THE RILEY REPORT – June 2003
from Thomas B. Riley ()
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This month's report looks at the evolution of e-democracy. This report suggests that there is far more activity in the area of e-democracy outside the traditional legislative and public administrative bodies. The question is also raised as to whether or not the growth in e-democracy will result in the emergence of a renewed democracy taking shape in new forms, or will it be an extension of democracy as we now know it in its present form. Whatever the outcome, it is becoming apparent that the emergence of e-democracy is beginning to have some impact on governments and society alike.
E-DEMOCRACY: AN EVOLUTION IN PROGRESS
The evolution of e-democracy continues as governments move tentatively towards experiments with online consultations, while many also consider online voting. As with any subject matter, there are many issues open for discussion and debate. E-democracy is at the stage that it now needs to be explored as a subset to the greater, and more important, philosophical topic of democracy itself. Does the evolution of e-democracy practices, such as online consultations, enhance the current system whereby the polity governs the society, and continues to have limited and controlled input from the citizen, or shall we see the evolution of a new form of democracy? These are pressing issues for modern governments as the new technologies are contributing to the creation of faster communications, the sharing of information and knowledge, and the emergence of new forms of our respective cultures.
We are witnessing some major changes as the e-democracy movement grows. Networked communities are quickly evolving through the Internet and, increasingly, citizens are using the new technologies to organize themselves so their voices can be heard, as well as to develop tools to attempt to influence government policy and programs at the political and public administration level.
Writers and researchers, analyzing and assessing the emergence of e-democracy, often leave out, on the whole, the broader philosophical nature of democracy itself. For purposes of this evolution of e-democracy it is important to put the whole question of how ICTs will be used to further engage the citizenry into a wider context of democracy as we practice it. There are different schools of thought as to whether ICTs will change the nature of democracy itself, or if ICTs will simply result in an extension of democracy we now practice and understand.
There has been much talk in recent years of public cynicism toward politicians and public officials. Much of this is based, amongst other things, on a lack of knowledge and understanding of the inner workings of government including the public service and legislative arm. This combined with lack of government programs, in many instances, to inform people of what the government is doing, or to engage people in the development of public policy are only some of the many reasons why there is such growing cynicism in the public in the last two decades. The reasons for this cynicism are wide and diverse, and it is not the role of this Report to come to conclusions about this prevailing public attitude, but to suggest that the new ICTs could contribute to creating renewed faith in government bodies through the creation of an interactive government engaged in wide dialogue with an interactive citizenry.
The important issue to hand is that there be a vigorous debate and discussion about the nature of democracy, and how all our new technologies can be used to produce a more engaged and interactive citizenry. Such an achievement is going to take commitment and hard work by many sectors of society, not solely governments or legislative bodies (the latter being the most resistant to change). Any movement forward can only be an improvement for elected officials, public sector officials, and the public itself. This is a difficult transition to make as, traditionally; most democratic governments have relied on interest groups, experts, and academics to assist them with the input of new legislation, amendments to current legislation, regulations, or public policy.
To make significant changes to draw the citizenry more widely into the process requires commitment and attitudinal change. Cost factors also come to bear on this as well as the question of how to engage people for their input and opinions. Referendums, offline and online, could be one first step towards bringing the wider public into the whole process of government.
However, this raises an even more fundamental question: Does the public want to be more engaged in government, or do they want the opportunity to make their views known every once in awhile? If governments do engage the public more frequently into public debate over issues of the day, how often do they do this? What mechanisms will be available to facilitate this process? How often should referendums be used and what subject matters should be considered priorities for referendums? What institutions within government need to be set up to make the wider transition to e-democracy beyond online voting and online consultations?
These are just a few questions that need to be addressed and scoped out if we are to move to new methodologies of e-democracy and beyond online voting (very limited at the moment) and online consultations (at a very nascent stage). Groups and individuals outside government are developing their online tools and methodology to create new different systems of online democracy in order to influence governments, contribute to the issues of the day, and forward their own issues related to their lives or points of interest to whatever groups they belong to, or social matters that these individuals feel need changing.
Online activists, special interest groups, and interested citizens alike also use e-democracy tools to enhance democracy within their own groups and amongst themselves. Thus, we see a culture of different forms of traditional democracy developing outside the sphere of government circles (with some input into government and some politicians making effective use of ICTs to further their political goals) while governments make tentative steps to move into the arena. Governments are traditionally conservative and slow to move due to the nature of their organizations and the duty to take all interests of society into consideration when undertaking change. For the moment there is a difference in cultures occurring, and a wide gap between what individuals and groups are doing online, and what governments are currently capable of doing online, especially in their relationships with the public.
The challenge for governments in the next few years will be to set out mechanisms on how to embrace more of the public into the decision-making process. More importantly governments, the academic world, NGOs and civil society groups, and a wide body of interested individuals and public interest groups in society, would be well served in starting a dialogue to engage in public debate on how, or if, ICTs can and should change our current dynamics of democracy. For while many might argue that being online is crucial for politicians to continue to get elected, the evidence does not point to this being a deciding factor at this point. The debate is a fluid one. We all need to become partners in a debate on the nature of democracy itself in our very changed world, which will then lead to ways and means whereby ICTs can be strategic tools for the democratic process.
Governments are concerned about the decline in public approval of their institutions. There are tools available that can help reverse this decline - it is now a question of how extensively these tools can be used to effect this change. As many studies and books on e-democracy are pointing out, it is becoming increasingly important to engage the citizen. Tools for consultation are still run from the top down but, if done properly, the goals of an interactive government and an interactive citizenry can be reached.
Democracy as practiced by many countries is an evolving concept. The principles and practice of democratic ideals vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but underpinning all democracies are the underlying tenets of liberal democracy as evolved in the past two to three hundred years. Democracy is not a static subject. There is representative democracy (and many electoral and legislative forms of this type of democracy), participatory democracy (practiced in some jurisdictions, such as the town hall meetings tradition in the United States), and direct democracy (the closest example of this today is the practice of taking decisions of national importance by a referendum amongst the electorate).
These are but a few examples. There is a hint that the evolution of e-democracy could take us into a new form of democracy, which would reflect a wider voice of the public. But there is no clear vision of what such a democracy would entail and how it would differ from current practices or reflect the overall society.
The question is will ICTs and the tools that continue to be developed enable people to have access to more information (often a negative if there is too much information or a lack of organization or critical skills to assess the importance of the information that can then be turned into knowledge), and to have the ability to better communicate with government. Both these abilities could be a result of the rapid transformation of our collective societies because of the emergence of these information and communication technologies.
However, as we have learned, technology is only a medium that forms new and important trends in society to the extent that technologies are driven by new ideas and conceptual constructs which contain innovation and creativity. Technology is not the creator of change, but simply a tool that allows the creation of change. Usage of technologies, no matter their form, result in cultural evolutions because of the way people adapt to them. Implementation of new technologies may change the way societies organize and administer themselves but they are never the driver of ideas only the facilitator. Original ideas come from the mind of one person or from collective debate that then drives philosophical, cultural, societal, organizational, and administrative change. Thus, the usage of ICTs for the purposes of e-democracy principles, as articulated to date, is only the beginning, and simply one tool on the road to possible new forms of democracy. It is how we use this tool and the way in which we frame the debate that will result in these new forms and an extension of our current structures of democracy.
Whatever the outcome of the debate, it is becoming apparent that the emergence of e-democracy is starting to have some impact on governments and society alike. It is the continued practice of e-democracy, the development of new tools and ideas and a debate on the overall subject of democracy itself that will bring us to a possible new plateau of a system of democracy that will reflect our increasingly changing culture and societies. This is not a suggestion to radically change what we have but to build on the strength of the forms of democracy that have been formed over the past centuries.
Thomas Riley is available for consultations, preparation of reports, presenting workshops or delivering speeches at conferences and seminars on e-government, e-governance and e-democracy. Please contact me at the email address below for further details.
A recent Report on Knowledge Management and Technology produced by the Commonwealth Centre for e-Governance can be found at:
Thomas B. Riley Tom@www.Rileyis.com
Executive Director and Chair
Commonwealth Centre for Electronic Governance
www.electronicgov.net and www.rileyis.com
Visiting Professor, University of Glasgow
President, Riley Information Services Inc.