Rene Herlitz (Parliament Watch, Germany) talked about experiences of the online platform parliamentwatch.org, which citizens use to send questions to MPs on all levels of governance.
The platform was created to enhance transparency, and strengthen government accountability. All data (citizens’ questions and MPs’ answers) are stored in the database and remain available to the Public. The visitors of the website can inquire the Parliamentarians about their pre-electoral plans and since the responses they receive are publicly available, it makes it very easy to keep track of whether they have remained consistent to their promises upon being elected. Parliament Watch also has archive about the extra earnings of the politicians, and information about their voting record at the Parliament. Around 80% of the questions get answered, and there is 90% of engaged Parliamentarians which regularly respond to the questions.
Rene underlined that the platform has three target groups – the politicians, the media and the voters.
In regard to the first one, the platform gives the politicians an opportunity to establish new and better relations with the citizens, and this in return enhances their accountability. Besides this, the platform opens a space for competition between the ruling and the opposition parties (who regularly use the platform to pose questions to the parties in power), which additionally increases the engagement of the representatives of the ruling parties and, as a side effect, increases transparency of their work. In order to prevent abuse of the platform in this interaction (such as sending offensive political messages or asking questions which refer to the private life of the parliamentarians), the platform is continuously monitored by a team of moderators which filter the questions in accordance with an official code of conduct.
The platform offers the voting body an opportunity for direct contact with the politicians, a simple access to information and a space for active participation in the political processes. This platform not only contributed to publication of important information such as data for the sources of the additional earnings of the German politicians, but it also directly contributed to strengthening the control of the work of Parliament, from the side of the electorate. Upon the announcement of the parliamentarians’ attempt to vote for increase of their own salaries for the second time in 2008, great number of citizens sent inquiries on this topic using the platform ParliamentWatch. Following these actions of the citizens, the Parliament withdrew the initial proposal and there was no voting on the increase of salaries of MPs.
Finally, Rene reiterated the importance for cooperation betwwen such initiatives and the media, which is significant for both media, the public, and the success of the initiative itself. When ParliamementWatch.org got its section on the website of the influential German newspaper Die Spiegel, this had a great impact which led to a greater number of informed and actively engaged people. Moreover, this cooperation increased the interest of the public for following the work of the Parliament, and engagement of media on the same issues.