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MPs gaining familiarity with web-based media

In its first decade, EPRI (the European Parliament Research Initiative) has transformed European Parliamentarians’ attitudes about technology: Where once they saw the internet as a threat, they now see it as a useful tool. The project team is now aiming to increase awareness among the national assemblies of EU’s member states.

Politics is one of those areas where the transformation of ‘the public’ from a single audience (in the form of television viewers and newspaper readers) to a fragmented group of internet surfers has radically affected the nature of communication. Like advertisers, politicians can no longer rely on mass media like TV to get their message across; they need to find new ways of reaching constituents.

Unfortunately, politicians are not, traditionally, the most techno-savvy of people – which is where EPRI (the European Parliament Research Initiative) comes in. EPRI was launched in 1995 to tackle widespread ignorance about internet communications among parliamentarians, and has been run for the EU ever since by the company TSA Teleport Sachsen-Anhalt.

Project manager Marco Langhof recalls that EPRI came along at just the right time. “Parliamentarians often had negative ideas about the internet,” he says. “They tended to associate it with pornography and anarchy.” As a corrective to these uninformed views, EPRI set out to convince the politicians that the net “is not a threat, but a tool.”

“We started by connecting our parliamentarians to the internet,” says Langhof. “They found this very useful, as most were commuting between their homes and Brussels or Strasbourg. And we also helped them to create their own websites.”

Having become a regular annual event, the next EPRI conference is to be held in Lisbon in Spring 2007. It will advance the agenda of the three-year EPRI-Knowledge programme, which is designed to raise awareness among Europe’s individual assemblies. Topics on the table will include how national parliaments can use web services to get closer to constituents.

EPRI-Knowledge (begun in 2005 and due to run until summer 2007) aims to disseminate EPRI’s findings and help to develop ICT vision and leadership among Europe’s national parliaments – as well as monitoring the existing situation in all 39 parliamentary assemblies of the EU and NAC. In this respect, Langhof notes that the project has encountered a very uneven distribution of ICT adoption among the different member states.

“It is anything but a uniform picture,” Langhof says. “It is surprising how some of the most advanced countries in terms of the adoption of ICTs by parliaments are those that are newest to democracy."

"Estonia for example," he continues, "is very advanced technologically, since it only recently drew up its democratic constitution, and so could basically allow for a paperless democracy. For the older democracies in Europe, it is much harder to accommodate new technology, since the original statutes and practices derive from pre-ICT days.”

Uneven distribution is not the only issue. “We have found that some parliamentarians worried about the growing gap – which statistics show – between citizens and the democratic process. Of course, this issue is related to e-inclusion and is a social question, not just a technological one, but technology can help to address the divide between MPs and constituents, if it is used properly.”

In addition to the conferences, frequent workshops allow parliamentarians to learn from each other’s findings, “so that we can see what can be generalised and recommended,” as Langhof says. Another important area for EPRI is research: “Our study, Learning to Live with the internet, gives you a good picture of what roles can be taken, and how the internet can be used to support the work of MPs,” says Langhof.

He likens the work of EPRI to old-fashioned television training for politicians, but emphasises, “There’s a lot of guesswork involved. We can’t be sure how effective blogs are yet.”

Nevertheless, he is optimistic about the future. “Our studies show that parliamentarians are trying to use technology – but a new balance is needed in their roles to enable them to do so efficiently,” he says. “Weblogs, for example, are time-consuming commitments. Also, we see that such channels are directed towards the younger generation, so they will only become more important.”

Technology moves so fast that progress can seem slow, but Langhof is in a good position to assess the improvements: “If I look back over the last ten years, there has been a tremendous change in the take-up of ICTS by MPs,” he says. “All parliamentarians have their own websites now, which just goes to show what can be achieved.”

Source: Based on information from EPRI.

Jernett Karensen | alfa
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