Join the Evolution – Ten Practical Online Steps for Government Support of Democracy
Draft as prepared for a U.S. government e-government newsletter. This was a long draft, before
being shortened down to a 1000 word version for publication. This version contains examples
and more room for some sass.
Version 1.1 – July 17, 2007
By Steven Clift
Board Chair, E-Democracy.Org and Ashoka Fellow
Does e-government have anything to do with democracy and citizen participation?
Let’s get straight to the point – not yet.
Should it? Yes.
If you believe in government of, for, and by the people, then government – both representative
and administrative should be leading a charge into the increasingly and fundamentally interactive
Information access, considered the safe starting point for government accountability online now
mostly presents the public a daunting needle in a huge haystack. So not only are governments
excluding themselves from the increasingly interactive public lives of citizens, the fundamental
information access system is so complicated that the valuable and substantive information that
government produces is often ignored in our increasingly online lives. Government and the
democratic processes designed to promote sustained peace and stability among competing and
often conflicting narrow interests in society cannot remain offline or the consequences will be
devastating to our communities and nation.
A bit of context; I coordinated e-government for the State of Minnesota in its early days. I
designed our first portal which launched in 1995. As a “citizen” I independently started EDemocracy.
Org which created the world’s first election information and discussion website in
1994. I was a “democracy guy” opening up government from the inside – as I say, “government
by day, citizen by night.”
When “services first, democracy later” enveloped most e-government projects, I skedaddled in
late 1997. Since then, I’ve spoken and consulted across 26 countries on “e-democracy,”
interacting primarily with leading governments interested in engaging citizens online.
Don’t get me wrong; with democracy in the broadest sense, America is number one with “epolitics”
online. We excel at raising money online with e-campaigning and making noise through
e-advocacy, and we’re in the easiest countries to get money and credits even from online banks, while regular banks probably offer it at higher interest rates. For democratic representative governance, that actually compounds the problem. In no country, do people expect the web to be as interactive as it can be than in the U.S., yet our governments from the local level on up have a limited “e-listening” infrastructure and no
infrastructure for two-way public interactivity that brings people into legitimate democratic
processes. Current options for online input provide one-way passive information access with
comment submissions that go into the digital equivalent of an inaccessible black box.
A country that cannot listen to and interact with its citizens “anywhere, any time” in their
preferred medium will not be able to accommodate the will of the people. As red-blue partisan
conflicts online among the political class intensify, new forms of democratic participation,
including online spaces and extensions of off-line consultative and deliberative processes, that
are part of authoritative representative democracy, must be built. If not, our governments will no
longer reflect the general consensus of today’s society. Further, the lack of real and effective
online access to governance between elections will substantially increase cynicism about and
distrust in government.
To illustrate this widening democratic divide, note the 2008 campaign where over a dozen
presidential candidates are innovating online. They are shaking hands at the “digital parades” of
Facebook and YouTube. They are going to the people where they are online, not expecting folks
to just come their campaign websites.
What will our citizens expect when this highly interactive election season is over? One-way
governance? I doubt it. We need to prepare ourselves now for a public that demands a more
participatory representative democracy.
Let me add that campaigns are not using the digital divide as an excuse to delay putting a
participatory infrastructure in place and neither should government. The digital divide is an
important issue, but not a reason to exclude people with often difficult to access time and place
bound forms of participation by denying them online convenience. However that said, most
traditional offline participation methods must be complemented and not replaced with Internetonly
Let’s get practical.
Here are the ten things I would do in government to help rescue our democracy in the
information age. These are things that government organizations at every level can do. (Similar
lists for citizens, the media, and political interest groups should also be generated. Government
needs to do its part within the context of these major democratic actors.)
1. Timely, personalized access to information that matters.
Government decision-making information is not functionally public or relevant if people cannot
act on it when it still matters. Give people tools like personalized e-mail alerts based on
keywords, location, etc. and eliminate the “nobody told me” backlash government often receives
due to poor public outreach.
· St. Paul, Minnesota allows you to choose from over 400 “what’s new” e-mail updates on
documents that change periodically.
· The Province of Alberta, Canada provides a comprehensive and uniform system for web
feeds (RSS) on news releases across their government.
For web links to examples, see the online version of this article from: http://dowire.org/evolution
2. Help elected officials receive and sort, the better understand and respond to email.
The number one complaint I hear from elected officials around the world is about e-mail. Most
want to respond effectively, but simply aren’t being provided the tools they need. If there ever
was an opportunity for open source collaboration among governments, this is it.
In general, our representatives and representative institutions must start to invest in the online
infrastructure they need to connect directly with the public they represent. This includes
“governance” versions of online innovations deployed to gain power in e-campaigning to
competing online for democratic relevancy with the relative technology-rich executive branch and
major media online
· Menlo Park, California’s Direct Connect service demonstrates how to help citizens direct
their mostly service-related queries. If those queries are processed effectively, the policy
related queries can be noticed and receive more direct attention.
3. Dedicate at least 10 percent of new e-government developments budgets to
You might be thinking, “What? Ten percent. But we are about providing service efficiency. Let’s
be honest engaging the public is inefficient.”
Effective democracy is about introducing the optimal level of inefficiency required to make the
best public choices. What good is it if government simply automates what it does wrong or
expends their limited resources to streamline a service no longer in high demand?
By democracy, let’s take us a wide definition starting with public input. In a e-service initiative,
say online licensing, the 10 percent should start with citizen focus groups to guide the design of
the service, usability testing and studies to generate user input and accountability, and like many
e-commerce sites do, gather feedback via post transaction user surveys. All this mildly two-way
data should be used as a service quality dashboard for managers and front-line employees alike.
If the e-government investment is a new content management system mostly for information
access, then use the 10 percent to add personalization, survey input features and democratized
navigation (those nifty menus that show you the top ten viewed articles that day or week).
4. Announce all government public meetings on the Internet in a uniform manner.
All public meeting notices, agendas, handouts, and digital recordings (live webcasts, podcasts,
etc.) must be online. The system should be standards based and tie state-by-state systems into a
national network covering federal, state, and local government public meetings. This is the only
way for people to ask to be pro-actively notified of all government public meetings, from a local
land use commission to a state forestry department to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, within a
certain geographic area addressing specific topics or keywords that interest them.
· The Minnesota Legislature provides a dizzying array of all public information components
tied to legislative hearings. From schedules and audio podcast files to amendments as
they are proposed on the floor, the Internet is a tool for deep participation. Leading state
legislative bodies are a model to extend to other government organizations.
5. Allow citizens to look-up all of their elected officials from the very local to national
in one search across many sites.
Along with the ability to look-up all public meetings, Americans should have the right to easily
determine who all the elected and appointed officials are who represent them currently and how
to contact them effectively. Before elected and appointed officials assume office, every
government unit should be required to submit contact information for those officials into a
“National Representative Democracy Database”. State and local government involvement in the
creation of standards and fields for such a public domain database will be essential. Intergovernmental
associations may resist this idea because many produce detailed directories sold to
lobbyists and others. It will be up to them to innovate with their directories by adding more value
to maintain their market.
· The Minnesota House also provides a member directory and online toolkit that
demonstrates the power of a uniform set of sophisticated tools for all elected officials in
an assembly. City council members across the country must demand the tools to best
represent their constituents and not be relegated to just a picture and short biography.
6. Host online public hearings and dialogues (or “e-consultations” as they are known
outside the U.S.)
As in-person public meetings begin to incorporate live online features – from instant handout
access to testifying via Skype with a webcam – more deliberate one day to one month online
exchanges seeking to improve the outcomes of the decision-making process need to be
envisioned. If your government agency hosts five public hearings across the country or your
state, host the sixth hearing online and improve the format in the process. Another model to
consider is an extension of public testimony at Congressional and other committee hearings
where for 24 hours after the live event, the public – including experts – are invited to testify via
text, video and audio with viewer/reader rating system in place to recommend the most valuable
or noteworthy testimony received. In twenty years, governments not holding hearings online will
be considered the unresponsive minority.
Further, government funding for University or civil society-hosted online dialogues and
deliberations would be highly strategic. Creating value-added interactive experiences that get
beyond online political flame fests are essential and can be done. While detailed legal advice on
how to promote decorum online within the bounds of the first amendment for governments
would help open up two-way spaces, more controversial issues often benefit from a partner
serving as a neutral host who can strongly promote real names and civility.
Government officials often complain to me about misinformation online as a reason they avoid
engaging online. If only someone would correct the record they suggest. Let me hold up a
mirror. Policies that empower civil servants to “inform” the public professionally across other
interactive sites from a MySpace conversation to a local community forum or blog are essential.
Government must correct the record in every medium, particularly as the Internet reaches more
and more people.
· Get Involved, the democracy portal of the State of Queensland, offers an innovative
Consult Queensland survey and consultation platform. As the public and targeted
constituent groups read specific sections of a report they are asked to answer various
survey questions. As they answer, they are given the choice to share their opened ended
comments immediately via the site. This along with instant public access to the numeric
percentage results compiled in real-time thus far on multiple choice questions creates a
structured conversation. Structure in, value out. This counters the “black box” effect of
public comments that are legally public but functionally private. We need citizens to
better appreciate the views of other interests in society. This often builds respect for the
complexity of choices before government as it deals with competing priorities.
· E-consultation guidance is being generated across the Commonwealth. The concept and
term “e-consultation” doesn’t really exist in the United States. A version of the term
should – hence my use of the term online public hearings or dialogues. For extensive
advice consult the following resources:
o Canada – See “Resources and Publications” from the Online Consultation Centre
of Expertise, Public Works and Government Services Canada
o UK – Review numerous guides on “eConsultations and eSurveys” from the
International Centre for Excellence in Local E-Democracy (formerly known as the
UK Local E-Democracy National Project). Also consult the Hansard Society’s
Digital Dialogues reports on central government experience with e-consultation.
o Bristol, UK – Along with their AskBristol.Org “e-panel” experience, numerous edemocracy
features are profiled in the 2007 report titled, “eDemocracy in
o Australia – Local Council e-Consultation Guide written by representatives of
Darebin City Council and Deakin University.
7. Embrace the rule of law by mandating the most democratically empowering online
services and rights across the whole of government.
From my extensive travels and research, I estimate that 90 percent of the democratic innovations
online hosted by governments that really share power are based on a political tradition or law
that existed before the Internet arrived.
Technology itself is not forcing real institutional democratic change. Governments remain reactive
to external changes and are therefore missing an opportunity to build societal expectations while
the online medium remains fluid. We need more people to expect that “of course I can
participate in my government and make a difference in my local community online.”
If we want all citizens to benefit universally from a more wired democracy, then now is the time
to update our legal requirements and fund core online democracy services. I am working up an
outline for a “Minnesota Digital Democracy Act” that might be replicated in other states and
nationally. At a minimum I’ll propose that we:
· Update open meeting laws to require that in addition to newspaper publication, all
meetings must be announced on the Internet. By 2010 all public meetings at every level
must be digitally recorded (audio and/or video) with online access provided. Open
meeting laws would also clearly state that fully public online gatherings that include a
quorum of voting officials are legal while private or inaccessible two-way group
communication among a majority of voting members about pending business is not.
· Require that all elected and appointed officials are provided e-mail accounts to use for
any and all public business (smart governments will toss in universal inbox systems with
voicemail and e-mail response tools as well). Use of private e-mail accounts (or instant or
text messaging) to avoid public information disclosure laws should be a crime. Laws
should further ensure that any legally public reports, memorandum, e-mail sent by civil
servants to a majority of voting officials regarding a pending vote be publicly disclosed
automatically online by default at the same time they are sent to committee/task force
members. In the past, many government bodies kept binders of such civil servant print
memos – moving taxpayer supported councils, task forces, etc. online must not be
allowed to make the process functionally less accessible and therefore less legitimate.
· Like the new federal law that established FederalSpending.Gov, establish real-time and
deep access to government program and spending information (not just proposed
budgets) at the state and local level. Poland requires standardized online spending
reports from local government in their Freedom of Information Act, why can’t we.
Transparency will promote greater government efficiency and accountability.
· Mandate that all public ethics filings and campaign finance data be disclosed
electronically on the Internet and not stuck in some filing cabinet or offline computer. If
we collected it to promote government accountability, we must disclose it automatically
online. Legally public ethics information that is not online must should soon be viewed as
· And more. Send me your ideas: email@example.com
Ultimately, I’ve come to expect that if online access is viewed as an inconvenience or a threat to
those in power, they won’t adopt it unilaterally. Citizens must express a real demand for
representative “e-democracy” in the political process or they will not experience effective
democracy in the information age. As this happens, candidates will begin to make reform
promises during elections and overtime deliver political results in office.
8. Dissemination – Access to Raw Data from Decision-Making Information Systems
Let’s explode decision-making data, like Congressional information and rulemaking related
content, into bits via XML and open standards. This will allow third-party services to move from
“online scraping” toward advanced and useful presentation of discombobulated parts. What?
In other words, let’s make it easy to re-use public government data from many sources and
create views and searches that provide insight, understanding, and accountability. Think “Web
2.0” interactivity built on top of government data by those outside of government.
Unless budgeted for directly or mandated by law, government agencies rarely add online features
beyond those they feel they need for their core purposes. Unless a system, say for public analysis
of state agency spending (I want an e-alert for furniture purchases the last month of each fiscal
year) is funded, agencies will not reallocate resources from another program to provide such
· In the UK, mySociety.Org’s TheyWorkforYou.com scrapes data from the UK Parliament
and presents one of the most dynamic and useful windows into the legislative process
available. It allows you to set personalized e-mail alerts so you can be notified when
certain phrases are said or be updated on formally noted actions – from speeches to
votes – by your Member of Parliament.
· OpenCongress.Org and GovTrack.US are two similar projects in the United States. The
new Sunlight Foundation is funding a number of activities in this area including The Open
House Project. They have engaged a number of “citizens” with extensive Web 2.0
experience who are developing a policy and technical roadmap for Congress, and likely
parts of government to follow in this area.
· At the local level, ChicagoCrime.Org demonstrates how the official crime blotter can be
combined using the ”API” (application programming interface) for Google Maps.
Developers of this site are now working on Everyblock.com with funding from the Knight
Foundation to aggregate “an unprecedented depth of local news and information in
select cities [much of it government data].”
9. Fund Open Source Sharing Internationally Across E-Government
Sharing and supporting open source software takes resources. E-democracy tools are an ideal
starting point within the e-government family. Unlike service transactions, where cost savings are
often used to justify funding, with e-democracy such claims do not align with goal of increasing
citizen engagement and improved government decision-making. Therefore, open source
initiatives which reduce technology costs and build systems for use by multiple governments
make the most sense with the democracy services niche.
Getting the ball rolling is the difficult part. No one government can justify subsidizing the
technology infrastructure of another peer government. Like the UK and Italian governments,
national funding can support local government pilots and tool sharing. We need to take their
leadership a step further and imagine what ten national governments could accomplish by jointly
investing one million dollars a year for ten years in an open source specification development and
code sharing e-government initiative perhaps in partnership with major Universities in each
country. If Google can have their Summer of Code competition, why not tap a similar vein to
produce code that meets public challenges head on.
Strategically, I recommend building government and democracy applications using open source
content management systems with demonstrated momentum and large development
communities (like Plone, Drupal, etc.) rather than starting from scratch with government-specific
tools unlikely to foster contributions from other developers. Key will be efforts to place modules
and customizations out for community use. Government and its vendors must contribute code
back for the wheels of reciprocal value to start turning.
Here are a few tools/modules I’d like to see developed starting with a highly open specification
development stage followed by competition among various open source communities to deliver.
Ideally the feature set would spread across multiple platforms. In addition to the e-mail response
system collaboration mentioned earlier, additional ideas include:
· Public Meeting – A personalized public meeting notifier system based on keywords and
geographic relevancy with agendas, handouts, etc. The system could overtime evolve
into a mini-legislative information system for the thousands of city councils and county
boards with little more than a file server for decision-making documents.
· Democaster – A low cost webcasting system starting with audio, webcam images or
video, integrated podcasts (recorded audio), meeting agenda and document links, and
the ability to ask a text question remotely. I coordinated development of a working
prototype for the British Government in 2005-6 using a number of open source tools that
simply required an Internet connection, a laptop, and a microphone to reach the world,
but more importantly people in a local community live and on-demand. Moving such a
tool into full production along with adding the ability to webcast via a simple office
speaker phone through IP telephony on the audio input side is proposed. This would
make basic webcasting so inexpensive that public meetings in even the smallest villages
not audio webcast will be the exception.
· Engagement – A platform for different types of online hearings, surveys, consultations,
dialogues, and deliberations. Such systems may also be used to enable stakeholder
participation in the implementation of public policy. E-Democracy.Org, the non-profit I
lead, uses the open source GroupServer tool from New Zealand in this space.
· Voter Guide – Early e-voting hype obscured the real value of the Internet in election –
promoting informed voting. Developing an open source voter guide module for the most
popular content management systems used by government, the media, and non-partisan
voter education non-profits would enable more and better voter guides around the world.
10. Local Up – Building local democracy online.
To build e-participation momentum, citizens need to experience results they can see and touch.
National politics is difficult to influence in any medium. By investing in transferable local models
and tools, more people will use the Internet as a tool to strength their communities, protect and
enrich their families and neighborhoods, and be heard in a meaningful way. Starting with
community by community measurement of information access and participation related online
service and content indicators, we can create momentum for a “Democracy Tune-up.” This same
tune-up concept should applied at the state and federal level as well.
· E-Democracy.Org works locally with Issues Forums – a 24×7 online town hall meeting
with real names and facilitation and rules for civility. These and other two-way online
spaces leverage online government information, online news, and the emerging
“speaker’s corner” we see with local blogs. Like the City of Roseville, Minnesota,
governments (and others) should kick-start local non-partisan e-democracy efforts with
small amounts of funding. While many individual owned and run community blogs are
extremely positive, I fear many communities will be stuck with a bitter local online NIMBY
climate where typically anonymous reader comments never get beyond the modern
version of protesters at the gates with pitchforks and torches. In England, Issues Forums
pilots as well as dozens of other local e-democracy projects were funded by the then UK
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in recent years.
Ultimately, an investment in e-democracy/e-participation by government needs to solve identified
problems and meet indicators of success.
In the early days, folks thought the Internet was inherently democratic. Parts of it are, but that
mistaken sense of technological determinisms has not carried over to make constitutional and
legally-ground representative processes more open and responsive. Today, “politics as usual”
now armed online may actually be making things worse. Civically conceived e-participation efforts
must counter such negative trends rather than be viewed as an extra option. Preservation of
democratic rights and processes is an important outcome.
I’ve experienced better and stronger democracy online. Everyone should. Beyond, holding
democratic ground, positive outcomes include better policy decisions, generation of new and
cost-effective ideas, generating input beyond the usual suspects, a more informed citizenry, indepth
engagement with specific constituencies, incremental restoration of trust, and my ultimate
goal citizens empowered to meet the public challenges closest to them directly in everyday life.
Join the Evolution
To network directly with other e-participation leaders I invite you to join the evolution with your
peers from around the world as a member of the Online Consultation and E-Participation
online community of practice as part of the Democracies Online – DoWire.Org blog, wiki, and
online groups initiative that I lead: http://groups.dowire.org/groups/consult
Many of the examples mentioned are also highlighted in the Global E-Democracy Trends
presentations available from: http://publicus.net/speaker.html