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Citzalia – the virtual ghost European Parliament (really, why spend money on this?)

Yesterday – thanks to this tweet – I had the dubious honour to be one of the first people to have a look at a draft website for Citzalia, a project that promises some sort of virtual European Parliament role playing game. The official blurb is as follows:

Citzalia is democracy in action. It is role playing game and social networking forum wrapped in a virtual 3D world that captures the essence of the European Parliament. You may even recognise parts of the building [...] Current Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and European officials will be on hand to guide you through the procedures and provide background information.

I don’t really know quite where to start to critique this, so perhaps I’ll start with the positive – the graphic design for the site, even the draft so far, has been meticulously delivered by ESN – it all looks smart and crisp. So I can’t fault the agency.

The question I simply cannot answer is why is the European Parliament spending money on this?

Thanks to the research of some fellow EU bloggers we reckon this is financed from €4 million allocated to ESN in a 2008 budget line from the EP – see page 21 of this PDF. In the same period ESN has done this project for the EP, presumably under the same funding line? The only other similar line is this from the Commission, but Citzalia looks like an explicitly EP project. If someone knows the precise answer to these funding questions please do leave a comment. [UPDATE - 6.8.2010, 15:45] See the comment below from ESN – funding totals €275k, from a different funding line than the one I had suggested.

All of this seems especially poignant just now as the European Parliament seems to be doing its best to kill off the European Citizens’ Initiative – a way for citizens to have a direct (rather than a virtual) impact on EU decision making. How about using some EP money to deliver a simple to use, online petition platform for the ECI? Surely simpler to program than a virtual European Parliament!

Education about the European Parliament is important, sure, but the problem for the EP is however much people learn it’s not likely to make them more favourable towards it, for the EP has a structural problem – individual MEPs matter to individual pieces of legislation, but the overall direction of European integration and even the composition of the European Commission are too little influenced by whether the EP is controlled by the left or the right. So inform people, sure, but the incentive for Members of the European Parliament to really effectively communicate themselves is still lacking. No amount of slick websites can possibly address that.

All of this rather reminds me of the MyParl.eu story from 2008 – a social networking system for MEPs which was then ditched. I wrote then that it’s simpler for MEPs to approve a few million Euro for a website than it is to actually get them communicating effectively themselves, and that seems to hold true for Citzalia as well. I really fear this is going to become a virtual ghost European Parliament with high costs and very few users.

[UPDATE - 6.8.2010, 10:45]
Please note: I am not saying this site cost €4 million – I don’t know the precise sum. I am saying that as far as I am aware the funding came from within €4 million of funds allocated to ESN. Those are rather different things.


32 Comments

  • Eurogoblin |

    Perhaps the ghost MEPs can spend their time playing the ghost virtual Parliament? :-D

    Here’s some of the research I did (no doubt full of errors and misunderstandings): ESN received a contract worth 4 million euros from the European Parliament in 2008 (search for “European Service Network” here) for “information and communication of the European Parliament and the political agenda of the latter.” It was a “multiple framework contract” divided into four lots, with several traders per lot. ESN was awarded lot 4 – along with the Tipik Communication Agency and GOPA-Cartermill. The contract was signed for one year and may be renewed annually, subject to satisfactory performance, for a maximum of 4 years (i.e. it expires in 2012). See here for the actual tender.

    So, essentially – ESN is being paid 4 million euros to produce a range of promotional material for the European Parliament, presumably including the “Citzalia” project. It seems that the 4 million euros is in total, not 4 million per year – see here, where GOPA-Cartermill was awarded 450’000 euros in 2009 for the same contract. It’s unclear if ESN had its contract renewed (as it does not appear in the document above, but Tipik and GOPA-Cartermill do), or if the amount of money it received was not sufficient to require it to be published in that list (or, was the GOPA-Cartermill money extra because they went over-budget?).

    Somebody with better knowledge of EP project funding contract procedures would be great. Is the 4 million euros per year or in total? Bottom line, however, is that the Citzalia project is most probably coming from that 4 million budget line.

    Again, like Jon, I can’t fault ESN – they look like they’re doing a good job. But why were they contracted in the first place?

  • Bel·la |

    It’s these incremental, lackadaisical and snobbish efforts to spread yet an inch more of banal Europeanism (europapanatism, as I may coin it thanks to other languages) that no-one is ever going to successfully check against its real efficiency-efficacy.

    This money goes to compensate for the remoteness of the Brussels concept, and not only to tackle (uselessly if you ask me) the fragmentarity of the EU’s public space(s)’ landscape, but foremost the blatant absence of the EU institutions’ place within it, which is making it ever more unthinkable (in the absence of some (re)generational trans-consensus) for a Delorsian-times revenge to grow anything fertile in the Barroso desert (with or without a Plan D)…

    Thanks for your work,

    Dixi

  • Ralf Grahn |

    Perhaps a virtual game teaching MEPs and Europarties to communicate (= interact) would be worth a few million votes in 2014 EP elections, if current channels are insufficient this side of the Atlantic.

  • Jon |

    @Gawain – feels like the same story repeating, but no, the agency is different, and this one is open to the public and MyParl was not. So I don’t think there’s an explicit link between the two.

  • Lee |

    A very good spot.

    I’m already planning my first sit in demo.

  • gawain |

    I have some serious problems with it though. There are huge lacuna.
    1) No Pay office
    2) No allowances office
    3) I can’t find the bar(s)
    4) Where are the new buildings (and thuis where are the UKIP/EFD offices)?
    4) And where are the Polish stagieres?

  • Lee Rotherham |

    The Security? Once got in there just wearing ID from a Star Trek convention, as the Earth Delegate from the United Federation of Planets.

    Then again, there is the good old sniper rifles and machine guns story. So they could turn it into a version of Doom.

  • Paolo@ESN |

    Thanks for your interest in Citzalia. However, as an ESN editor involved in the project, I would like to clear up some of the inaccuracies contained in your post. In particular, your comment about the source and amount of funding is wrong.
    In fact, the total funding for the project is about 275,000 euros, much less than the 4 million euros you suggest. Citzalia is funded through a grant in which ESN is providing 25% of the funding for the project. That’s very unusual for a commercial company to do, but it demonstrates ESN’s commitment to and belief in the project.
    As will be explained on the site in a section I am about to put up, Citzalia came about after ESN put the idea forward in answer to a call by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communication “for the development and launching of an innovative website which uses creative methods to generate interest and raise awareness about the role of the European Parliament”.
    You and your readers can find out more about the Call here under ‘Websites’: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/tenders/subventions_call_proposal_2010.htm.
    ESN’s proposal for a virtual Parliament was considered innovative and yes, experimental. This is the internet after all! But again, I repeat ESN believes this will work. In relation to your comment “I really fear this is going to become a virtual ghost European Parliament with high costs and very few users”, I can only reply that this is the risk one takes with projects that are striving to leverage the internet and create a new social participatory space. I see Citzalia evolving into a great learning tool that can be useful not only for the general public, but also for teachers in middle schools and even for journalism schools.
    Citzalia is a work in progress and when we launch the test site we hope you will become a beta tester so we can get your feedback. If you or anyone else has any questions please do not hesitate to contact Paolo, a project manager for Citzalia, at pma[at]esn[dot]eu

  • Jon |

    @Paolo – thank you for the reply, and for the clarification of the funding. I’ve amended the blog entry accordingly, but I would also like to emphasise that from the start I have never said there was €4 million funding for this, nor that I was sure about the funding source. It was simply that after a lot of digging I found 2 contracts, each of €4 million, won by ESN. The original blog entry was hence fair.

    As to whether this will work – let’s see how things pan out.

    Also, to use your terminology, if the internet is about innovation and experimentation, it is also about speed. So having heard about this blog entry via Twitter early this morning it’s a pity it has taken until now to get some clarification about this issue.

  • Peter |

    Hi all,

    Just to clarify – this framework contract had four Lots:

    Lot 1: Development and realisation of the European Parliament information and communication campaigns.
    Lot 2: Organisation of special events and production of specific communication material.
    Lot 3: Design and production of promotional material.
    Lot 4: Design and production of graphic material.

    The EP signed contracts with maximum three economic operators per lot; that’s why you have more than one company listed for the different Lots. For each lot, service providers were ranked in the order resulting from the tenders’ evaluation.

    If the Parliament requests assignments, the request will be sent first to the first ranked of the three framework contractors. If the assignment requested can not be provided by the first framework contractor within the time specified or if the first framework contractor declares to be unable to deliver the assignment requested, the same request will be sent to the second framework contractor, and so on. (You notice that some if this was copied from the tender specifications, don’t you :-).

    The €4,000,000 are the maximum total budget available for the entire four years. However, this doesn’t mean at all that ESN will have to be given work for this total amount; it’s just the absolute maximum the EP may have at their disposal. It could also happen that the contractor doesn’t get a single piece of work during the entire length of the contract (yes, that happens; don’t ask me why). And still, every budget year the respective unit in charge has to request a dedicated budget line for assignments that would fall under the respective lots. It’s all not that easy.

    Finally, only when a company listed in the Framework contract has actually been given a concrete assignment, i.e. when they have signed a service contract, are they also listed in the annual financial report, because then the money was indeed spent by the EP.

    All clear? It’s a science on its own!

  • Jon |

    @Peter – I assume you refer to the one I referenced first, not the follow up in the comment by @Paolo?

    Thanks for the clarification in any case!

  • Peter |

    Well, it looks as if this wasn’t part of the mentioned framework contract after all, but maybe my explanation managed to put some of the readers into their well-deserved Friday afternoon sleep…

  • Anne |

    “As will be explained on the site in a section I am about to put up, Citzalia came about after ESN put the idea forward in answer to a call by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communication “for the development and launching of an innovative website which uses creative methods to generate interest and raise awareness about the role of the European Parliament”.”

    @Paolo, not that I am an expert on EU tenders and contracts, but are you not confusing the Parliament’s DG COMM with the Commission’s DG COMM?

  • Brusselsblogger |

    Jon, I think the project could be nice, if well implemented. I remember a similar online game in 2006 by Cafebel and Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Poland which I played and did enjoy.

    In the end it is also about familiarising young people with democratic processes as such (ie how a parliament works). BTW, the Polish game seems still to be online, but no idea if it is still active also: http://bemep.wm.pl/

    These two questions are in my view key for success:
    – How are languages dealt with, and will there be critical mass in non-English language?
    – Will the site be actively maintained over time?

    Ideally the game could one day offer the possibility to “promote” certain dossiers from virtual to real, via the European Citizens’ Initiative.

  • Ronny |

    For me there are two things to the story:

    1) The discussion about the real budget of the project shows that there is still a considerable lack of transparency in how the EU spends its money

    If it is practically impossible for EU geeks like several Eurobloggers to find how much money is foreseen for things like Citzalia (and we speak about a considerable amount of money), even when the beneficiary (here: ESN) is known, there is something wrong with the way the EU institutions are publishing tenders, contracts, and beneficiaries.

    2) Regarding the project itself, I’m personally not sure that it’s worth spending 275k to develop a new platform when for the same money one could employ several people who could interact with the public through existing social media channels (or facilitate interaction with the public for those officials that are now foreseen to be represented on Citzalia).

    In other words: Even when the platform will be a success (which one can only hope given the amount of money spent for it) I see a great risk that time and money is to be invested in virtual democracy where the same time and money used for real democracy would be much more advantageous for EU citizens.

    PS: In the meantime, the Guardian has published a story on Citzalia, but it’s a pity that the editors erased references to this blog post that started the discussions, despite the fact that the journalist who wrote the story had quoted it in his draft article (reference). For me that shows a fundamental disrespect for sources of information that traditional media have.

  • Jon |

    @Ronny – sadly I am not remotely surprised that the mainstream media article neglected to name the source. That’s just the way they operate. But I’m content that I’m number 1 in Google when you search for this project.

  • nicholas |

    Looks like a Second Life gigantic effort that will lead to the same short term buzz and long term waste of money. This is a nice project for politics, not a project for citizens…Who advises to make a game with avatars?!

    The European citizen needs modern web services and information, this is just as simple as that even if it is less sexy on your political agenda.

  • Alejandro |

    “How about using some EP money to deliver a simple to use, online petition platform for the ECI? Surely simpler to program than a virtual European Parliament!”
    Right to the point.

So, what do you think ?