How websites help MEPs to reconnect with citizenson 28 April 2015
By Jessica Kunert
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) don’t have it easy. They are often accused of being ineffective in their work, with stories like the ‘crooked cucumbers’ directive presented as funny anecdotes. They are often ignored by the national mass media, and – even more striking – also almost forgotten by the citizens. Turnout for European Parliament elections are as poor as it is for local or regional elections. It is not seen as being very significant. This stems very much from its opaque institutional setup, and the European Parliament is no exception. Its composition is a complete contrast to national parliaments given that its members come from all of the member states, bringing different political cultures and speaking different languages. MEPs’ constituencies are a lot larger than the constituencies of national parliamentarians and the complicated legislative process (with three different types of legislative procedures) acts as a further barrier to citizen engagement.
This brings huge challenges for MEPs in communicating information to citizens. Who do they address? In which language? And which channels are the most useful to use? The national mass media tend to be preoccupied with national news, focused on the European Union only in times of major crises, like the BSE crisis in 1997. The daily parliamentary work often retreats into the background, and so MEPs struggle to get their information to the citizens.
Theoretically, the internet has the potential to remedy this relationship. It is open to anyone and does not discriminate between different types of content. This means that online content does not have to be deemed ‘newsworthy’ in order to be published. And most importantly, it is accessible from anywhere, and does not rely on physical space or set times for use. The internet does not close down, as constituency offices do, and its materials, provided as digital copies, never run out. This is especially valuable for marginalised parliamentarians like MEPs.
But does this work in practice? My research compares the activity of MEPs on their personal websites (those that they maintain themselves) with the personal websites of members of the respective national parliaments (MNPs). A total of 203 MEPs and 1615 MNPs were studied from four countries: Germany, the UK, Austria, and Ireland. The results show that MEPs are using the internet to their advantage:
- They are more likely to have a personal website: Only 3% of the MEPs in the study did not have a personal website, compared to 11% of MNPs. As Table 1 shows, there was strong variation across the studied countries. So for instance almost all of the German MNPs had a personal website, compared to just 44% of Austrian MNPs.
Table 1: MNPs with a personal website
2. Their websites reflect the diversity of the EU: Although only 4 % of MEPs presented their entire website in another language, many more presented parts of their website in other languages. This included their CV, committee work, and news from the European Parliament (16 % overall). The second language mostly used is English for the German and Austrian MEPs. Their counterparts in national parliaments were slightly more likely to offer the entire content of their website in another. But this was mostly where minority languages were being spoken in their constituencies, such as Welsh or Irish.
3. Their websites are built to further transparency: The content of MEP websites varied heavily. A few standard features could be found on almost every website, including a CV, a list of committee appointments and contact information, postal address and e-mail-address, as they would also be featured in ‘offline’ brochures or leaflets. This forms the basic information and acts as the foundation for different types of additional content. Apart from that, there were no standard features in place. This can be seen when looking at content that furthers transparency. Here, the genuine online features are looked at, which were not available offline in such shape. These are an up-to-date appointment calendar, legislative proceedings documents like speeches and reports in full, personal records like financial statements or voting records, a weblog, hyperlinks to personal social network profiles like Facebook or Twitter, and explanations of the MEP’s own parliamentary workings, like his or her committee work. Table 2 shows the distributions of each of these features. What we see here is that MEPs have higher percentages for these features than their national counterparts. Presenting explanations of one’s own parliamentary workings is a stark example. Here, the MEPs directly address the communication deficit, and educate the citizens on what they have been doing. This can also be seen in features like hyperlinks to social networks sites, which lead to the possibility of interacting with the citizens through these platforms, and a weblog, on which MEPs can expand on their work in detail. The only outlier is documents on legislative proceedings, such as speeches and reports, which are shown more often by the MNPs.
Table 2: Transparency features used on personal websites
Having a personal website is therefore crucial for MEPs. Almost all of them have one. Presenting their website in another language is rare, but though having parts of it which are translated is a more common occurrence. They follow no set pattern in terms of content and vary a lot from each other. But having a CV and showing contact information are standard features for MEPs and MNPs alike. The distributions of other transparency features show that MEPs use this type of content to try to interact with the citizens via their personal websites. They offer citizens the information that they cannot easily transmit via the traditional mass media. In almost all cases, transparency features are presented more often on the MEPs’ websites than on the MNPs’ websites. They are therefore making use of their personal websites to engage with the citizens, and to make their work visible to the world. And things are already improving. Their dependency on the mass media is reducing and at the same time they are reducing the information gap – this more than anything else shows how valuable the channels of the internet are for the MEPs.
Jessica Kunert is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Leuphana University Lüneburg. She tweets @JessicaKunert.
Image: Barros.A CC BY-NC-ND