This article is based on a speech given by Steven Clift with E-Democracy.Org to the Council of Europe’s Forum for the Future of Democracy.
FFD 2008 , Speech by Steven Clift, Concluding plenary session
Government 2.0 Meets Everyday Citizens and Democracy
I started “e-democracy.org”, a citizen project whilst working in government, so my perspective was government ‘by day’ and citizen ‘by night’. This dual approach is also taken by this conference with the participation of grass-root citizen activities through the NGOs and with the participation of government representatives promoting democracy in public life.
I have had a lot of dreams about how e-tools can be used not only to give people a voice, but also to really solve problems in communities and to make democracies vastly more engaging. But then my wife and I had a second child and I now experience what most people experience: a humongous time crunch.
E-tools offer the possibility for people to participate from anywhere, at anytime, in a personalised manner. Most traditional political participation at local level is based in buildings and in meetings which take place at specific times. Our modern lives mean that people do not have the time, or maybe the transport, or even the interest, to be as engaged as was required in years past. E-democracy does not aim to replace the town hall meeting or opportunities to be involved in person; nothing beats the power of looking someone in the eye or shaking hands. But ultimately, if democracy is not available to people on their own terms, it will not exist in the long term.
After almost 15 years involvement in e-democracy I would conclude that representative democracy is not adapting. We have early adapters here and experimenters there, but this is a 5% crowd. The focus of our reflections should be on how to involve and include the other 95%.
One of the problems is that Facebook, MySpace and other social networks primarly serve to publicise private life. There is a big difference between publicising private life and having representative democracy online or creating public life amongst people who live near one another.
There are online newspapers and blogs and other information sites which are a form of political engagement. However, these sometimes bring out the worst in us and e-democracy is needed to counter the negative things that are happening on the Internet in the political sphere. E-campaigning, for example, is often about organising people to gain power, money and influence and it can be in conflict with other elements in society.
In the United States there are a few things that we are good at on the Internet and in politics; we are good at making noise through online advocacy, raising money and e-campaigning. However, we have a lot to learn from Europe in terms of e-consultation and e-participation because we tend not to focus on this in between elections.
Ultimately, it is a negative approach to politics if citizens remain limited to the use of electronic tools to politically arm themselves and to fight for influence and power, or if they simply remain hidden behind a disempowering anonymous cloak with online news and blog comments.
Those of us who want to build democratic engagement need to create alternatives to this “default mode.” It is not good enough to say that the Internet is going to be a democratizing medium. We have to make things happen online in order to create a better democratic space. The challenge, as I suggested in my article “Sidewalks for Democracy Online”, is to build real public life online.
I would like to start from the premise that e-government to date is impoverishing democracy. When citizens go to a town hall, there is often a space at the entrance where people can gather or can talk to neighbours while waiting in line. There is perhaps a rack of newspapers, maybe a bulletin board and public meeting rooms. In contrast, when you are on an e-government website it is a singular experience: you cannot talk to the people next to you and say “this line is taking too long”, “we need a new mayor” or “I agree, let’s work together to improve our community”.
In many cases, the number one interface for citizens with the government is now the Internet and I estimate that each day there are more citizens on the city’s website than actually physically go to the town hall. So where are the public spaces? Where are the online consultations? Where are the e-petitions? Where are these aspects of the interactive web in the public authority context?
When I was responsible for the State government portal in Minnesota I realised that e-government is being framed in terms of efficiency, security and transactions. All this is the opposite of democracy which requires openness, transparency and risk-taking.
We need to communicate better with the people who build e-government. Our governments need to ensure that those people who are responsible for the democracy-building side of governance have access to the necessary online tools. E-democracy as a subset of e-government is having a very difficult time and we cannot wait for the e-government team to add those tools because their training and mindset is based on a very different framework.
In most cases, the blogosphere is merely democratising punditry. Previously there were 300 regular guests on 24-hour television news talk shows; today there are a further 3000 bloggers who are essentially trying to get onto television news talk shows. When you bring that model to the local level, it is actually more divisive than the town hall meeting room and the face-to-face type of activity that it may be replacing. I think it is important to understand that what may be good at national level may not be the model we would like to promote in our local communities.
We need to make the Internet a democracy network “by nature.” This is difficult to address because democracy is fundamentally based on geography unlike the Internet. We content on the Internet to be more geographically-based or “tagged.” Technically speaking there are a lot of so-called content management systems, i.e. people producing web pages, but there is no standard way to describe the place that such content is associated with.
In reality, governments, as well as many media sites and place-specific blogs, are generating geographically specific information. However, it is not easy to aggregate that “what’s new” information and this is a crucial. If you are a local official and you have heard about these blogs, are you going to pay any attention to the public-sphere online if you have no idea whether they are your constituents or not? No. However, if content on the Internet becomes more geographically navigable, public officials will pay more attention to their citizens out there across the Web 2.0 environment.
It is important to think more about how governments and others invest in the online world and find ways to make geography a stronger factor. This will make our democracy-building that much easier further down the line. We need to make democratic building blocks an integral part of the Internet rather than something we add on later at a much greater cost. Ultimately, place matters.
Most people when they go online think about going out to the world. But those of us who are building e-democracy need to think in terms of coming home online. The time people spend going out to public meetings is decreasing and if most people’s experience online only relates to going into the world or to private life activities, and not to public life activities, there will inevitably be a decline in democratic public life.
We also need to think about infrastructure, for example why are there are no white pages on the Internet. If my bicycle was stolen I would have previously had to go door to door to my neighbors to collect email addresses to be able to send out a simple note saying “did anyone see anything?” Obviously, you do not want your email address out there for everyone to access, but a site where the twenty-five closest neighbors could see each other’s email addresses would be good. There is the issue of identity and security, but perhaps there is a way to enable people who live with one another to opt into such communication. The fact that there are no white pages means that people have not been thinking about local community when it comes to Internet infrastructure.
It is important to make democracy more efficient for both decision-makers and citizens. But we must not forget that e-democracy is not really about numbers or speed, but about making better decisions and building trust in different types of outcomes. Numbers and speed do not justify investing resources in e-democracy, there must also be more effective outcomes.
We need to look closer at the inconsistencies between public authorities who are trying to attract people to their web sites for interaction, consultations and so on and what citizens are doing in the public sphere. It is important to take this a step further and think about how governments, particularly civil servants, could see reaching out to citizens as an integral part of their job. For example, on a health issue being discussed in a community, the health workers should be able to engage with people where they are online and correct erroneous online information about a flu bug spreading through the town, or provide a web-link to a health clinic. Waiting for people to come to a government website is outdated Government 1.0.
Moving on to regulatory issues and the rule of law, if we look back five years from now and ask for outcomes from this conference, I am going to be looking for Digital Democracy Acts. A number of national parliamentarians and local authorities suggest that if they had the resources they would be able to act on this issue. Indeed, it might be that national authorities are keen to mandate local governments to do things they do not wish to do themselves. But as our representatives, members of parliament have a duty to think about the most important aspects of e-democracy and their universality.
As an example, many public authorities have open meeting regulations which require meetings to be announced in the press, or perhaps on a physical bulletin board outside the building. Regulations should be modified to require such meetings to also be posted on the Internet. This could increase the number of local authorities and national ministries announcing meetings on their websites from half of them to all of them.
Electronic access to information is sometimes seen as an old issue, but the reality today is that citizens want rapid access to information through news alerts and web feeds (e.g. RSS). It is empowering if citizens can find out about a meeting or a news report or a new plan while there is still time to do something about it and react. Rapid information feeds are still very rare in government. If I would look for a quick fix or a quick investment that is technologically driven and does not require legislative change, I would suggest the creation of personalized e-mail notification tools combined with web feeds. (Feed only options will only be useful to less than 10% of Internet users, so don’t limit yourself to feeds.)
MySociety.Org, the UK-based e-democracy effort, does what I call “scrape and innovate”. What I mean by scrape is that they go to the Parliament’s website and take the data off, put it into a useful database format (e.g. XML) and then do really interesting things with it: they create a highly interactive interface to the Parliament. The Parliament itself does not do this, and maybe never will or even never should. But, because the data is available, third parties can innovate with it.
Indeed, one can go beyond “scrape”. In the USA there is a project led by the Sunlight Foundation called the “Open House Project”. It encourages governments to put more decision-making information online in raw format so that other web sites can take that information, organise it and add further interactive services. Such projects can make it easier for national and local media sites to be an access point into public meetings, public documents and decision-making processes. E-democracy should be everywhere, not just on government sites.
To judge the success of this conference, in five years let’s measure how many public authorities have at least one staff person, or even a staff team, whose job it is be to help led e-democracy in government and help the public interact with governance. Such online democracy representatives already exist in, for example, Estonia and Queensland, Australia. Lead civil servants and program funding to help ministries and others move into the e-democracy process and involve civil society is required. How do you foster groups like “MySociety.Org”? How do you find the resources? How do you involve groups like “Catch 21”, a non-partisan, impartial youth video project here at the conference?
As with television and radio 50 years ago, governments need to ask what Internet can offer that the market itself will not provide. We need to know what to invest in. This will not always be on governments’ terms because civil society activities, which may be more impartial than advocacy efforts, already have an incentive to use electronic tools but may also need support.
Regarding accountability and environmental monitoring, there is a growing trend by governments to put real-time data online, for example about pollution. The District of Columbia has real-time feeds of data which they are making available online. The information might include the number of parking tickets issued that day, police issues and service-related information. It can offer a pulse on how well the locality is delivering services to its citizens and that means accountability: accountability for companies and accountability for public authorities.
It is very important for public authorities to address e-inclusion and reach out to the socially excluded. My non-profit “E-Democracy.Org” undertakes a lot of volunteer activities – but there is a limit to that capacity. We have found that real resources are necessary to launch an online community neighborhood forum in a relatively deprived area. The challenge goes well beyond the capacities of volunteers. Hope doesn’t pay the bills.
Finally, I would like to ask how we can restore community bonds. This is a much broader concept than making government more democratic; it is about creating a democratic and inclusive society. It is about making sure that people have real access to each other in public life online. It also relates to the implementation of government programs not just input into policy making. Convening stakeholders online to help government implement their policy and mission – output – is a significant area of opportunity. Such interactivity could be used to help lower costs and engage stakeholders who are often already delivering public services in a different way.
I have addressed the role of civil society mentioning the example of “E-Democracy.Org” and what can happen if we really embrace the Web 2.0 environment. The focus needs to be on enabling public authorities and their decision-making information to enter the data stream and enter this network of networks. When this happens we have to let go a little and understand that people will misrepresent the information from time to time. But 95 % of the time they will not and the fact that the information is reaching so many more people makes e-governance worthwhile.
Citizens do not have a choice for every decision. I can’t pay taxes to another state for services because they have a better website. However, citizens are choosing everyday about how they use their online time. We are losing an access to people if they only go to the media and opinion sites because they think that there is nothing for them on a government or civil society website.
E-democracy in governance is not a choice, it is about the survival of the very democratic society we hold dear.
I would like to conclude with an invitation to continue this dialogue via a blog/e-newsletter I have been running since 1998 called “Democracies Online Newswire – DoWire.Org”. It connects 2,500 members around the world interested in e-democracy, including an special online community of practice for Europe and other regions. For those in civil society who are interested in “local up” approach I also invite you to connect with lessons from E-Democracy.Org’s growing neighbourhood Issues Forum network.