Analysis of the TOM tool

The TID+ project aims to develop a viable and relevant tool that allows citizens to take initiative in e-participation. Rather than to build such a tool from scratch, the project lets itself to be inspired by an existing tool called TOM.

The TOM tool, however, experiences several problems, visible through a decline in take-up. This decline is apparent both concerning quality and quantity.

One of the first actions under the TID+ project was to carry out an extensive analysis of why these difficulties occur.

The analysis was carried out on the Estonian e-participation tool “TOM” (the acronym for “Today I Decide” in Estonian). This tool was launched by the Estonian State Chancellery in June 2001, and has been incorporated in the Osale.ee e-participation site as of June 4th, 2008.

The TOM tool is a public participation portal (www.eesti.ee/tom), allowing citizens to engage more directly with the legislative and policy-making processes either by proposing new legislation or by suggesting amendments to existing laws. In launching TOM, the Estonian government is among the pioneers in the field of e-participation, itself part of a broader trend towards the implementation of e-government. E-participation initiatives like TOM seek to harness new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to enable greater civic and political participation. E-participation is intended, therefore, both to counteract the phenomenon of supposed civic disengagement – best illustrated by the metaphor of “bowling alone” (Putnam, 2000) – and to take advantage of ICTs’ ability to foster interaction between governed and governing that were hitherto unthinkable (Komito, 2005).

E-government is actively promoted by governments and international organizations. The European Commission, for instance, has made e-government – with its inherent potential for improving the provision of public services – a major part of its action plan for i2010, its vision for meeting the challenges of the information society (European Commission, 2005). E-participation is similarly a novel priority of public policy in the twenty-first century (OECD, 2003). Moreover, it is a global priority as the spread of ICTs and their instrumental value in promoting political and civic engagement are not confined to the developed world (Ahmed, 2006).

Real world experiments in e-participation have tended to be implemented at the local or municipal level (Kearns et al., 2002; OECD, 2003). For example, in the United Kingdom, seventy per cent of local authorities now use the internet for policy consultation (Kearns et al., 2002: 4), where citizens are asked to comment on various policy proposals or rank their preferred policy choices among those put forward by the local authorities. Alternatively, e-consultation has been used at the national level for discussing a particular policy issue such as agriculture in the Netherlands, national defence policy in Australia or domestic violence in the UK (OECD, 2003). However, few governments have so far sought to promote e-participation at the national level and to open up a forum for bottom-up legislative initiatives to which public authorities have an obligation to respond. One such example is the UK Prime Minister’s online petition website (http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/) that, continuing a historic tradition of petitioning central government in Britain, enables citizens to propose legislation as well as add their signature to other petitions hosted on the site. All petitions that meet the guidelines for admissibility and which collect more than 200 signatures require an official government response.

The Estonian E-participation project is more ambitious than an e-petition platform. Rather than being a medium for collecting signatures, the TOM tool is a forum for citizens to discuss legislative proposals, within a ten-day period following submission, and to vote upon them. To take account of discussion between TOM users, authors of legislative proposals have up to three days to amend them before they are voted upon by participants (a simple 50% plus one majority is needed to pass). Once a proposal is backed by a majority, it is forwarded to the relevant government department, which then has a month to respond to the proposal explaining what action was or was not taken and why. This formal government response is then posted on TOM.

Given this design, TOM provides an invaluable example for understanding more about citizens’ use of e-participation as well as the merits and demerits of the technological platform for e-participation. Thus the report is divided into two major analytical sections. The first, scrutinizes extensively the usage data, examining general user data including level of activity and the sources of traffic activity. The second part of the report uses detailed survey data from TOM participants as well as interviews with civil servants who responded to TOM-generated ideas to analyse how citizens and public officials engaged with the TOM initiative and their level of satisfaction with the process of e-participation it enabled.

See the TOM usage analysis.

See the feedback from users.

See the conclusions.

Or just watch it.