According to a press release that came out today, the European Ombudsman, P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, has invited citizens, interest groups, and other organizations to submit comments on a draft statement of principles that should guide the conduct of EU civil servants. The draft "public service principles" take account of best practice in the Member States, established through a consultation with the European Network of Ombudsmen. Comments can be submitted until 15 May 2011 and will be considered before the principles are finalized.
Explaining the reasons for proposing a statement of public service principles the Ombudsman writes: "The statement has been drafted with a view to making clear certain fundamental values, which the behaviour of EU civil servants should reflect. By setting out those values clearly, the statement aims to promote citizens' trust in the European civil service and the EU institutions that it serves. The draft statement is intended to complement existing instruments, including the Staff Regulations, the Financial Regulation, and the European Code of Good Administrative Behaviour, which contain general rules and principles governing the behaviour of civil servants. It will help civil servants to focus on the spirit in which they should apply the detailed internal rules of EU institutions governing matters such as the acceptance of gifts and conflicts of interest. It will thus promote good administration and make maladministration less likely to occur."
The draft publicized for consultation is not very long; it enunciates the following public service principles that should guide EU civil servants: commitment to the EU and its citizens, integrity, objectivity, respect for others, and transparency.
More information on the public consultation, including links to the report on the consultation of national ombudsmen is available here.
The UK Human Rights Blog brought to our attention an interesting development in the UK. On February 11, 2011, the Coalition Government published the Protection of Freedoms Bill that has become the first proposed law to be opened to public comments via the internet on this website.
One of the commitments in the Political Reform section of the Coalition's Programme for Government was to "introduce a new ‘public reading stage' for bills to give the public an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online." This website is a pilot version of that commitment to garner comments from the public on bills as they pass through Parliament. It gives citizens the opportunity to comment on each clause contained in the Bill until March 7, 2011. The comments will get collated at the end of this public consultation and fed through directly to the Parliamentarians who will carry the Bill through the House of Commons.
The website is simple to navigate and intuitive to use. One of the features that I found interesting is a link to a 90-page explanatory note (available here). This note provides a summary and the background of the bill to help users' understanding of it before they submit their comments.
As the UK Human Rights Blog points out, "[p]ublic consultations on government bills are nothing new. ... But whilst fully considered and expert responses to consultations must continue, the comments system for the new Protection of Freedoms bill serves a subtly different purpose. It deploys the familiar style of website comments to encourage quick and focused responses to specific provisions. And these comments can quickly become a debate between commenters, providing an iterative response which, if constructive, can arrive at the best answer quickly."
I think the latter element is indeed worth emphasizing as it distinguishes this process from other consultation practices that simply publish a summary of responses when the legal text is finally promulgated. Being able to follow the flow of comments as they come in (note: the comments are subject to this moderation policy) encourages debate among citizens arguably enhancing the deliberative quality of the enterprise.
The impact of this interactive process on the final legal text remains to be seen. At any rate, it should also be interesting to see how this first experience will be used in the elaboration of further bills in the future.