Internet Watchdogs: Parliament Watch Gives Voters Access to Politicians

By Paul Glader in Hamburg

Though they often vote for a party rather than an individual lawmaker, German citizens can question their elected local and federal representatives directly, thanks to a website called Parliament Watch. The founders have expanded to other European countries and have plans for Tunisia and possibly even the United States.

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Pacing past computer desks in an office scattered with ferns, Gregor Hackmack explains that he's on a quest to bring more democracy, direct democracy precisely, to Germany. But he's also expanding and exporting his findings to other places such as Luxembourg, Slovenia, Ireland, Austria and, soon Tunisia.

Staff members work the phones and volunteers filter in and out of his crowded office flat in a Hamburg walk-up, where he's involved with several NGOs responsible for doing just that: Abgeordnetenwatch.de (Parliament Watch), kandidatenwatch.de (Candidate Watch) and Mehr Demokratie e.V. (More Democracy).

His primary project, Parliament Watch, has grown into a fixture of the German political and media scene. It's a forum where citizens can ask direct questions of political candidates and elected officials in Germany and of Germany's delegation to the European Union.

The forum has proved popular, generating 350,000 unique visitors per month. It has partnerships running with several media organizations including the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, public broadcaster NDR, and SPIEGEL ONLINE, which help draw questions from voters to the site and use some of the answers and data in their reports.

Ninety-Five Percent Participation

Because of the site's popularity, the lawmakers are essentially forced to answer the questions from constituents, and to maintain a basic profile on the site. Those who want a premium profile with a picture and a platform integrated into Twitter or Facebook must pay an annual fee of €129 ($161).

"That's how we get politicians to contribute to the project," Hackmack says. "If there is competition before the election, there is a clear incentive" to buy the premium profile. The rest of the financing for the project comes from donors and partnerships.

Roughly 95 percent of the members of parliament participate on the site, and they answer 80 percent of the 100,000 questions that have poured in from voters. The questions are stored in archives as a public record, which voters can later use to hold politicians accountable. The site also can sort and slice data and responses. For example, it shows graphically how responsive each of the major parties in Germany is to questions.

For example, Carola Reimann, a member of parliament with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), has paid for an extended profile and has answered nearly all 77 questions that constituents have asked her, including one about legalizing marijuana.

"I do not see the current rules for the use of cannabis as leading to a dead end," she said in her answer, noting that cannabis use has declined since 2004. "This trend confirms the effectiveness of a multi-layered approach of prevention, counseling and treatment."

Plans for Expansion

In Germany's political system, voters largely elect a party rather than a candidate directly, meaning that many politicians take office because of the will of the party and not necessarily the will of the voters. Many German voters don't know the politicians very well.

"Unfortunately, we don't have direct democracy on a national level," Hackmack says. Parliament Watch is rolling out coverage for all 16 German states and will include 92 community-level governments as well. It recently received funding to expand its platform to Tunisia, Slovenia and Ireland. "All three countries are on course," he said. "We hired a country manager for Ireland and have a (financial sponsor) commitment for Tunisia."

Parliament Watch is also mulling a possible expansion to the United States and is considering a program where citizens, stakeholders and investors can question executives at banks and large publicly traded companies. Organizers say it's just a matter of creating a new version of the same infrastructure Parliament Watch uses and hiring managers to build participation, moderate and maintain a new site.

Influenced by Protest Movements

Hackmack grew up in a middle-class family in a part of Germany that was famous for its nuclear transports each year. As a teenager he observed the anti-nuclear movement. "That's how I got involved in movement politics," he says. "I realized how much you can do with a few people."

He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the London School of Economics (LSE) in the late 1990s, at a time when the globalization movement was picking up steam amid the anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle in 1999. Hackmack and peers helped organized events at LSE and brought Naomi Klein to some meetings for peace-related gatherings.

He recalls 2 million people marching in Hyde Park to protests wars and points to it as a key moment in his political development. "That doesn't happen very often," he said. "Not even in the United Kingdom."

A week or two later, the British Parliament voted by a landslide majority for war "even though 85 percent of people were against going to war," he said. "I started thinking, how can it be in a representative democracy that parliament isn't listening to the people? It's almost like (the novel) 'War and Peace.'"

Hackmack says when he moved back to Hamburg after finishing his studies, he didn't want to become a banker or consultant like many of his friends. So he went to law school in Hamburg and financed himself by doing market research projects and got involved with the Hamburg branch of the 6,000-member grassroots organization More Democracy.

At the University of Hamburg, Hackmack met Boris Hekele, who was living the same kind of life, supporting himself with web design projects, while studying computer science.

In 2004, they organized a student strike against increases in student fees. Hekele built a web platform similar to MeetUp.com in a matter of hours, which helped organize the strike of about 5,000 protestors. At the time, "there was no Twitter, no Facebook or social web," Hekele says. "It was completely new."

The university increased its fees anyway, but Hackmack and Hekele realized they had the makings of a good startup team. They wondered how voters, with an opportunity to vote for a broader range of candidates, could compare the options. They came up with a website that lists members of parliament, their voting records and creates a platform where voters can question their politicians and candidates.

"It's like giving a job interview," Hackmack says. "You want to see who you are hiring."

Hackmack dropped out of the law studies program and Hekele quit his computer science program at the university as well. "I came to the conclusion that this is the key to change things in society," Hackmack says. "To make sure the will of the majority is implemented in the political process."

In the Hot Seat

The initial abgeordnetenwatch.de won media awards for its work in Hamburg, suggesting they were doing a service that German media and citizens appreciated. So they expanded the site to the national level just in time for the 2005 national elections. Since then, they have put several politicians in the hot seat, including Carl-Eduard von Bismarck, of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), Bundestag member Siegfried Kauder (CDU) and European Parliament member Silvana Koch-Mehrin, of the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP).

Koch-Mehrin was stripped of her doctorate title after a plagiarism scandal in 2011, and was found to have skipped committee meetings for nearly two years. A few politicians, such as Merkel and former German finance minister Peer Steinbrück, are listed on the site but do not respond to citizens' questions.

Politicians have taken note of how the site has changed the electoral process. Alexander-Martin Sardina, a member of the Hamburg state parliament, wrote in 2008 that Parliament Watch often was a topic of discussion in the CDU parliamentary group meetings: "The mood in the spring and summer of 2005 was that only the party speaker should answer for their respective issues. ... There was also a group of representatives that insisted that the only proper forum for debate was parliament, not an independent Internet site." Sardina writes that staff attorneys for one state parliament even had to advise members if Parliament Watch could be held legally liable for generating bad publicity.

But slowly their opinions changed. Sardina and others suggest that many politicians now enjoy interacting with the public on the site. "It is one of the only chances to get to know the people in my constituency," said Bundestag representative Rüdiger Kruse. "There are 187,000 people (in my district), and you cannot meet and greet (all of them)."

Drumming Up Donations

In the Hamburg office, a yellow sign with movable numbers lists the number of monthly subscribers to the Parliament Watch newsletter: 1,180. To further boost financing Hackmack attended the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland this year, and is pitching investors to support the expansion of the site. "It would be great to cover more countries and to be an enabler for other organizations," he says, adding that he would love to one day have a presence in Saudi Arabia or China.

He says it is not the website itself, but people who can topple dictatorial regimes. "We don't expect to change the world but to provide a piece of the puzzle to help change the world," he said. "Hopefully we provide tools to allow people to help develop democracy."

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