E-Governance to E-Democracy: Progess in Australia and New Zealand toward Information-Age Democracy – By Steven Clift – 2002

E-Governance to E-Democracy: Progess in Australia and New Zealand toward Information-Age Democracy

This article was commissioned by the Commonwealth Centre for Electronic Governance.  See Part B of their International Tracking Report Number 3.

E-Governance to E-Democracy: Progress in Australia and New Zealand toward Information-Age Democracy

Prepared for the Commonwealth Centre for Electronic Governance by Steven Clift <http://www.publicus.net> in March 2002.


E-democracy means different things to different people.  In different countries and political systems the term is generally connected to the broad use of the Internet in politics, advocacy, elections, and governance. In most places it is misunderstood to primarily mean e-voting. This article focuses on the dynamic aspects of e-democracy between elections in governance.

My working concept of e-governance relates to the preparation of government as it reacts to information, technology and communications (ICTs) trends on its traditional governance and role in society.  It is the climate for governance in an online world.  E-democracy builds on e-governance and focuses on the actions and innovations enabled by ICTs combined with higher levels of democratic motivation and intent.

This paper focuses specifically on one element of e-democracy – governance and representative democracy in the information age.  On my recent visit in November 2001 to Australia and New Zealand (in-person and online) I discovered a number of activities deserving greater attention.

E-democracy within government remains at an early stage around the world, but these two countries should be listed in the top ten in terms of government interest.  The role of government in e-democracy is important.  Investments in online applications and new approaches in the official representative and consultative processes are considerably more sustainable than projects from the “outside” that typified early e-democracy explorations in the United States.

This article focuses on four key areas:

1. Policy development and political leadership
2. Enhanced information access and e-mail notification
3. Representative strategies in parliaments and local councils
4. Online consultation and communities of practice

With each area I will provide examples and web addresses for further information.

1. Policy development and political leadership

The current e-democracy policy activities of the UK government <http://www.edemocracy.gov.uk>  within the E-Envoy’s office <http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk> and the new E-democracy committee of the parliament are being watched closely in Australia and New Zealand.  The recently released OECD guide titled, “Citizens as Partners Guide: Information, Consultation and Public Participation in Policy-Making” <http://www1.oecd.org/publications/e-book/4201131e.pdf> has also generated new interest and comment within government circles in these two countries.

In the e-government world, the need for political leadership and vision is stated again and again. Rarely do heads of government or members of parliament hear from citizens about the need to better utilize ICTs in government.  It simply does not rank up there with the services people receive directly like education and health care.

Combine this reality with information and technology agency “silos” that often resist cooperative approaches designed to serve citizens from the citizen perspective and you have a very complex situation where inaction is the least risky route.  In countries where political leaders have made numeric goals related to e-government, such as Australia and New Zealand, my personal observation is that with those goals, the political cover provided allows champions within government to deliver and gain access to the resources required to meet those goals.

According to the UK e-government benchmarking study about Australia, “The 1997 announcement by Prime Minister John Howard that all appropriate Federal Government services would be provided online by 2001 has provided significant impetus to progress.” <http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk/publications/reports/
benchmarkingV2/summary_aus.htm>.  In New Zealand the government lists in their E-Vision <http://www.govt.nz/evision/> a number of e-government five-year goals to help “people judge what progress has been made.”

Why is this important to e-democracy?  It is my sense that the governments with integrated, high profile e-government service efforts are the first to expand actively into to the area of “representative e-government.”  By representative e-government, I mean government bodies that either represent people like parliaments and local council or those departments and agencies that consult with citizens and stakeholders often as required by law.

While I argue that governments have an obligation to develop e-services and e-democracy at the same time, most governments are focused on services first. In many places the policy seems to be services first, democracy later. While parliaments and other representative institutions are online, their information technology and communication resources have paled in comparison to the administrative side of government. Democracy is falling behind and power is shifting as a result of a non-policy that by default gears most resources toward the “holy grail” of transaction services.

This is beginning to change. Some parliaments and representative bodies are increasing their information and communication technology investments and leading government departments are beginning to adapt their in-person citizen and stakeholder consultation requirements to the information age.

At the national level in Australia, the National Office of the Information Economy <http://www.noie.gov.au>, which coordinates e-government, is taking up the issue of online citizen engagement <http://www.noie.gov.au/publications/speeches/rimmer/
canada1710/sld016.htm>.  They are at an early stage and their staff has indicated that they want to explore this issue in terms of administrative responsibilities.  As host of the joint Online Council of Federal, State and Territorial leaders they discussed e-democracy at their March 2002 meeting <http://www.noie.gov.au/publications/media%5Freleases/
2002/mar2002/online%5Fcouncil.htm>.  The Council “acknowledged that e-democracy is a significant issue emerging for governments in Australia and agreed that Australia’s position as a world leader in eGovernment continues to be reflected in progress regarding e-democracy. Ministers were pleased with the progress made to date, in terms of the application of online consultation, and in the development of policies and strategies to allow people to better engage with government.”

The State of Victoria announced an E-Democracy Inquiry <http://www.dpc.vic.gov.au/domino/web_notes/newmedia.nsf/
in February 2002.  Through both Liberal and Labour governments, Victoria has a long history of funding ICT development across multiple sectors of their state.  The state library’s VICNET <http://www.vicnet.net.au> project helps connect people and organizations to the Internet through training and education and unlike most access promotion projects it provides civic navigation of regional content.  Multimedia Victoria promotes better understanding of things “e” including e-democracy <http://www.egov.vic.gov.au/Research/ElectronicDemocracy/voting.htm> and continues to push aggressive e-government development.  Back in 1999, the Victorian government initiated a previous democracy online exploration that led in part to a small online consultation experiment in late 2001.

Last, and most important, are the e-democracy policy developments in the State of Queensland  <http://www.premiers.qld.gov.au/about/community/democracy.htm>. In November 2001, the Queensland Cabinet approved both a comprehensive community engagement policy and a special e-democracy policy framework. This is the clearest sign of political support for e-democracy issued by government in the region, perhaps anywhere in the world to date.

In the forward of the Community Engagement Division’s Direction Statement, Premier Bettie states, “The role of Government is changing. The community is seeking better Government leadership through increased public participation in decision-making.  I am willing to accept this challenge.” He goes on to say that, “Strengthening relations with citizens is a sound investment in better policy-making by allowing government to tap new sources of relevant ideas, information and resources when making decisions.”

Within this document, a commitment is made to a Queensland E-Democracy Three Year Trial. Approved by Cabinet and assigned to the Community Engagement Division, this is the highest level of formal e-democracy policy interest that I have seen in any government. Current developments in the UK will certainly place it in the lead on a national scale, but Queensland may be the place to watch in terms of measurable and identifiable outcomes due to its relatively modest population of around 3 million people.

Here are some important excerpts from Queensland’s “E-democracy policy framework” (see <http://www.premiers.qld.gov.au/about/community/pdf/edemocracy.pdf> for the full version of this extremely important document):

The Queensland Government is committed to exploring the many new opportunities the Internet brings and to discovering ways in which this medium can strengthen participative democracy within Queensland -The Smart State.E-democracy is at the convergence of traditional democratic processes and Internet technology.  It refers to how the Internet can be used to enhance our democratic processes and provide increased opportunities for individuals and communities to interact with government.

E-democracy comprises a range of Internet based activities that aim to strengthen democratic processes and institutions, including government agencies.  Some of the ways in which this can be delivered include:

· providing accessible information resources online;  · conducting policy consultation online; and  · facilitating electronic input to policy development.

It is the responsibility of government to expand the channels of communication to reach as many citizens as possible.  The Internet is not inherently democratic, but it can be used for democratic purposes. The full implications of how the Internet will enhance this interaction are yet to be explored.

Their three-year trial includes:

The Queensland Government’s commitment for the next three years is to:· post a number of issues on the website on which the Government desires wide consultation and feedback;

· provide online access to Government consultation documents relevant to those issues, such as discussion and policy papers and draft bills;

· broadcast Parliamentary debates over the Internet; and

· develop a system to accept petitions to the Queensland Parliament online.

In my brief time with New Zealand <http://www.e-government.govt.nz/participation/> e-government officials, they too presented an early policy interest in e-democracy. In most governments, now is the time to get policy questions on the table.  One indication of forward thinking in New Zealand, which I’ll mention later, is their extremely high profile presentation of information on government consultations on their home page.

From a global comparative vantage point, it is my sense that you don’t need an e-democracy policy to have a government with a number of useful democracy services online. However, when it comes to second and third generation applications and government-wide initiatives that require resources and political support, high level policy direction will accelerate and deepen activities. It is important for government leaders to be able to see e-democracy progress and celebrate the innovations taking place under their noses.  Governments with a “just do it” e-democracy history will benefit from policy direction along with those who require an e-democracy policy to develop applications and initiatives.

In conclusion, a strong e-democracy policy with specific measurable goals is essential to promote long-term progress.  The alternative is to muddle around with limited accountability like we see with e-government as a whole in places without aggressive evaluation and goal setting.  Citizens can’t choose governments that do a better job with e-democracy like they can choose between competing commercial web sites.  This is why top level political support, articulated in policy is so essential to move government organizations and their democratic processes forward into the information age.

2. Enhanced information access and e-mail notification

An argument was made in the late 1990s that the natural evolution of e-government was from information access to the provision of transaction services. Providing better and more effective access to information was not hip in a world dominated by headlines about the future of e-commerce.

However, to this day the vast majority of Internet users (U.S. users surveyed by the Markle Foundation <http://www.markle.org> as part of their Internet Accountability study) view the web as a “library” and not an online shopping mall. The reality is that one of the primary functions of government is the creation and dissemination of information. And the lack of comparative focus on improving the methods of online access to ever increasing amounts of government information online has lead to a crisis of online navigation and usability for citizens.

Try to imagine a library without a card catalog where undated books are piled in boxes located in different rooms.  Oh, did I mention that some books vanish and change without notice and that the rooms are organized by agency without doors or hallways to connect them. In this library, you have to climb up a rope to the roof that it has the best support thanks to a roofing company you can try here, from there you repel down into the next information “silo” hoping to find what you need. Finally, after a few hours of looking a little sign on the wall tells you that you are in the wrong library completely and need to go to the library of a different level of government. As I have said before, if you have a web page and no one can find it, do you really have a web page?

Providing timely, enhanced information access should be a core e-democracy goal of government.  While much of the information government provides is service related or not directly related to policy development or decision-making, public accountability and understanding of public service is greatly improved when people can easily navigate information and services across government based on their needs and interests.

Enter the public portal. It is my belief, based on conversations in Australia and New Zealand that they are taking a more balanced approach to e-government than with the “services first, democracy later” approach I see in my home country, the United States.  Public portals, with cross agency links and directories based on topic/theme/audience emerged in places like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand a year or two earlier than in most other states and countries. This experience is beginning to build a new kind of civil servant who serves the citizen online from the citizen’s perspective rather than just being accountable to a single agency in terms of expressing the agencies view of itself to the world. These special collaborative online directory efforts that serve groups or topics (i.e. seniors, youth, or health, new child, etc.) are building cumulative knowledge and collaborative multi-agency working clusters.

Presenting content (particularly through links) from the citizen (business, organization, stakeholder, etc.) perspective rather than that of one agency is building a unified brand identity for the public portal.  It is building audience for government content and creating citizen expectations for further navigation and content access improvements in the future.  It is also building knowledge within government about the kinds of information people actually use versus those things consultants or citizens might say they want. Within governments and among governments there is a tremendous opportunity for knowledge sharing about what kinds of government information is available as well the style, format and delivery of that information which is most popular.

Three public portal efforts I want to mention are:

Australia – This site <http://www.fed.gov.au> is latest version of their federal portal. As part of a marketing effort for e-government with the state’s they have also launched <http://www.gov.au>. From the Federal portal they clearly present organized links into the “Government & Parliament.”  This section not only links to the home page of parliament, it also helps the user find key sections and related web sites. Next up is the just released portal that combines national and state resources <http://australia.gov.au>. As a side comment, all government portals would benefit from a profile link <http://australia.gov.au/portals/about_gov.asp> to a simple and easy to understand explanation of “how your government works” as well as a tip sheet on how to provide online policy input into government along with advice on sending in customer service complaints. Policy input needs to be channeled appropriately and not get stuck in customer service.

State of Victoria – This site <http://www.vic.gov.au> has some of the most developed theme spaces for links across government.  As I noted above, Victoria has provided government funding for a number of online initiative outside the core area of government services.  Visitors to the Victorian government’s portal quickly get the sense that this is your “state” and not this is just your “government.”  Their “Citizens and Community” section on the portal give this sense while the “Government” section takes you to the representative institutions of their government.

New Zealand – This site <http://www.govt.nz> is unique among almost all government portals.  It is designed much more as an online news sites (i.e. what’s new across government) with a pull down menu to frequently request information and services based on topic. This presentation of “what’s new” across government leads me to my next set of comments.

E-mail notification and personalization of public portal features will lead the next revolution in e-government.  If today’s government portals represent the aggregate knowledge about user interest as understood by government, personalization will turn things upside down and allow citizens, based on their unique interests, to be notified on a timely basis about information in which they are interested. The convenience of being told when frequently updated information (or rarely updated information) is available in a manner chosen by the user is tremendously powerful.  Imagine a preferences page where you can choose how you’d like to be notified about a major policy document – e-mail, SMS/Text messaging, instant messaging, personalized web page.  Services like Spyonit  <http://www.spyonit.com> allow you to monitor any web page today for changes.  These features will be built into the better government portal sites.

E-mail notification may be the number one e-democracy application for government in the next five years. Why? Notification does not require a government to change how and when it releases a document online, it simply allows people to opt-in to be told when a document, meeting announcement, etc. is available.  Timely access to information has tremendous political value. The highly obscure release of important documents buried deep on an agency web site will become a thing of the past in e-democracy friendly governments. Making content effectively available online when the time to comment and influence policy still exists will be one of the most cost-effective e-democracy moves by government.

However, if this is to be done from the government-wide portal level, which it should when possible in order to have the greatest whole-of-government impact, a sophisticated collaborative development scheme will be required. Notification as a default, not the exception, will require both the automatic and manual aggregation of document availability and description information and the automatic dissemination of this information based on user preferences.  This will require the use of database-driven approaches and likely XML.  This will go way beyond hand-edited “what’s new” web pages and e-mail newsletters.  E-mail newsletters are an important starting point and should be established immediately to build experience with notification.

While I am sure there are other examples, the best starting point example of topical e-mail announcement lists I could find comes from the Australian Human Right and Equal Opportunity Commission <http://www.hreoc.gov.au/mailing_lists/> on topics such as Children & Youth, Complaints and Legal, Disability Rights, Indigenous, Racial Discrimination, and more. This is an important first step where people can sign-up to receive edited announcements and updates.  In my opinion every government web site and portal should have at least one opt-in e-mail newsletter that at a minimum shares what is new on the site each week or no less than once a month.  An initial aggregate personalization feature at the portal level is the ability from one web page to selected or sign-off the e-newsletters of choice from across government.

For outstanding early examples of the more systematic approach we need to look to the UK and some local governments in the State of Minnesota. The <http://www.info4local.gov.uk>  site in the UK is geared toward those in local government seeking updates about information from central government.  It allows users to receive instant e-mails on selected subjects and document types from selected UK government departments.  You can also sign-up to receive links to new releases, but at this point the coding required to personalize what you receive is not implemented.  In St. Paul, Minnesota <http://www.ci.stpaul.mn.us> the use of a service from Govdocs.com <http://www.govdocs.com> allows people to sign-up to receive key city documents as they are placed on the web such as city council meeting notices, agendas, minutes and the like.  City staffers now know how many people will instantly receive an update about the content they upload. They no longer have to ponder whether anyone reads what they put online six clicks from the home page.  This has increased timely awareness of government information in St. Paul and has firmly established the business case for the work required to fully integrate online access into city processes.

3. Representative strategies in parliaments and local councils

When I mention the concept of “representative e-government” a light goes off in people’s head.  That is right, we already have representative institutions and what they do online to provide better access to their current processes is important.  In the early days of e-democracy interest, many assumed it meant direct democracy where people would vote on everything because the technology would enable it.  People are now realizing that how often you vote and how you vote (polling places, by mail, online, or combination) are primarily political choices. What e-democracy does best is allow representative institutions to add more participatory features that engage citizens between elections.

On my recent trip I spent a number of days with staff from the Christchurch City Council and met with a number of those who worked on the Australian Parliaments web presence. In my recently released “Future of E-Democracy” <http://www.publicus.net/articles/future.html> speech/article I explore issues related to putting in-person public hearings online, full featured online constituent offices, and what I called “wired elected officials” or Weos. I won’t go into detail here. Instead I’ll focus on some important trends I observed down under and over top (Canada).

Like many parliaments around the world, their web sites do not lack substance.  While I have no knowledge about the specifics of Australia, the general trend is that first and second-generation parliament web sites are driven by staff champions.  It is not that Members of Parliament are not supportive; they don’t really know what they might be missing, so why be too concerned? Also, with parliamentary forms of government, the Cabinet members get to take advantage of their department’s online resources while backbenchers and opposition members have limited online support.

The “online constituent office” seems to be emerging as a set of uniform service options or it is unfolding as political communication tool developed competitively by party caucuses. I suggest a hybrid approach where as much as possible is developed uniformly for all members to assist them with their official duties online and only those highly partisan or election-related online activities be reserved exclusively for party parliamentary caucus technology.

In New Zealand, there is increasing interest in e-democracy at the local level.  For sometime, the Wellington City Council <http://www.wcc.govt.nz/yoursay/> has listed current consultations online and has a fairly wired base of local councilors.

In Christchurch, the Council <http://www.ccc.govt.nz/> has recently assumed day-to-day responsibility for their government’s web presence from the library.  Christchurch’s deep collection of local content, presents a fuller community picture than I have seen just about anywhere else.  Because the local media sites are part of a national online media conglomerate, the government site is viewed as the highest traffic site in the community.

The library will now lead an exciting project to build an even broader and inclusive Christchurch Online site with council funding and support.  I am interested in how this new entity might be able to host discussion and civic interactivity that the Council itself may hesitate to host on its server. They may have the foundation for the e-democracy one-two punch that Minnesota E-Democracy has played in relation to government and media sites in the U.S. (I am Board Chair of E-Democracy.).

Along with the Council’s interest in exploring online consultations, I had a number of conversations about the tools local councilors need to be better representatives in the information age. It must be noted that elected officials at all levels have the most varied degree of technical skill and aptitude of any active group of players in the e-democracy world.  As official representatives, they are the most legitimate actors, so how they are supported is fundamentally important for the future of democracy as a whole.  We do not want the information age to pass them by.  They must be supported so they can become more effective information age representatives.  I should note that that the Mayor of Christchurch stands out for his web site <http://www.christchurchmayor.org.nz/> and the personality it exudes.

4. Online consultations and communities of practice

Experimentation with government-led online consultation and hosting of citizen discussions has a strong start in Australia.  Much of this activity is at the state level. The most established and cited example on my trip was the government-hosted Talking Point web forums <http://www.talkingpoint.sa.gov.au> hosted by the State of South Australia. At this, time these open forums on public topics are closed while their state elections are underway.  In addition to these discussions, their Premier has appeared in a number of live chats featured on the site.

In Victoria, Queensland, and the Federal level it was suggested that they are more closely exploring online special events on specific topics with a start and an end date.  My advice for “online consultation” hosts is featured in my detailed how-to article on the subject <http://www.publicus.net/articles/consult.html>.

Both the New Zealand national portal <http://www.govt.nz/news/index.php3?type=cco> and a section of the Australian Capitol Territory <http://www.act.gov.au/government/reports/index.html> list current consultations taking place in the off-line world.  New Zealand is unique in that it lists consultations prominently on their home page and the section with further detail includes links to consultations hosted by local governments as well.

In Victoria, an experiment called “Have Your Say” <http://www.haveyoursay.vic.gov.au/discussion/> is likely to be incorporated as a feature of the main e-government portal sometime in 2002.  (Link is down, see bottom of thie DO-WIRE post <http://www.mail-archive.com/do-wire@tc.umn.edu/msg00347.html>. An evaluation of their event from October 2001 is pending.  Like many online experiments, the lack of broad publicity left them with a small audience. My key piece of advice is that an audience must be recruited for at least a few weeks before an event starts.

In Queensland, as mentioned above, their e-democracy program includes development of a platform for online consultation across government. This presents an issue that governments need to explore -should they build a shared platform for consultation used by multiple departments, parliamentary committees, even the head of government?  The alternative is a patchwork of online consultation systems implemented by leading agencies with few systems on smaller government web sites. While no one platform will serve the needs of all agencies, I’d like to suggest that building a shared system for online consultation will lead to broader activity across government. More importantly it will allow citizens to transfer their knowledge about and experience with the online tool from one event to another regardless of the host.

One of the more exciting government-sponsored interactive examples I have discovered anywhere is the communitybuilders.nsw <http://www.communitybuilders.nsw.gov.au/> online “community of practice” hosted by the State of New South Wales.  If online consultation related to policy development, government-hosted communities of practice relate to the implementation of policy.  The Premier of NSW states that the Community Builder initiative is designed to “to help local communities across the State share ideas on how to enhance and strengthen their community” … “This site aims to communicate how different communities have addressed various issues such as enhancing public safety, stimulating employment and promoting reconciliation. It shows how my government is forging partnerships with communities around the state. It is very much your site. Although the Premier’s Department will be responsible for updating the site and keeping information fresh, the site’s success will depend on people such as yourself sharing the information you think is relevant.”  With over 1100 participants, their hybrid web forum – e-mail notification system with a supporting web site positions government as a facilitator of public work rather than just as a provider of services. Providing a many-to-many online space related to a public mandate will allow government departments to adapt their implementation strategies and incrementally improve their policy approaches as well.  The Internet improves through trial and error.  Communities of practice hosted by government may be a starting point for incremental government reform rather than the huge mega-project model that often falls on its face.  Finally, through the VICNET project, the Victorian state government is supporting the creation of online communities as organized by NGOs, citizens, and others.  As their MC2 <http://mc2.vicnet.net> software is upgraded, hopefully with two-way e-mail participation (right now you must post via the web) it may be extremely useful for governments and civic organizations around the world.


I am extremely bullish on the future of e-democracy in government in Australia and New Zealand.  They have a unique perspective on the world that encourages them gather innovative ideas and applications from far away places and adapt them to their very practical cultures. In North America and Europe, sometimes you are too close to the action to see what is really important or gain the perspective required to fully appreciate what really works.

As the concept of e-democracy in governance gains hold, I look forward to gathering future lessons and ideas from Australia and New Zealand for use around the world.