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Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda
Digital democracy: how ICT tools can change the relationship between citizens and governments
EuroPCom (the European Conference on Public Communication)
Brussels, 18 October 2012
Ladies and gentlemen
You've been talking about the role of public communication. How it can connect those who govern with those who are governed. And how it could build confidence in public institutions.
Today I want to talk to you about what new digital, online tools mean in that sphere. And how we can best promote them.
The internet and ICT can change our economy. It's a highly productive investment, helping companies work more productively, helping people access more opportunity, creating jobs and boosting growth.
But those digital tools can also support democracy itself. Changing—and improving—the relationship between governments and citizens. Supporting democratic freedoms, democratic accountability, and effective governance.
Not just for EU Institutions: but for every kind of public administration, at every level, in every country; in and outside the EU.
First, remember that underpinning democracy are many rights and freedoms. The right to self-expression; the safeguard of a free and pluralist media; the freedom to contest, challenge and criticise. Those are rights we treasure in Europe. And online tools promote and support them.
Outside Europe, we've seen this stark power. We saw that in the Arab Spring; we still see it today. This tool can reveal the repression of regimes to the whole world. Take the amazing story of Malala Yousafzai, who since the age of 11 has been blogging about life under Taliban tyranny, and calling for the right to women's education.
A young girl, armed only with internet access and a fierce, brave sense of justice, is able to spread her story to the world. The failed attempt by the Taliban to assassinate her didn't silence her, and won't silence her message. And we all wish her the best recovery.
Where activists in repressive regimes use those digital tools to struggle for democracy, I'm determined to support them. Our "no disconnect" strategy will help them use that technology effectively and safely, to secure democratic aims.
But we also see these positive benefits here in Europe. Because where democracy already exists, the online world can make it stronger. I was recently in Bulgaria, where I met many journalists who have found a new voice online. A new channel for self-expression: one that carries beyond traditional, established news media.
The free European media sector has long played an essential role in our democracies. It can and should continue to do so.
But we live in a world where people increasingly go online to get the latest news.
This digital transformation may pose a challenge to traditional media business models. But there are also rich opportunities waiting to be seized. And I know that many in the sector are waking up to this reality.
Adapt in the right way, and our media sector—proud, professional, plural—can continue to serve as the EU's beacon of tolerance, respect and freedom, in the digital age.
Here's the second way the internet boosts democracy: it improves accountability, and empowers citizens.
For a start, online information can empower citizens. Giving them the facts they need to make informed decisions: whether it's about their travel, their energy use, or their healthcare.
And that information can also help them hold their governments to account. Many within the European Commission – myself included – use digital tools like social media to inform and interact with those we serve. That's extremely valuable. And I know that many representatives here in the Committee of the Regions, and down the road in the European Parliament, do likewise.
This is a big step in building informed trust and accountability; for the actions of the EU, and for every government.
But this goes well beyond politicians using social networks. We can change the relationship between governments and citizens.
Putting public data online is a great example. It means more transparency in government. It gives a new rich resource back to the citizens who paid for it – stimulating a market worth tens of billions of euros a year. And it can help public administrations themselves, by giving them a sound evidence base for policy-making.
That culture change towards "open data" is not an easy one to make. But it's one well worth making. And I hope it's one we'll start to see.
The third thing we can do with digital tools is improve public administration itself. By helping public authorities fulfil their tasks more effectively and efficiently and serve their citizens better.
One simple example: social networks like Google and Facebook can track the appearance of flu symptoms. Using anonymised data, that simple tool can really help public authorities detect and respond to epidemics easily, effectively and early on.
But, more generally, digital tools can improve our public services. Whatever it is you're trying to do, from processing tax returns to registering businesses – it's cheaper and more effective for governments to do it online and often easier for citizens too. And there's lots of taxpayers' money to be saved: shifting to eProcurement could save 100 billion euros a year. Meanwhile, tools like tele-health could transform how we provide healthcare, especially for long-term conditions. Letting older people stay at home, with dignity and independence.
The fact is, these days, citizens' expectations about quality of service are ever higher; public funds are in ever shorter supply; and we face ever more public policy challenges – like an ageing population, or climate change.
To respond, our public services urgently need to modernise and going digital can help significantly.
These are great opportunities for our society, for citizens and governments alike. But they won't happen by themselves.
They all need one thing: high speed broadband, so that everyone is plugged into this network.
That doesn't come for free. But it is worth it; because none of these great things can happen without internet access.
Today, too many regions in Europe are left out. Particular for the faster broadband that supports "next generation services". And particularly in less populated regions: the most isolated communities, but also many suburban areas.
If we don't invest, too many could stay cut off from fast connections, shut off from digital opportunity, unable to access new broadband-based services.
We've proposed support through the Connecting Europe Facility to change that. Supplementing structural fund grants, this Facility would focus on building fast broadband in intermediate, grey areas; like suburbs.
By boosting confidence and stimulating leverage , the Facility would make every taxpayer cent work around 7 times harder. Because such financial instruments ensure the most value, and the most coverage, across Europe. But you only get that value-added if you act at EU level.
All in all, that Facility could connect 45 million new households to fast, fixed broadband. That's an extra one household in five. And a good way towards getting every European Digital.
But of course it's not just about fixed networks: we also need access to mobile broadband. Today, many Europeans can't get the fastest connections on the newest gadgets, because their governments haven't yet made the right radio spectrum available. We need to change that. We need to take radio spectrum seriously.
Plus, the Connecting Europe Facility would support the high-quality public services that can really make citizens' lives easier. Taking the public services we have already put online – and connecting them so they can grow.
Ensuring these services also work across borders. Removing the frustration of incompatible national systems. And creating a new, online home for our Single Market: a Digital Single Market.
Digital tools bring huge benefits: for our economy, for our society, for our democracy. But this transformation won't happen by itself. Only if we invest, politically and financially, will we enable these benefits. Only if we secure fast broadband for all can we unlock these new opportunities. Only then can we build a connected, competitive continent: an e-EU.