This 41 page report is also available in PDF format.
E-Government and Democracy
Representation and citizen engagement in the information age
By Steven L. Clift
This article is based on research provided to the United Nations – UNPAN/DESA for the 2003 World Public Sector Report: http://unpan.org/dpepa_worldpareport.asp
Public Version 1.0, Released February 2004
Table of Contents
- Initial Conclusions
- Research Trends
- Democratic Outcomes
- Trust and Accountability
- Legitimacy and Understanding
- Citizen Satisfaction and Service
- Reach and Equitable Access
- Effective Representation and Decision-Making
- Participation through Input and Consultation
- Engagement and Deliberation
E-government and Democracy
Representation and citizen engagement
in the information-age
Leading governments, with democratic intent, are incorporating information and communication technologies into their e-government activities. This trend necessitates the establishment of outcomes and goals to guide such efforts. By utilizing the best practices, technologies, and strategies we will deepen democracy and ensure representation and citizen engagement in the information age. It is upon this foundation that opportunities for greater online engagement and deliberation among citizens and their governments will demonstrate the value of information and communication technologies in effective and responsive participatory democracy.
E-government and democracy, fused together, are one piece of the e-democracy puzzle. Whether it is online campaigning, lobbying, activism, political news, or citizen discussions, the politics and governance of today are going online around the world. What is unknown, is whether politics and governance “as we know it” is actually changing as it goes online.
From the perspective of each government, civil society, or business organization, it is relatively easy to explore our institutional role in building participatory democracy online. Taking the whole situation into account is the difficult challenge. We are not building in a vacuum, nor are we developing our efforts in a constant environment. In the end, the only people who are experiencing the totality of the emerging democratic information-age are citizens or e-citizens.
This research takes a comprehensive look at the democratic outcomes that can be sought by government, civil society, and others in order to deepen and enhance participatory democracy online. With a particular focus on e-government and democracy, the vision for online-enhanced participatory democracy, or “e-democracy,” relies on an incremental model of development that involves the many democratic sectors and their institutions across society.
The democratic institutions of government (including representative bodies and elected officials), the media, political parties and interest groups, as well as citizens themselves, are going online across the world. The question is not – will we have e-democracy? It exists today based on the positive and negative uses of this medium by democratic institutions, non-democratic actors, and citizens. The real question is – knowing where we are and what is possible, what kind of e-democracy can or, better yet, should we build?
Governments, as a public institutions and guardians of democracy, need to play a proactive role in the online world. First, they need to maintain existing democratic practices despite pressures coming from the information-age. Second, they need to incorporate and adapt online strategies and technologies to lead efforts that expand and enhance participatory democracy. Deepening citizen participation in democracy is vital to ensuring that governments at all levels and in all countries, can both accommodate the will of their people and more effectively meet public challenges in the information-age.
The path toward information-age democracy is a deliberate one. Political and social expectations and behavior change too slowly to expect information and communication technologies (ICTs) to give us a direct, uncomplicated path to greater participatory democracy. The is no “leap frog” path that easily leads to responsive governance that supports human and economic development. The e-democracy path needs to be mapped out, so it can be traveled with confident and assured steps.
This article explores the following ICT-enabled path with the governmental perspective in mind:
- Understanding “as is” political and governance online activity by establishing baseline measurements, including current citizen experiences.
- Documenting government best practice examples and the sharing of results.
- Building citizen demand and civil society activity.
- Spreading practice and creating more deliberative options and tools.
Analysis focuses on the second path, comments on the third, and based on that analysis, explores the fourth. This pragmatic approach is essential to developing sustained activity across our many and diverse democracies. Today, it is very easy to dismiss the democratic potential of the Internet because it did not deliver the revolution hyped in early media coverage. This paper looks beyond the hype.
Even in the most democracy-friendly places, steps one and two are stumbling blocks. Tools being developed for step four are for the most part outside of government. Overall, the foundation of understanding, government practice, and citizen experience has not been fully explored or developed. Efforts to build ICT-enhanced participatory democracy may be delayed by those in power, if change promoted from the “outside” is highly politicized. Slow uptake is also possible if the use of ICTs for meaningful democratic participation is not seen as inevitable, even if a government agrees in principle that new forms of participation are desirable.
Only by demonstrating that participatory governance leads to better democratic outcomes – helping society develop and meet its political, social, economic and cultural goals – will ICTs in political participation become inevitable, well resourced, and fully implemented.
Based on my decade of observations online and in-person visits to 23 countries, the potential benefit of ICTs in participatory democracy continues to grow around the world. Everyday, more citizens use the Internet around the world. More are applying it toward political and community purposes than the day before. Everyday, another government adds a new online feature designed to bring government and citizens closer.
As this potential grows, the reality is that what most people and governments actually experience remains little changed. If citizens and governments are currently satisfied with the current state of their democracy, there is little incentive to accelerate or invest in efforts that seek to improve governance and citizen participation. However, if there is a desire to improve engagement, the often cost-effective potential of ICTs should be applied toward this goal along with complementary strategies and reforms. As some had mistakenly hoped, the existence of new technology does not necessitate its use nor does it change the innate behavior of citizens, politicians, or civil servants. For the most part, we are not experiencing an inherently democratic and “disruptive technology” that is forcing revolutionary change.
Welcome to the democratic ICT evolution. Therefore, from an incremental evolutionary perspective, e-government already impacts participatory democracy in the following areas:
1. Where there is a historical, political or cultural basis for a more active civil society and government facilitated participatory and consultative activity.
2. Where the technology has allowed emerging interest in participatory democracy to come into fruition at a lower cost that avoids economic or government controls on traditional media. This assumes that the legal or personal security consequences of online political and media activities do not outweigh the perceived benefits of those taking risks.
3. Where the competitive political environment encourages the institutions of democracy from parliaments, elected officials, the executive, political parties, interest groups, and the media to bring political activities online. These activities often promote participation to the extent that they further the interests of each institution.
Again, based on my observations, I predict that in the near future the democratic ICT evolution can be taken further and deepen democracy in the following places:
1. Where governments undertake e-democracy/e-participation as well as general civic engagement/consultation policy work and allocate specific resources to such activities.
2. Where e-government service delivery efforts and public portal developments reach a high state of development and maturation. This makes it obvious that previous government policy comments about the democratizing potential of the Internet must receive full consideration or be dropped. When complemented by top-level political direction and some manifestation of “demand” from citizens, e-democracy in government will have significant potential.
3. Where civil society led efforts work to establish information-age public spheres or online commons specifically designed to encourage political and issue-based conversation, discussion, and debate among citizens and their governments. The online public sphere needs to play a public agenda-setting and opinion formation role. With proper resources, structure, and trust, it can play a deliberative role in public decision-making.
4. At levels of government closer the people. It is well known that people tend to participate if they feel their participation makes a difference. At more local levels of government, the use of ICTs in governance will be easier for a broader cross-section of citizens to see the results of their enhanced participation. Also at this level, citizen-led efforts can have the larger lasting impact on public agenda-setting from the “outside.”
To date, much of the research on the democratic, political, and governmental impact of ICTs has focused on:
1. Online activities, particularly comparisons of web site features of political institutions such as campaigns and political parties.
2. Development of e-government services from a planning and strategy perspective or a focus on public administration reform.
3. Surveys of citizens about their political online activities. These surveys are creating a partial baseline of activities for ongoing measurement. There are far fewer surveys of elected officials, government decision-makers, and political elites including journalists.
4. The practices of “online consultation” or “e-rulemaking” with an emphasis on best practices and lessons learned.
5. Pre-1995 research focused on “teledemocracy” and the possibilities for technology-enhanced or enabled direct democracy.
As of late, emerging research is:
6. Exploring the online public sphere and opportunities for deliberative democracy as applied online.
7. Focused to a small but important degree on e-parliaments. Little research is exploring the role of the ICTs in state legislatures, city councils, and other representative bodies.
8. Making the institutional “amplification” argument that may replace the contrived cyber-optimist/pessimist approach to analyzing the impact of the Internet on political behavior.
9. Being supported by general new media and Internet research. Research on usability needs to inform e-government development in particular.
10. Research compiling “what if” speculation continues to be plentiful. The questions being asked are often too general to be useful in the field by practitioners.
Overall, the revolutionary expectations created across many industries by the “dotcom Internet-era” obscured the evolutionary processes that are actually at work.
Ultimately, qualitative and quantitative research projects measuring specific ICT-based strategies that are designed to achieve specific democratic goals are required. You do not make bread by simply pouring water into a bowl of flour. You mix it, activate it, kneed it, add local flavors and ingredients and bake it. You have a recipe.
If your democratic goal is to increase turn out at public meetings, you might experiment with three online techniques, combined of course with traditional outreach. Then based on the results, you would determine which ICT-infused ingredient should be added to your recipe and passed on to others. This is granularity of comparative research required to make a meaningful contribution to the success of e-government and e-democracy efforts. Based on my ten plus years in the field and extensive literature reviews, this research does not exist.
The future of democracy and e-government will be determined by development of a cookbook, supported by research, with the best e-democracy recipes and notes on regional and cultural specialization. This cookbook will only feed the citizens hunger for more meaningful and effective participatory governance if the cookbook is used in a kitchen of democratic intent.
Based on the limited research that evaluates the impact of the best-practice use of ICT tools and strategies in efforts to improve democracy, the next section will build evidence through a review of “evolutionary” case examples tied to a discussion of democratic outcomes.
Each evolutionary ICT practice and tool needs to be considered in the context of democratic goals (more is good, more effective is even better). The democratic goals to connect to e-government efforts and practices include:
1) Trust and Accountability
2) Legitimacy and Understanding
3) Citizen Satisfaction and Service
4) Reach and Equitable Access
5) Effective Representation and Decision-Making
6) Participation through Input and Consultation
7) Engagement and Deliberation
Using ICTs to promote, as stated in the United Nation’s Millennium Declaration, “democratic and participatory governance based on the will of the people,” may lead to more responsive and effective government. It also inherently suggests reform and a dynamic different than the automation or reform of existing services.
Within government and in civil society, this is not a challenge for technologists to meet alone – these are primarily political questions and options raised by ICTs. In reality, this requires democrats informed by technology and technologists informed by democracy to craft an information-age democracy that not only accommodates the democratic will of the people, but also furthers the public good in an effective and sustainable manner.
With the great diversity in political systems and definitions and practices of democracy, it is impossible to determine the single best solutions for every objective. Those who are waiting for the best solution will be waiting a long time. Assuming, however, that a democratic objective exists, there are probably 5 best choices along with 95 likely mistakes to avoid related to each possible initiative. A review of ICT-based case examples connected to an elaboration of the importance of democratic goals will help government and others navigate their options and avoid as many mistakes as possible.
The decline in the public’s trust in government is a widely known global trend. It is of great concern to governments and those working to strengthen civil society. Accountability is the simple notion that governments and civil servants can be held accountable for their actions, processes, and outcomes.
The March 2003 OECD policy brief on the “e-government imperative” stated:
E-Government can help build trust between government and citizens
Building trust between governments and citizens is fundamental to good governance. ICT can help build trust by enabling citizen engagement in the policy process, promoting open and accountable government and helping to prevent corruption.
This and a number of reports suggest that openness and transparency can be furthered through e-government, particularly in developing countries as it relates to anti-corruption measures.
ICT strategies and applications seeking to achieve the many democratic outcomes identified in this paper may contribute to an overall increase in government trust, but with the state of cynicism about government, results may be hard to measure. There is no one “trust-building” ICT application.
Why would governments want to identify building trust and accountability as an e-government goal? For those who promote cost savings or citizen service convenience as the top e-government drivers, telephone survey results from the Center for Excellence in Government provide a message from the public – we are looking for ways to rebuild our trust in government and e-government is a path we are willing to take to get us there.
Their survey asked the public to choose the one possible positive benefit would they “think would be the most important:”
28% – Government that is more accountable to its citizens
19% – More efficient and cost-effective government
18% – Greater public access to information
16% – Government that is better able to provide for national and homeland security 13% – More convenient government services
6% – None/Not sure
The results have been relatively consistent over three years. With the release of the first results in 2000, a number of e-government leaders were surprised at the ranking. Up until that point, the e-government message going back many years was strongly focused almost exclusively on cost-savings, efficiency gains, and citizen convenience. The “public access to information” and “accountability” outcomes point toward the need to use ICTs in ways that promote trust in government.
From a comparative perspective, these questions (without the homeland security option) were asked in Japan in December 2001 via a home delivered survey. The results were similar:
31% – Government that is more accountable to its citizens
16% – More efficient and cost-effective government
15% – Greater public access to information
27% – More convenient government services
11% – None/Not sure
The biggest difference between that and the 2000 U.S. answers is that that more Japanese indicate a higher first preference for more convenient government services. Again, accountability ranked first among the citizen-selected options in both countries.
The reasonable question from e-government leaders and vendors in response to these surveys is – What is an ICT application that delivers government accountability? Where are the resources to pay for a priority that has not been presented to decision-makers in the past? How do we know that e-government can deliver results in this area?
The answer is that citizens probably want a combination of all these benefits. Applications that deliver accountability and access to information along with efficiency and convenience will win citizen approval. Therefore, the way forward is to adapt e-government solutions by adding accountability features that directly address the more comprehensive and expanded goals of e-government.
The building of democratic trust via e-government can also be complemented by efforts that leverage existing trust in government to increase citizen comfort with the usage of the service transaction components of e-government. Another survey by the Center for Excellence in Government found that e-government users in the United States have greater levels of “high trust” in government compared to non-e-government online users (36% versus 22%). Use of e-government is not necessarily what caused this increase in trust, but it is a factor worth exploring in future research. In the end, increasing people’s confidence and trust in government through e-government is an outcome worth measuring and pursuing.
Note: Case studies complement each section and are integrated into the overall flow of this paper.
E-government provides an opportunity for governments to explain and demonstrate their legitimacy and provide basic civic education online that will increase citizen understanding of the responsibilities of government.
The online provision of easy to read “How it works” information about government functions, programs, and its legal structure along with related links to reliable, up-to-date information, and elected official and government leaders is essential. This educational content could be grouped to form a “Democracy” section available from the main governmental portal. Profile linking to a nation’s founding documents such as their constitution and laws might seem dry, but this helps provide a context for the legitimacy of government. Along with links to official sources across government, civic education content can be shared in a user-friendly mix of text, images, sound, and video for students and the general public.
One indicator of e-government and democracy success will be the increased understanding online users gain about government. To effectively participate in your government you need access to the ground rules, including information on the proper way to make freedom of information requests that go beyond what governments share online at their discretion. Without these seemingly mundane information components in place, efforts to encourage deeper public participation will lack the necessary foundation.
The service and convenience benefits of e-government are widely touted. If deployed to create useful administrative knowledge on user satisfaction, e-government can help governments avoid problems and set priorities.
Increasing citizen satisfaction and service is the bridging outcome between traditional e-government projects and online efforts to promote participatory democracy. At a minimum, governments need to design their online transaction services and information portals such that they gather structured input and useful feedback. While governments do not compete with other government websites providing the same service, they are competing for citizen time and attention among the millions of other online options citizens choose from everyday. Governments also need to mindful that established media brands and online portals are the main source on online political news and links from those sites to government source materials can bring in desired citizen “eyeballs” (web site vistors).
While this analysis suggests that specific staff-led e-democracy policy work, making e-democracy technology functions available in an integrated way across the whole of government makes sense. Government e-democracy tools are best implemented as part of the overall e-government technology-base whether tied to a specific agency or as an aggregated service provided by a central agency. Governments need to avoid isolating e-democracy technology services from the bulk of their technical expertise and resources.
On the road to measuring citizen satisfaction is the intentional generation of a “demand-function” for e-government. Tools such as web site surveys and comment forms, telephone surveys of the general public and registered site users, comment forms generated at the completion of a transaction or query, page-based content rating options and focus-group meetings with diverse or target user groups can all be used to generate ongoing input and an essential sense of demand. However, governments need to take risks on new online features because most citizens will never demand something they don’t conceive of as possible.
It should be noted that what citizens say they want online and what they do online are often two different things. People say that want privacy policies, but very few access them. Citizens may say they want e-government that promotes accountability. Learning more about what e-government users actually do online will help governments prioritize the investments required to enhance information access and dissemination, service transactions or to build new tools, like online consultation facilities, that support participatory democracy.
Opportunities to learn what citizens actually do online, while being mindful of their privacy, include usability studies (often in a laboratory setting), basic web site user log analysis, advanced statistic generation (generating log records of click out links from a main government portal to another government web site), and focus group meetings organized with users based their frequent use of an online service. Providing improved service based on these inputs is a starting point for e-democracy within e-government. It recognizes the role of citizens in directly shaping the development and provision of a government service.
Service also implies the adoption of tools and best practices from across the online industry into the whole of e-government. The expectations of citizens online today are dramatically different than in 1997 when e-government first became more widely spread. While the idea that the Internet was inherently democratic may have deluded many into thinking its use would produce a wave of democratic reform that would wash over government and politics, there are still a number of technological enhancements that may dramatically deepen participatory democracy for citizens. Technologies like e-mail notification, e-mail/correspondence processing are complemented by the use of content management systems that allow distributed publishing across an agency, personalization features, and on-demand access to audio and video archives of public meeting recordings.
The e-participation efforts of government need to reach people to be effective.
This may seem obvious, but I am aware of governments that have limited the promotion of their initial online consultation experiments by avoiding profile links from their government’s main portal. Many governments are concerned over negative attention that might come from a less than successful effort. They are also concerned about the precedent a successful e-participation project may establish. Unfortunately without a participatory audience, interactive projects fail to generate the required interest.
Governments, unlike other organizations, have an obligation to provide equitable access to their services and democratic processes. For example, people who are unable to vote in person are often given absentee voting options to promote greater equity. Universal access to the Internet is still many years away in most of the world. The “digital divide” is often cited as a reason not proceed with political participation projects online due to the lack of access by a significant portion of the population. This concern is not necessarily raised more strongly in places where access is relatively limited. Sometimes it is raised in the most wired places where the potential power of medium is better understood, perhaps feared.
The reality is that whether a country has 5 percent or 50 percent of its population online, it has some form of “e-democracy” working today. In less wired countries, e-democracy exists in an institutional form with role of non-governmental organizations, the media, universities, and government organization at the center. Waiting for the digital divide to close will eliminate the opportunity to build social expectations for civic uses of the Internet while the medium is still relatively new.
Based on an understanding of who is wired, a government can develop online efforts which complement existing forms of participation and work to ensure that many and diverse voices are heard through civil society intermediaries. In developing and transitional economies, the connectivity of radio stations and other mass media outlets to the Internet and the potential role of telecentres should be developed. E-mail and the web can provide a participatory backbone and structure for collecting input and traditional mass media and village gatherings can provide the public interface that generate the citizens input.
In all countries, “who shows up” online is a significant concern. The reality is that those who show up at traditional public meetings are often the easiest to attract online. A frequently stated goal of e-participation is to attract new, often under-represented voices. While evidence measuring this goal is scarce, anecdotal evidence suggests that governments underestimate the amount of traditional outreach required (in-person, telephone, mass media, etc.) to attract citizens to new online participatory features or events. A “build it, they will come” link doesn’t create a participatory audience. Outreach is essential.
Traditional forms of idealized in-person participation have their place, but they are very time and place discriminatory. When attempting to capture and sustain the sparks of civic interest among citizens, governments need to stress the any time, anywhere strengths of online participation. Depending upon the form of participation, for example a community taskforce, online tools can expand the involvement of members and extend the reach of the effort by providing remote access to its processes at times that fit the busy schedules of citizens. Stepping back – if you were going to build democracy from scratch today, would you require physical presence for active or effective participation?
Building from the lessons of Citizen Satisfaction and Service, an understanding of the “day in the life” of e-citizen needs to be incorporated by each government. The e-citizen profile will help governments determine the best opportunities to reach people. Each day just over half of American Internet users go online (61 million each day) and most check their e-mail. Only ten percent indicate that they visited at least one government web site. This translates to about 6 million Americans spread over tens of thousands of government sites each day. This highlights the value of a single citizen visitor to a local government web site and the need to build that visit into an ongoing relationship.
“Reach” also takes on multi-technology and syndication aspects. The UK is widely known for their exploration of interactive television and e-government. The challenge for governments is to organize their information and services such that the provision of new democratic services adapted to different user interfaces is cost-effective. In the syndication area, various Internet standards including RSS, are beginning to explored in places like New Zealand for the distribution of government news headlines. Use of such strategies would allow governments to make their new or “best of” content available from external sites.
From the functions of representative institutions to enhanced decision-making within government, ICTs can make political processes more efficient and hopefully more effective.
Compared to online campaigning and e-government in general, one of the least studied areas is ICT use by parliaments, legislatures, local councils and their elected members and staff. What these institutions do online will, in my estimation, be the cornerstone for attempts to strengthen citizen participation in the information age. While the role of the Internet in voter education is extremely important, governance happens year round.
Citizens will engage their representatives in governance when they feel they have a stake in the political outcome, if they think their voices will be heard, and where they feel their input matters. While it is generally accepted that many citizens do not currently have a stake, ICTs can be used to bring citizen input and deliberation into representative political processes. These processes have direct political power and authority. They are not simply an external exercise or academic experiment. Therefore connecting ICT-enhanced participatory democracy to representative processes may be the most effective path toward deepening democracy through e-government.
Early discussions of “teledemocracy” often suggested that wide citizen use of ICTs was a way around the continuing frustrations of representative institutions and the political process. There are examples where citizens from the outside have established new online news sources (like Malaysikini.com), forums, and e-organized citizen campaigns (the e-mail and text-messaging effort supporting protests to force the resignation of the Philippine President Estrada) that do have political agenda-setting power and ability to generate public opinion. They have potential, but successful efforts of a dramatic nature are extremely rare. It must be stressed that representative institutions and representatives have the constitutional legitimacy and responsibilities that should not be underestimated in information-age democracy.
We also need to consider whether the information-age will cause representatives to lose power to the executive. In Canada, there has been an ongoing debate about direct citizen consultation by government ministries and the role of MPs. Experimentation with online consultation by the executive emerged as a flash point for some MPs that see it as a sign of power concentration in the Cabinet. Changes fostered by ICTs, particularly government agencies connecting directly and efficiently with citizens instead of going through elected officials or the mass media, will raise serious balance of power issues around the world. Also, the differences between parliamentary and presidential systems may be a large driver in the evolution of ICT investment incentives.
As e-government efforts as a whole increase the technological and communication strength of the executive, the lack of corresponding investment in the ICT infrastructure of representative institutions, processes, and members may significantly change the role of representatives as well as the view public holds about their power and influence. I raised this challenge at the Parliaments on the Net conference in 2002. Based on the feedback and it is clear that in many countries, there are parliamentary staff who understand that the relevancy of their democratic institutions are at stake. However, the issue has not permeated the strategic thinking of parliamentary leaders in most countries.
It is my view that the online extension of representative processes into homes and public places in political jurisdictions is a top challenge for democracy in the information-age. This extension must make it possible for the most active citizens to participate. It must also open up the political process so that more citizens find their involvement in governance worthwhile between elections.
In the end, however, e-government in democracy must still ensure time and space for thoughtful deliberation by representatives so they can make the difficult decisions and compromises required of their oath of office. Our current path of e-noise generation and protest through online advocacy and lobbying may actually make it more difficult, in the near term, to reach compromises and diffuse the growing partisan nature of politics.
The Internet and ICTs can be used in structured ways to gain input from citizens. They can be used in substantial ways to consult with citizens. ICTs can be used to give citizens a voice and if the government is willing, be heard.
A significant barrier to e-government efforts that enhance online participation are bureaucratic fears of quantity over quality. The scarcity of time faced by citizens is a challenge for civil servants as well. Without structured ways to gather, evaluate, and respond to public input online, there will be diminishing value received or perceived with each additional public comment. Achieving greater consultation with value-added citizen input is the area of the most considerable e-government and democracy activity in the executive or administrative branch of government.
However, as governments seek to establish online consultations along side their traditional public consultation activities, they must support basic citizen input. Deepening democracy requires a 24 hours a day x 7 days a week commitment to informal two-way electronic communication between citizens and their government.
Consultations are normally designed based on the policy priorities of government. Citizens, on the other hand, contact government based on their own agenda or needs. In order to measure an increase in citizen perceptions that their input was valued or measure the government’s sense that online consultations are useful, both the administrative priority and technology needs to be put into place. If governments find online consultations useful, they will work to create better experiences for citizens. This can increase the substance and value of citizen submissions.
Governments should encourage a strong ICT-infused civil society where citizens, NGOs, and businesses engage in vibrant public life and play an active role in directly helping governments meet public challenges. Building from consultation, governments can host or support efforts which promote greater deliberation among citizens on important public matters. Deliberation will have its greatest value if established on a foundation of broad online citizen engagement across the whole of civil society.
A number of criticisms of the Internet’s possible role in deliberative democracy as well as its use for public discourse exist. Cass Sunstein suggests that citizens will self-select online exchanges and information that represent “extreme echoes of our own voices.” Tamara Witschge wrote one of the few academic articles specifically addressing more rigid expectations of deliberative democracy and the Internet. She suggests that no empirical evidence can be found so far to support the notion that the Internet creates an environment where people will be more comfortable in political situations online with diverse viewpoints and disagreement. She further states that this “heterogeneity and equality within political discussions” is required to meet the standard of deliberation.
Despite these and other significant cautions, I see an online path toward higher levels of citizen engagement and deliberation. It may be a matter of definition, but deep online engagement, perhaps not deliberation, is at the heart of people’s online experience in their private and business life. The potential for the public sphere online, where people become citizens online is an area of increasing interest.
In March 2001, Stephen Coleman and Jay Blumler laid out a compelling vision for a “civic commons in cyberspace” in the UK, which is indirectly being brought to life as part of the BBC Politics initiative called iCan. Lincoln Dahlberg explored Minnesota E-Democracy’s facilitation of online forums (e-mail discussion lists), which meet many of Habermas’ attributes required of the “public sphere.” In the 2000 election, Vincent Price and Joseph Cappela found evidence that participation in monthly real-time online chats on political issues was a significant predictor of increased social trust.
Much of my e-democracy expertise comes my role as a practitioner who has spent every day for ten years with an organization that facilitates citizen engagement through online political conversation. The local and statewide forums hosted by E-Democracy, an all-volunteer, citizen-based NGO in Minnesota, United States have provided insight and inspiration. I am fundamentally convinced that ICTs can be used to improve participatory democracy and citizen engagement. I ask the “how” question all of the time. In this paper, I have added the “why” by identifying democratic outcomes that build upon one another.
I worry about idealism that creates unreasonably high expectations, such that victories like online citizen engagement are viewed as less successful if full deliberation online is not achieved. The path toward both engagement and deliberation requires an answer to the same question – What is fundamentally required to support engagement and deliberative democracy online?
First, you need “e-deliberators.” You need citizens with experience and comfort with online political conversation. I call them e-citizens. Without the social expectation that Internet should be used for democratic purposes, advanced e-government and democracy efforts will only exist primarily where internal champions lead the way or they exist as out of sight small experiments. We will not see the most compelling experiences and services spread more universally to democracies around the world without a focus on e-citizens.
Second, you need well-resourced hosts who can create the structure necessary to facilitate a valuable, meaningful experience for those who take the time required to participate. Some government online consultations, particularly those run like an online conference with open exchange among participants and ability for citizens to nominate specific discussions themselves, are currently quite deliberative. However, a significant portion of online civic hosting should fall to democratic sectors outside of government or in partnership, both with appropriate levels of government, foundation, and commercial support.
Ultimately, the measurement of engagement and deliberation online may relate directly to measuring increased social capital of those directly participating and over time of the population as a whole where significant efforts have taken root. It may very well be that using the Internet to maintain the current level of participatory democracy will not be considered a choice. If it is determined that “as is” use of the Internet will actually accelerate or amplify existing negative trends, then I would argue that hosting ongoing local forums for online citizen engagement may be one of the most cost-effective investments toward deepening or at least keeping democracy on the right path.
Another emerging concept take the tools of online consultation and deliberation designed for policy input and applies them toward public implementation or output. I call this “public net-work.” It points toward government taking a public facilitator role among stakeholders and interested citizens who want to directly help government meet a public challenge within the context of established policy. Supporting this kind of civic engagement may provide the fiscal justification for investing in the tools of consultation based on their dual use potential.
In the end, information-age democracies must be able to accommodate the will of their people. Democratic outcomes should be directly connected to future e-government efforts and funding. I illustrated a number of case examples that demonstrate the value of democratic intent supported by effective ICT tools and strategies.
We can deepen democracy and become more participatory with ICTs. This is about the reality of the new media, not just its potential. Will the current exceptional practices become universal practices? Answering this question will be a challenge for the new “wired” generation of democracy builders.
To summarize our challenge:
1. Democratic necessity does not guarantee the use of ICTs based on their demonstrated or potential value. While governments may react to outside changes in their political environment due to ICT use in society, those in power need to decide in the interest of their society to bring ICTs into the heart of governance. Only in rare cases will ICTs wash over non-adaptive political systems.
2. The use of ICTs in democracy does not guarantee their success or a positive impact. Faults in adaptation to local conditions, culture, law, and implementation with follow through are real challenges.
3. Success in one country or government agency does not guarantee its spread nor its sustained use even when clear value is demonstrated. Elections happen. New leaders often shift their political priorities and approaches.
4. However, the value of the universal spread of ICT practices and strategies that address democratic necessities is immense. The tenuous nature of democracy requires continuous improvement and sustained enrichment with the newest tools available.
5. Therefore, one needs to articulate the necessity, demonstrate and document success toward desired democratic outcomes, and work deliberately to ensure its spread.
Based on a country’s or a community’s democratic structure and history, each generation of citizens and leaders must build their own democratic experience and spirit. The previous generation saw their political systems and practices dramatically altered by mass media. The next generation has the democratic opportunity to use ICTs to help them meet public challenges and promote human and social development. To this end, building momentum is more important than achieving quick success in order to ensure democracy in the information-age.
 Real-Time Politics: The Internet and the Political Process, Philip E. Agre, The Information Society 18(5), 2002, pages 311-331. URL: http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/real-time.html – Accessed 12 May 2003
 The New e-Government Equation: Ease, Engagement, Privacy and Protection – Topline Data (General Public), Council for Excellence in Government, April 2003 – URL: http://www.excelgov.org/displayContent.asp?Keyword=ppp041403 – Accessed 5 May 2003
 Individual survey on e-democracy in Japan – Summary of Survey Results, NTT Data, May 2002 – URL: http://www.nttdata.co.jp/en/find/report/index.html, Accessed 5 May 2003
 January 2001 Supplemental Poll , Center for Excellence in Government, January 2001 – URL: http://www.excelgov.org/displayContent.asp?Keyword=ppp010101 – Accessed 6 May 2002
 E-democracy Policy Framework, State of Queensland Civic Engagement Division, November 2001 – URL: http://www.premiers.qld.gov.au/about/community/pdf/edemocracy.pdf – Accessed 6 May 2003
 eGovernment—More Customer Focused than Ever Before, Report from Accenture – May 2003 – URL: http://www.accenture.com/xd/xd.asp?it=enweb&xd=industries\government\gove_capa_egov.xml – Accessed 13 May 2003
 How Do People Evaluate a Web Site’s Credibility? Results from a Large Study – Consumer WebWatch research report, prepared by Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab – October 2002 – URL:http://www.consumerwebwatch.org/news/report3_credibilityresearch/stanfordPTL_abstract.htm – Accessed 6 May 2003
 Daily Internet Activities Chart, Pew Internet and American Life Project, Updated monthly, government percentage from November 2002 – URL: http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/chart.asp?img=Daily_A8.htm – Accessed 7 May 2003
 A short case study is available from: http://www.newmediazero.com/news/story.asp?id=239353 – Accessed 12 May 2003
 A standard for the publication of government news summaries, Government of New Zealand – October 2002 – URL: http://www.e-government.govt.nz/docs/rss-draft-200304/ – Accessed 12 May 2003 – Also see general links from John Gotze’s, an e-government expert in Denmark, on syndication: http://slashdemocracy.org/links/Syndication/index.html
 A number of articles about citizen-to-citizen online political discussions are available from http://www.e-democracy.org/research. The author of this paper is Board Chair of Minnesota E-Democracy. He works with citizens to build forums for the respectful discussion of political and community issues.
 Crossing Boundaries: First Ottawa Working Session Summary – March 18, 2002 – URL: http://crossingboundaries.ca/cbv32/materials/March_18_Session_Summary.pdf – Accessed 8 May 2003
 ECPRD Parli@ments on the Net V Conference, Helsinki, Finland – 25-26 March 2002 – See: http://www.eduskunta.fi/ecprd/ Also see: http://email@example.com/msg00452.html – Accessed 14 May 2003
 Digital Town Hall: How local officials use the Internet and the civic benefits they cite from dealing with constituents online – Pew Internet and American Life Project – October 2002 – URL: http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=74 – Accessed 12 May 2003
 Email fails to be next political ‘killer app’ – Press release from Nigel Jackson, Senior Lecturer, Bournemouth Media School – URL: http://firstname.lastname@example.org/msg00668.html – Accessed 14 May 2003
 See DoWire posts from Jan Hamming, local councilor in Tilburg, The Netherlands and his use of chat and e-mail newsletters which help him reach out to constituents including young people, low income, and immigrants: http://email@example.com/msg00274.html
Also see the comments about U.S. Representative Heather Wilson’s e-mail newsletter and its relationship to online poll response rates: http://firstname.lastname@example.org/msg00226.html
Common Interest and E-Things – Presentation by Dr. Paula Tiionhen to International Symposium – from telework to new forms of work in the information society, Quebec, Canada – May 2001 – URL: http://www.tieke.fi/online/jtiedotteet.nsf/38e4483ea7238da4c225650f004a738d/20fec21d380f6b6fc2256bce00236f5a/$FILE/Quebeq5.rtf – Accessed 12 May 2003
 Press coverage of the E-Estonia project is significant:
E-stonia: From Iron Curtain obscurity to wired wonderland, Associated Press – 21 Apr 2003 – URL: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/world/2003-04-21-estonia_x.htm – Accessed 12 May 2003
E-innovation, Estonian-style: Prime Minister Laar heads up an e-cabinet of ministers – 31 March 2001 – Douglas Herbert, CNN, URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/europe/03/30/estonia.technology/ – Accessed 12 May 2003
 Daily Internet Activities Chart, Pew Internet and American Life Project, Updated monthly, government percentage from November 2002 – URL: http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/chart.asp?img=Daily_A8.htm – Accessed 7 May 2003
 Christine Nelson, Citizen Outreach Director for former Governor Jesse Ventura recently noted on a panel on Online Advocacy and Lobbying http://www.e-democracy.org/neoamn that despite the commonly held view that most e-mail received by elected officials are misdirected or spam, that the content of e-mails they received was largely appropriate and their quality of content was better and more open minded than that received via post or telephone. However, she noted that e-mail was relatively quiet because it didn’t generate the office or media buzz that higher volumes of telephone calls would generate.
 In 1995, the United States Government National Performance Review held an online meeting, but unlike other countries with an interest in “online consultation,” this was a one-time event. The Environmental Protection Agency (evaluation http://www.rff.org/reports/PDF_files/democracyonline.pdf ) and a few smaller agencies and task forces have experimented in this area. The term “online consultation” is not recognized in the U.S., but e-rulemaking is online consultations cousin and notable because it connects directly to administrative rulemaking that has the force of law.
 Online Consultations and Events – Top Ten Tips for Government and Civic Hosts, Steven Clift – 2002 – Accessed 12 May 2003
 Republic.com. Sunstein, Cass R., 2001. Princeton: Princeton University Press
 Online Deliberation: Possibilities of the Internet for Deliberative Democracy, Paper submitted to Euricom Colloquium Electronic Networks & Democratic Engagement – Tamara Witschge – October 2002 – URL: http://oase.uci.kun.nl/~jankow/Euricom/papers/Witschge.pdf – Accessed 12 May 2003
 Realising Democracy Online: A Civic Commons in Cyberspace, IPPR/Citizen Online Research Publication No. 2 – Jay Blumler and Stephen Coleman – March 2001 – URL: http://www.citizensonline.org.uk/pdf/realising.pdf
– Accessed 12 May 2003
 For news on the BBC’s emerging “iCan” service, see: Web Antidote for Political Apathy, Wired Digital – 5 May 2003, URL: http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,58715,00.html – Accessed 12 May 2003 Also see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/bbc/politics.shtml
 Extending the Public Sphere through Cyberspace: The Case of Minnesota E-Democracy by Lincoln Dahlberg
First Monday, volume 6, number 3 (March 2001), URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_3/dahlberg/index.html – Accessed 12 May 2003
 Online Deliberation and its Influence: The Electronic Dialogue Project in Campaign 2000, IT & Society – Vincent Price and Joseph N. Cappella – Summer 2002 – URL: http://www.stanford.edu/group/siqss/itandsociety/v01i01/Vol01-1-A20-Price-Cappella.pdf – Accessed 12 May 2003
 public net-work: Online Information Exchange in the Pursuit of Public Service Goals, Steven Clift – Article submitted to OECD Implementing E-Government Working Group. Summary available at: http://email@example.com/msg00638.html – Accessed 14 May 2003 – Draft available on request: firstname.lastname@example.org
The best example of a “public net-work” project is the Community Builder initiative in the State of New South Wales, Australia: http://www.communitybuilders.nsw.gov.au