Platform for Increased Democratic Participation

The Viennese platform iDepart wants to provide citizens with tools for participating in political processes and generate more attention for community initiatives. futurezone spoke with its founders Philippe Hoffuri and Bernhard Schreder about grass-roots participation, direct democracy and “slacktivism.”

An initiative for the reintroduction of the incandescent light bulb, a group pushing for a laptop-free day in Vienna`s seventh district, the referendum against church privileges, and a referendum against referendums. They can all be found on iDepart, a platform for active democratic participation that aims to increase citizen participation and provide an overview of community initiatives.

"We want to be a point of contact for people looking for information about community initiatives and who want to participate actively in them," said the platform`s founders, Philippe Hoffuri and Bernhard Schreder. The platform was launched last November, and already lists about 30 initiatives.

"The public is not even aware of many initiatives"
Hoffuri and Schreder came up with the idea for the platform because there was no single place to go for information about community initiatives. "It is very difficult to get an overview of the various activities," Hoffuri said, "and because of this, the public is not even aware of many initiatives."

iDepart not only wants to generate more attention for initiatives by citizens and organizations. It also wants to motivate people to take action. They can start initiatives on the platform, look for supporters, set up working groups, and plan events and activities.

Exchange of experiences
The necessary know-how is also provided. The platform has a knowledge base with articles and information from experienced activists and with help in various forms. "For people who have never done it, setting up an information booth can be a major hurdle," said Hoffuri, "When people have experience and share it, it promotes activism."


More than "slacktivism"
iDepart wants to set itself apart from "superficial" forms of democratic participation and "slacktivism," for example "liking" pertinent Facebook groups and signing petitions on platforms like Avaaz. "When I `like` or sign something, I can lean back with the good feeling of having done something," Schreder said, "then I forget about the issue and don`t hear anything about what is being done about it."

On iDepart, the idea is to accompany initiatives over their entire life, and to give citizens many options to participate actively. "It can start with something small, for example when I want to do something against a post office being closed in my neighborhood," Schreder said. "The networking options that we offer aim to get people active offline."

The platform is open to all initiatives that do not run counter to democratic values or contain sexist or racist elements. "We want to keep it very open," Hoffuri said, "freedom of opinion is important to us."

"Willingness to take action has grown substantially"
The founders say that the willingness to take action has grown substantially in recent years. "In addition to the growing range of technical networking possibilities, this has also been driven by dissatisfaction with the government." In Austria, it was especially the numerous corruption scandals that have gotten people thinking, Hoffuri said. "Politicians have become increasingly petulent. And long-needed reforms are being blocked in many areas."

Direct democracy
According to Hoffuri, direct democracy is currently a very hot issue for all political parties, but these parties are not really taking grass-roots participation seriously. "They are only paying lip service to the idea."

Hoffuri and Schreder support the ability to submit online citizen`s initiatives to Parliament that was introduced in Austria a year ago. The only problem is that 500 offline signatures are needed to start such an initiative. The barriers for European citizen`s initiatives are also "extremely high" in Austria compared with other EU countries. "It seems like citizens in Austria are not to have a voice," Hoffuri said.

Freemium model
The platform was initiated through financing from the crowdfunding portal respekt.net, and iDepart is currently being supported by a major donor. In the future, the founders want to offer a freemium model to generate revenue. Interest groups and political parties that want to list initiatives on the platform are to be charged an annual fee. They should also have access to additional functions that are relevant for professional users. "This will range from presentation options with a logo to analyses that are relevant for professional users," Hoffuri explained.

Grass-roots appeal
Hoffuri and Schreder want to offer further tools for democratic participation on their platform. For example, a "grass-roots appeal" function is planned that will allow e-mails to be written to representatives, for example, in a similar manner to a petition. Suggestions from citizens and initiatives are also being taken into account in the expansion of the platform. "We are trying to implement our users` suggestions."

Mobile app
A mobile app is also planned for the platform and is to be released this year. Among other things, the app will send users location-based reminders. "When I am close to a courthouse, for example, the app can remind me that I can sign a referendum that is currently running", iDepart founder Schreder said. "It is important to us to make democratic participation a part of everyday life."