A year of e-petitions in Ukraine: has it changed the interaction with the state?

Marking World Democracy Day on 15 September, DRI organised a public discussion called Democracy per mouse click: one year of e-petitions in Ukraine at the Ukrinform news agency in Kyiv. The meeting concluded that the system of e-petitions is still in infancy but with political will, better processing of petitions and more public awareness it could serve as a valuable addition to political participation in Ukraine.
Participants included key officials from the presidential administration, government, Parliament and Kyiv City administration, as well as members of the public who had used the system, representatives of civil society organisations, and the media. The discussion, which assessed the first year of the e-petitions system and examined its prospects, was moderated by Serhiy Loboyko, Director of the Centre for Innovations Development.

E-democracy in Ukraine is just taking its infant steps, there is much to do ahead,” said Mykhailo Titarchuk, Deputy Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine. ”Since e-petitions have become an option of political participation, 22,780 e-petitions were submitted to the President, 400 to the Parliament and 500 to the Government, which started the practice at the end of August 2016” Titarchuk added.

Participants agreed that the existence of the e-petition service is an important step in establishing effective communication and improving dialogue between the citizens and the government. However, the existing mechanism has not yet fully achieved its potential. To many citizens it is not clear how it works.

Some fundamental challenges
According to Yevheniy Poremchuk, Coordinator of the Rozumne Misto (Smart City) platform, there are three impediments to e-petitions succeeding at the local level: a lack of funds, sabotage by officials and “run-around” replies, a reluctance to search for funding, and a lack of motivation on the part of both the authorities and the petition initiators.

Adding to these challenges, the central executive authorities and respective institutions have not yet developed a mechanism of systematically handling and responding to e-petitions.
There is still no dedicated staff person or committee in each of the institutions accepting petitions. Many petitions are not submitted to the relevant authorities.

Mr. Shymkiv, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine on administrative, social and economic reforms, emphasised that the majority of petitions submitted to the President fall within the terms of reference of the Parliament, the Cabinet of Ministers or other executive bodies; often the Presidential Administration can only forward them to these bodies. Meanwhile, the Parliament representative noted that citizens often submit the petitions pertaining to the local authorities’ responsibility to the Parliament petition website. “A considerable percentage of the petitions are outside of the parliamentary mandate, for example, citizens request a road to be tarmacked, or raise other issues under local jurisdiction.”

What is the local perception of e-petitions?
Locally there are two different concepts about the purpose of such petitions: first, to clarify the city’s priorities (e.g. which road needs to be repaired first), and second to address comprehensive and strategic concerns (e.g. municipal development programs).

Volodymyr Pavliuk, representative of the Association of Open Cities, national moderator of the ‘Uniform System of Local Petitions’ however, was of the view that citizens tend to misunderstand the role of petitions, placing their expectations too high. In his opinion, an e-petition “Is not a local referendum mechanism, that’s why the petition is not binding even if it has gathered the required number of votes.”

Other speakers, participants and members of civil society who had tried out the system considered that the problems were not only of a technical nature, but resulted from a lack of political will and responsiveness of officials. On the other hand, officials insisted that they were doing their best to treat the system seriously, yet were limited in resources and were responsive only to the extent that the law or their competencies allowed, while making improvements to the process.

Initiators of e-petitions: what are the pluses and minuses?
Diana Dovhan, initiator of the petition “Position of professional technical schools and colleges in the education system in Ukraine”, which had been addressed to the President of Ukraine, experienced that many similar, or identical petitions appeared on the website when she submitted hers. She suspected intentional interference with the process in order to distract some signatories from the original petition. Ms. Dovhan is convinced that “if we totalled up all the signatures under all those clone petitions, we would well have reached the necessary 25,000 votes long ago.” However, Ukrainian laws do not prohibit registering identical or similar petitions. Nevertheless, she also emphasised the positive impact of the petition, which triggered constructive public discussion within the educational sphere and raised the issue on the political agenda.

Other participants in the discussion who had tried the system also agreed that despite existing technical or other shortcomings, e-petitions were a welcome mechanism for signalling concerns and mobilising public opinion. With political will, improvements to the process and wider awareness of the possibility of e-petitions, they would make it a valuable feature of genuine democracy in Ukraine.

Interview by Bohdan Bernatskyi, DRI’s Junior Legal Officer, on the topic to “Hromadske Radio” you can find here 
You can watch the video recording of the open discussion here
Video messages from the initiators of successful petitions by Golda Vynogradska, Arseniy Finberg, and Mykhaylo Zhernakov.

Photo credit “Ukrinform”

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