"We thought Vouliwatch.gr would be a good chance for people to collectively re-establish trust in the parliamentary democracy system as well as in politicians. It is a continuously evolving process."
Recently Greece has undergone a severe crisis. This period has not only worsened the country’s economic situation, which resulted in massive civil unrest, but it also contributed to the surging distrust, both internationally, and at the local level. Greeks have ended up in a bottleneck – the national disbelief in the Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and the whole political system skyrocketed – the confidence and faith were lost in anything that concerned Greek politics. However, a small group of Greek adults saw this undesirable political and economic stagnation as an opportunity, rather than an incurable hardship. In 2014 they decided not to wait for the situation to get better by itself, instead they chose to be proactive, identify what needs to change and consistently work towards that change. So, having support and know-how coming from equivalent initiatives in Germany, Ireland, Luxemburg, Tunesia, France and Austria, they opened Vouliwatch.gr (i.e. Parliament-Watch), which is a non-profit parliamentary monitoring organisation. Vouliwatch.gr aims to engage Greek citizens with legislative politics and it grants them with the opportunity to communicate, evaluate and hold elected representatives in the Greek and European Parliament accountable.
Maria Nathanail, with a background in Law and Social Sciences, is the Head of Communications and Press Office at Vouliwatch.gr. Being committed to making the political situation in Greece accountable and trustworthy, she is an inspiration to many. Maria is keen to share her experience and knowledge with anyone who wants to start initiatives in their respective countries, and that’s why she was more than happy to answer a few questions by Pakhuis de Zwijger.
Maria, Vouliwatch.gr started 2 years ago, what were the motives to start the project in such fragile times?
In Greece, there has been a high level of mistrust combined with a tremendous confidential gap between citizens and MPs. The institution of democracy itself was very unbalanced and fragile. The change was the underlying motive for us – we wanted to collaboratively restore the confidence in a democratic system and at the same time be a watchdog for the parliament.
In the unlucky recent Greek political history, if we look at the referendums, elections and re-elections and lack of political stability, our platform became an instrument for consistent and open communication. So, despite the fact that we wanted to get citizens engaged and informed, we made politicians aware that we exist and will keep monitoring their activities: how they vote and declare their stances in public. With Vouliwatch.gr we also want to make sure that we are not there to harm politicians’ carriers, but rather prove the fact that not all MPs are corrupted and useless, that there are still consistent politicians who conduct legitimate work. We thought Vouliwatch.gr would be a good chance for people to collectively re-establish trust in the parliamentary democracy system as well as in politicians. It is a continuously evolving process.
What was the entry point for such a massive project?
Vouliwatch.gr is part of a larger and even global movement, which evolved in recent years. It is closely related to digital tools and digital democracy which enable people to access clear and comprehensive information in an easy and simplified way. At the same time, it makes politicians aware that there are active citizens keen to monitor and keep a track of national and local politics. Thanks to technology – various digital tools that the modern society provides us with – we are able to reconstruct the notion of an active citizen, who, we believe, is not only voting every 4 years in the national elections but keeps an eye on MPs, asks questions and demands answers, monitors the whole legislation procedure and is aware of what is being passed through the parliament and what is not. Technology put in a political context has helped us to reduce the gap and bring politicians and MPs in a direct contact with each other. We also believe that an active citizen is a well-informed citizen. In Greece, the majority of sources for information and news are biased for one party or another. This means that citizens are not able to receive objective information. Vouliwatch.gr’s underlying principle is to maintain a neutral position and always pass on objective information, we don’t express our personal opinions on what is going on, and this helps us to gain recognition by people who want to be truly informed.
What digital tools do you use?
Like the original Parliament-Watch, we have digitally available MPs’ profiles. These profiles store all important information, such as their Curriculum Vitae, the district where they were elected, the committees they have participated in, all their political behaviour history, voting patterns and financial data. Having the whole scope of information enables citizens not only to send questions and receive answers by e-mail, but also to track their behaviour since they came to office. However, we have a code of ethics for the Q&A’s. We don’t transmit questions that are aggressive, insulting, racist or sexist. Vouliwatch.gr is a completely neutral platform, and we promote respect and tolerance, so if we spot anything harmful, we inform why we don’t publish that and suggest reformulation.
In addition, we have a Policy Monitor tool. We use it to monitor the MPs behaviour during the legislative procedures. Thanks to this tool, citizens can see what the official positions of parties regarding various topics like education, taxes, economy, health, human rights, gender balance, and many more are. It is a comparative tool, meaning that citizens can choose a couple of parties and the topic of concern and then see how they position themselves. This tool is connected with the way parties also vote. Let me visualise: so, in the pre-election phase you have a party that declares a certain stance in terms of, for example, same-sex marriage; our tool enables people to see how the party votes and whether they are consistent with their pledges after the legislation has passed. Our next step is to personalise this tool. Then citizens would be able to put their age, profession, residence, marital and social status and views on certain issues and they could then see which party suits them best. It would be a guide for elections and also helpful in the forming of public political opinion.
Another tool is the Pool of Opinions. Within this pool, citizens themselves are enabled to come up with improvements for legislations. So, if they have any thoughts regarding central themes or even their local, neighbourhood matters, they can propose changes. It is then a pre-legislative debate for evolution and improvement.
Is it only digital tools that you use for citizen engagement and political participation?
Well, despite digital tools we also campaign for more transparency and accountability. Along with the Greek Green Peace department, we had a common campaign for TTIP and CITA conventions. We have organised an open discussion and other offline events to raise public awareness as well as pressuring MPs to have a position in these conventions. As a result, we now have a special committee formed within the Greek parliament to address issues of CITA and TTIP conventions.
In addition, for the fist time in Greek history, we organised a campaign for more transparency in the process of issuing and publishing MPs financial data. Politicians are obliged by law to show their financial statements each year and they do it. However, the way it has been done until now was unclear and even confusing. So, we campaigned to raise awareness of the non-transparent way financial data is being published. As a result, there was a slight improvement in the legislation, because the parliament passed a new law, which now obliges the MPs to publish everything electronically, so it is easier to access. On our side, Vouliwatch.gr has transcribed the data to the website in a very easily accessible and comprehensive way. We have also built an archive, meaning that now we can keep the history of all financial data and citizens can follow-up information whenever they want.
Since most of the legislation is very difficult to understand for people without a background in law, we build infographics to break down the underlying issues in legislations. We try to re-write it in a simplified way, using bullet points. In this way, people can really understand what is being passed. We are also collecting parliamentary data to present it to the citizens through videos, graphics, charts, percentages. If citizens have questions how certain policies work, we try to provide comprehensive answers.
Slowly, but gradually we develop. We became a part of the international European network collaborating with other NGO’s and initiatives that keep encouraging us to keep up the good work. We have built the first Parliamentary-Watch international network, and last year the opening took place in Athens. So we are trying to form collaborations and exchange good practices with other similar initiatives. If there is a small change, it is already worth our effort.
We are a very small group but collaborate with universities for knowledge exchange. Now we also have a small network of interns and a voluntary network of people who help us to collect the data, organise campaigns and events. Networking is very important for these kinds of issues. We offer our tools to work for a common, bigger goal.
Who is your audience?
When we started our personal network and civil society, people who were thinking much alike, other NGOs, as well as civic initiatives, were our audience. Now we have seen a large portion of interest coming from youth.
Vouliwatch.gr is a young organisation, but we see a growing response from people, other initiatives and even from politicians. We see a constant increase in participation by our users as well as an increase in the responsiveness of our MPs. Vouliwatch.gr has built a solid status. At the beginning the climate was very delicate – when we started everyone was asking us which politician was behind this initiative, who was paying us, but now people have begun to trust us.
What has been the opinion coming from politicians?
At the beginning, the Greek parliament didn’t want to meet with us. We had to put in a lot of effort to convince them that we are here to help them and work together to make information accessible to citizens. The opinions were diverse, but in general, they were very reluctant.
Since the last elections, parliament is more open and supportive. They were interested in our activities as much as to find out how were we funded, whether they had to pay to subscribe to the platform.
We are keen to share our tools and methods with them, help them to improve their website. We want them to know that we are working on a common goal. However, with some parties we still don’t have a smooth communication. For instance, with the extreme right party, we have their profiles on our website, but that is as far as it gets. The relation with the communist party is also different; they respond to questions as a party, instead of individually. There is a balance and analogy in responsiveness with the other parties, usually younger politicians are keener to reply and contribute as well as to use their social media accounts.
Also, we conduct name-shame. There is a small chart that we update monthly. It shows the top 5 and the bottom 5 active MPs, this definitely touches upon their vital popularity.
What are the main obstacles that you face?
Well, funding is always an issue. In order to be completely independent and neutral, we cannot receive financial support from parties or banks, or private companies. In Greece, people are hesitant to give their money to organisations with a political orientation because they lack sympathy for that in general. At the beginning, our work was completely voluntary, but through building trust, we have gradually earned financial support too.
I would say the main obstacle still remains trust, to prove that there is nobody behind us trying to do politics through our initiative as well as to convince the citizens to use the platform. Greek citizens are disillusioned with politics; they believe that even if they pose a question they won’t receive an honest or an analytical answer. There is this general idea that politicians are corrupted. That is why Vouliwatch.gr wants to remain in the role of observation monitoring. We try to encourage politicians who are active to make a stand on things, to promote their ideas through our platform, and in regards to the politicians who aren’t consistent with their work we try to point out and underline this fact publically.
We still haven’t gone through this successfully yet, there is still this mistrust in Greece, but gradually it is improving. Even if there is only a very small part of the population that acknowledges our activities – it is a big accomplishment for us.
What is the vision for let’s say the upcoming 10 years?
We believe in knowledge exchange, collaboration and open data. We would like to expand and help to build similar initiatives, at least around Europe. Now we are working in Cyprus and are in touch with some Balkan countries. We are keen to share our know-how and technological tools to globally contribute to transparency and legitimacy. In addition to the strong international network, our initiative has an educational aspect too. We acknowledge that legislations are very complicated and badly written, so, we want to take part in making the parliamentary and legislative system more comprehensible for youngsters and people, no matter their educational level. We see Vouliwatch.gr as an extra tool within the lessons of the democratic political education in junior and high schools.