the Swiss project LevizAlbania focused on local democracy. The focus of LA in this dimension, as well as in other areas, has been direct work with citizens, various groups or civil society organizations, not institutions. The aim has been the engagement and independent organization of sections of society towards institutions, and not necessarily the alignment of practices with the latter. This approach is a novelty and a separate category. The flexibility and diversity that has characterized the LA philosophy in supporting these initiatives, has enabled the comprehensive exploration of digital democracy models, without being conditioned by predetermined or standardized formats. Among other things, this has brought as a contribution the easier adaptation of the instruments to the Albanian context. Geographical extent is another aspect to be distinguished in LA's work in this area, as the initiatives have represented different areas with special characteristics compared to each other. In some cases the whole territory is covered or a centralized platform is given that provides information for the whole country.
This independence that LA has enabled for these initiatives and instruments has made it possible for the voice of the citizen to be transmitted directly to the local authorities.
LA-supported projects focusing on digital democracy have aimed at improving democratic and legal processes such as: public consultation, participation in budgeting, monitoring of contracts and public expenditures, online petition, promotion of participation in decision-making, etc.
LevizAlbania in the support it gives to its grantees initially contributes to the creation of tools in the function of digital democracy.
In the context of digital democracy, tools consist of platforms, databases, forums and online applications, which depending on the goals of specific projects, come in different forms, but are based on the creation of communication channels and information transmission ready to use.
These communication channels generally have three actors involved, the data creator, the data processor in the information, and the recipient of the information. Depending on the project, data creators can be citizens (Buxhetim.AL), or public institutions (OpenData). Data processors in information are generally the experts involved in the implementation of projects who package data/content, extract data/content and adapt data/content for the needs of simplification and transmission to the final recipient (citizens of choice), as well as in the opposite direction where everyday issues identified during the project, should be codified and translated into technical content to be submitted to public institutions (contractual violations, legal obligations or violations of the rights of the parties) to take further action.
From the activities and utilization of the tools described above, to the popularization of communication channels or to the innovation of packaged data, LA grantees create valuable products for strengthening democracy and civic engagement. The nature of these products includes publications, articles, reports, ongoing monitoring, research, etc. Beneficiaries of these products are citizens but also experts in various fields, who are provided with instant access to information, real-time reporting and consultation of reports created from reliable and verifiable data. These products aim at interaction in terms of equal access to information, between the elected and the electorate and consequently the removal of artificial barriers in communication between the government and the electorate.
Creating products is not enough to enable digital democracy. The literature suggests that a strong flow of information in communications between the elected and the electorate is essential to having a functioning governance system with satisfactory participation of all parties.
LevizAlbania through its grantees and its communication channels has aimed to increase the power of this flow of information between citizens and local elected officials. This aspect of assembly and interaction is part of all LA-funded projects, regardless of the scope of the intervention. Especially projects that address digital democracy, have features of interaction with the general public.
These projects generally include as their part, activities that affect the ability and willingness of citizens and institutions to embrace E-Government initiatives.
LevizAlbania and its grantees make simultaneous efforts to increase the usability of the tools of digital democracy. Efforts are also reciprocal in terms of product distribution across all channels in use. Beyond online media channels, social networks, the official website and PortaVendore, LA also uses the network of supported journalists and its collaborators to engage citizens in recognizing and using the tools and products of digital democracy.
The culmination of digital democracy initiatives is the undertaking by citizens to join implementing organizations, initiatives and the "ringing of bells" for local government through online petitions, formal written requests, presentations of reports and findings at thematic events or even lawsuits addressed to law enforcement agencies.
LevizAlbania has successfully granted 11 projects and initiatives in the digital democracy sphere, aiming creation of digital tools, channels and increased information flows among citizens and institutions.
The number of citizens involved in local actions sprouting from the funded projects has overpassed 2500. After the termination of the projects, all the online platforms created are currently active and continue to contribute to the initial set goals of the projects.
In conclusion, we consider that the contribution of LevizAlbania, as a supporter for civil society actors in the implementation of initiatives in the function of digital democracy, in general, is an intervention that creates and improves the enabling environment for civic engagement.
A very important aspect that is promoted using digital tools is also the impact of systemic changes at the local and central level, which means changing the rules or regulatory and institutional processes through an advocacy process that aims to internalize functional models created by institutions and used in the service of citizens. But this aspect is not part of this article and deserves a special treatment.
Despite the positive innovations that LA has brought in the Albanian context in the field of digital democracy such as making it possible to explore and test different models, some shortcomings remain which are also connected to the broader conditions for local digital democracy more so than LA itself. First, the lack of a proper and integrated strategy on the objectives and goals of promoting these initiatives of digital democracy, has led to a fragmentation of results and made it difficult to create genuine synergies between them. However, as argued in this article (Link Bino and Martizen), digital democracy was not an intrinsic part of the theory of change of LA, but it strongly supported the use of digital tools to foster local democracy. As such the lessons learned should be seen in this context and serve other actors who have an interest in this regard. The experience of LA grantees can be replicated, expanded and further consolidated. Another challenge is that of the difficulty of sustainability of the initiatives and instruments conceived by them. One lesson that can be learned in this context is the need for more focused and strategic work to create and maintain a better balance between flexibility and freedom in producing ideas and tools (on the one hand) and delivering of a macro structure for the field (on the other hand), where all ideas meet and interact.
A second lesson relates to the need for a more efficient dissemination of the models promoted, to incentivize civic education and replication. Promoting successful practices in the field of digital democracy requires the use of the entire LA network in the country, as well as cooperation with other actors. To help in the sustainability and consolidation of good ideas in this field, a platform is needed which, under a common denominator, can present and represent all tested models and provide opportunities for capacity building and empowerment between other groups or other areas.
Finally, another aspect of this experience relates to the need to coordinate public with non-public initiatives regarding digital democracy. From the above we have described a stage of the environment in which there are formal initiatives of central and local level, supported or not by foreign donors, (such as the co-governance platform of the Albanian government, participatory budget in a few municipalities, Bashki të forta, etc.), and there are also initiatives of civil society actors which receive donor support as LA, which were mentioned earlier.
The successful products of digital democracy are those that provide irrefutable data and studies, known to both citizens and the elected. In consolidated democracies it is the governing bodies themselves that implement projects oriented towards digital democracy. In the Albanian context, it is still necessary to involve civil society actors in more instruments of interaction between institutions, especially local ones and citizens.
Conclusions and recommendations for the future
The close connection that this field creates between the deepening of democratization and keeping pace with technological developments in general, makes it a necessity for the future development agenda of the country. The digital revolution can significantly help fill the gaps created between the citizen and institutions. However, for an effective use of these instruments, a process of civic education is needed on the one hand, as well as a cooperative work with institutions on the other hand. Regarding the work of LA specifically, the contribution through initiatives has been invaluable in the engagement of civil society and activists, who have independently proposed and developed such instruments.
From this point of view, LA and/or other bodies should maintain this approach in the future as they cover a role that other existing practices do not have, working primarily to directly support institutions. However, the usefulness and sustainability of initiatives in this field would be higher if a genuine strategy and an integrated map of practiced models were developed, recording this knowledge, and making it replicable, in the service of citizen education and activism.
To conclude, digital democracy in the Albanian context is still at its early stages. A few actors have attempted to introduce and implement some instruments. However, there is still plenty to do, especially in terms of sustainability and establishing synergies which might help the overall environment of this sector. Lessons learnt are also focused on sustainability of implemented models and in the need for a better strategy when designing methodologies and dissemination activities. Overcoming public skepticism and institutional apathy towards these instruments are crucial points that have merged from projects supported by LA.
LevizAlbania is the Local Democracy project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) implemented by a consortium of (i) the Open Society Foundation for Albania (OSFA), (ii) Partners Albania and (iii) Co-Plan. Since 2015, LA has contributed to the growth of local democracy, through grants to Non-Profit Organizations (NPOs), informal groups and individuals, supporting their demand for transparent, and accountable local government and efficient public services. The project supports the building of coalitions to foster structural and systematic change at the local and national levels and to promote positive practices in support of local democracy
Knowledge Management System and Civic Engagement Platform
LevizAlbania's Knowledge Management and Civic Engagement Platform aims to collect, structure and capitalize on all of LA's contributions and achievements in the last 6 years. At the same time, this exercise examines the challenges that LevizAlbania faces in achieving its objectives, but also the challenges of grantees and the broader context of local democracy. Knowledge management analyzes the internal and external processes of LA, as well as conceives the establishment of mechanisms based on the identified needs. This chosen approach aims to improve the effectiveness of new projects and will instill a culture of systematic and structured use of the knowledge gained, using the tools and mechanisms (platform) set up. The Knowledge Management System and the Civic Engagement Platform contribute to increasing the effectiveness of interventions, and provide an in-depth analysis and overview of the challenges in supporting local democracy and civic engagement. Experts engaged for this by LevizAlbania (alphabetical order): Blerjana Bino and Gentian Elezi.
 Crozier 2008  It is important to distinguish between e-government (e-Albania in the Albanian context) and e-Governance. The first is the platform for providing online public services and the second is that phase of digital governance that instills digital democracy and where the participation of online citizens in public discussion, politics and decision-making is enabled along with the aspects of providing public services online.  All participants in activities organized by the grantees in projects are counted while petition signers are not counted as the number are progressively changing.