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Even in the "Birthplace of Democracy" Holding Parliament Accountable Is a Challenge

BY Antonella Napolitano | Tuesday, March 10 2015

“Once a symbol of democracy, the Greek Parliament in particular represents to the majority citizens a painful systemic failure,” wrote Antonis Schwarz and Panagiotis Vlachos shortly after they launched the political monitoring and accountability website Vouliwatch in March 2014.

Vouliwatch (“Vouli” is Greek for Parliament) has profiles of every member of Parliament and their legislative activity, from bills drafted to voting statements, as well as details on each piece of legislation put forward for a vote. Vouliwatch is meant to foster a culture of accountability and participation in the country thought to be the birthplace of democracy.

“We think that democracy is empowered by continued participation, not just by voting at election time,” says Stefanos Loukopoulos, the managing director of the site.

“We try to explain the issues, translating them from 'legalese' to common language,” he tells techPresident during a Skype interview.

Vouliwatch also pushes for ways to bridge the gap between citizens and politicians: in a moderated area of the website, citizens can publicly ask questions and receive replies by MPs and MEPs, who can respond on the platform.

The platform encourages citizens' participation through a crowdsourcing legislation tool: people can submit their ideas and proposals, either at the national or at the local level, and comment and rate other proposals. Vouliwatch currently has 1,500 registered users.

Each month the Vouliwatch team summarizes the new material and data and sends a report to all MPs and MEPs. In case any relevant parliamentary action (e.g. a bill proposal, a point of order) is taken as a result of one of these suggestions, Vouliwatch publishes and promotes any follow-up in the Parliament on their homepage.

Proposals to fight tax evasion and to improve education are among the most popular suggestions, Maria Nathanael, the communications director, tells techPresident. There are also proposals to renovate old government buildings so that public agencies can have their offices there instead of paying rent in other buildings.

The website allows users to monitor the voting behavior of each MP, with an application called VoteWatch. Tracking voting behavior, however, is not an easy task, since those data are not publicly available on the Greek Parliament website nor on any other public website, says Nathanael: “Irene [Kostaki], our Parliament correspondent, has to count each vote of every MP by taking note of show of hands.”

Three elections in three years

On January 25, Greek citizens were called to elect the 300 members of the Parliament, an election that was held earlier than scheduled due to the failure of the Greek parliament to elect a president in late December 2014.

Considering this was the third parliamentary election in less than three years (in 2012 there were two in a row, due to inability to form a government), it is not hard to understand why Greek citizens mistrust their elected officials, who are often perceived as unable to act in the best interest of the citizens they represent.

“At Vouliwatch, we believe that the true value of democracy lies in an open dialogue between citizens and those they elect. Voting in national elections is not enough to create and maintain a relationship of trust and a culture of accountability,” wrote Loukopoulos a few weeks ago on the website of Open Society Foundations, one of the funders of the project (specifically, OSF has funded Vouliwatch's pre-electoral tools, Policy Monitor and Candidate Watch.)

During the short campaign, the Vouliwatch team quickly set up Policy Monitor, a digital tool that allows users to compare political party positions on given issues, and CandidateWatch, to help voters do the same for candidates.

People had also the chance to make suggestions and discuss issues: among the most discussed topics there were the privatization of the coastline and of the national water company. Many also suggested including the right to call for referendum in the Constitution, something that ended up in the political agenda of the electoral campaign.

Parties' stances (left) on issues (right) can be compared in the PolicyMonitor section (Source: Vouliwatch)

Engaging with candidates is just the start of a process: “If politicians are to be held accountable for their promises and actions, ordinary people must actively take part in the political process. Likewise, the political establishment must take steps to allow and to encourage wider participation, as well as to increase the transparency of the political and legislative processes,” wrote Loukopoulos right after the January election.

At the moment, though, the Vouliwatch founders admit their impact on Parliament has been limited: despite the fact that every MP has their own profile and can engage directly on the platform, the response rate from politicians is low. Less than 20 percent of Parliament engaged with the platform between March 2014 and January 2015.

“It took us a lot of time and effort even to get the email addresses they normally use, which are rarely the ones displayed on the official Parliament website,” Nathanael comments.

Reversing the brain drain

Greece has suffered more than any other European country from the global financial crisis. In times of economic crisis, brain drain is a common consequence. The founders of Vouliwatch, five highly educated men and women between the ages 28 and 35, decided instead to come back to Greece. Collectively the group left careers in Brussels, Boston and Berlin in order to run the website. Only two of them are full-time employees.

Vouliwatch has a busy year planned: the team has already started conversations with the newly elected MPs, trying to persuade them to use the platform and respond to citizens' comments and proposals. They will also keep advocating for open access to information and open data on the Parliament website.

The Vouliwatch team also has to manage expectations. The sudden 2015 election gained them media visibility and unexpected audience: about 40 percent of their 100,000 visitors arrived to the platform in the three weeks before the vote, and in the past two months the website has reached 10,000 unique visitors (in a country with only 60 percent Internet penetration).

Vouliwatch is also working on being an active part of the international community. While they were initially inspired by the German ParliamentaryWatch, they recently got to know other Europeans engaging with the same issues. Last weekend Vouliwatch hosted a gathering of teams running similar initiatives in Europe and North Africa.

The most important challenge they anticipate is working with the fragmented Greek civil society. Vouliwatch will organize meetings with NGOs to find ways to use the platform as an advocacy tool towards the newly elected MPs.

“United we ask,” they call the meetings.

Disclosure: Antonella Napolitano works on projects funded by Open Society Foundations. The projects are not related in any way to Vouliwatch.

Note: The article has been modified to better show the focus of Open Society Foundations' funding on the pre-elections tools developed by Vouliwatch.