Effects of local online participation and their influencing factors in a comparative perspective

This research project aims to assess whether online participation processes on the local level result in changes in the political attitudes of the public. Question of interest include

  • Do online participation processes result in measurable changes in the political attitudes of those citizens who took part?
  • Do the political attitudes of participants differ from the ones held by those who did not participate?
  • Which factors influence the effects of online participation on a local level?

To investigate these questions this project required a unique comparative research effort in which three almost identical instances of online consultations were implemented in three different German municipalities and subsequently systematically evaluated. Specifically, in 2017 the three map-based online consultations were conducted in close collaboration with the city councils of the three municipalities of Bonn, Moers and Ehrenfeld (district of Cologne). In each of these cities the local councils invited their citizens to make proposals on how to improve the situation for cyclists. Over the course of five weeks, citizens made about 3.200 suggestions along with 2.200 comments. These citizen contributions are currently being discussed by the respective political planning committees in order to determine specific measures to be implemented over the next years.

Entry page of online dialogue in Bonn

The research project aims to assess how these participatory processes may or may not have impacted on the legitimacy beliefs of the public. Specifically, three different levels of legitimacy beliefs are analyzed: i) the citizens’ assessment of the particular local policy discussed in the online consultation, ii) their attitude towards the stakeholders responsible for it as well as iii) their overall satisfaction with the way democracy works in their city and their country.

To answer the question how these assessments might be related to processes of online participation, this study can draw on empirical evidence from three major sources:

  1. representative surveys (partly in panel design) in the three municipalities involved
  2. surveys of users of the online platforms
  3. the data generated by the platform itself such as the thousands of citizens’ contributions

In contrast to previous evaluations, this research can compare three basically identical instances of political participation online in comparable contexts instead of single case studies or comparisons of different processes. What is more, instead of just focusing on those who actually take part in such online processes, this research can due to the representative surveys compare active participants with those who have not taken part or did not even know about the processes. Finally, due to the panel design of these surveys it is possible to track the development of public legitimacy beliefs over time, e.g. before and after the participation process.

This pilot study is being funded by the Strategic Research Fund of Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf for a duration of two years (October 2016 – September 2018) and is supposed to form the foundation for a more extensive follow-on research project.