Our perception of government and how it works has been traditionally based on all those Civics lessons: we exercise the right to vote to send someone to represent our interests, to craft laws, and to implement them at the local or national level. While the system has perhaps worked all this time (despite the recent loud protestations of some), it is far from perfect.
There are those who feel that their voice isn’t being heard, whether they belong to the minority or not; sometimes the issue they feel so strongly about seems to be nowhere near the elected politicians’ radar. And most everyone has this perception of the government as this bureaucratic monolith —and one has to go through labyrinthine procedures that makes the expression of opinion not worth it. For many, the only recourse for this dissatisfaction is to simply vote these ‘representatives’ out of office—but what happens then, in the meantime, before the next election cycle?
Technology is changing the model, because it has taken the things that were traditionally the purview of government and given these directly to the citizenry: the access to information and the mechanisms for social mobilization. As citizens of the 21st century, we now have information available at the touch or swipe of a finger. With this access to knowledge comes the urgency to speak out about it—and technology has also given us the platforms to go online to express opinion, gather consensus and even mobilize a community. It is this shifting of the dynamics through the use of technology and new media that is the core of the phenomenon of e-democracy.
Teresa Harrison is a Professor of Communication and a Faculty Fellow at the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany. She believes it is this use of communication and information technologies that has the potential to enhance and improve upon the practices and processes of democracy.
“Those who are interested in e-democracy have generally focused on how and to what extent existing digital tools like social media can create or facilitate newer democratic practices, beyond simply voting or physical demonstrations,” Professor Harrison says. “New media has popularized social media campaigns, blogging and online petitioning as examples of how people can now express their opinions and lobby for change.”
Government institutions have already taken advantage of the capabilities of technology to better serve their constituencies: many government services are now available and delivered online. Similarly, disseminating information online can reach more people, at a more immediate rate; government agencies now have and manage Facebook accounts or Twitter handles.
Professor Harrison believes that the “mainstream” institutions are now adapting: “Some government organizations are (now) using social media to engage with the public…and major news media now watch what is happening in social media to make decisions as to which issues to cover and how much resources to devote in covering them.”
The possibilities go well beyond processing documents online, or updating the town on the latest municipal ordinances: what if individual citizens or communities can actually use technology to directly engage the government—to actually have a say in which documents should be processed, or what those ordinances should contain?
Speaking out, and involving everyone in the conversation
The relative ease at which people can now express their opinions is important in the concept of e-democracy, because this changes how they see themselves, from mere spectators to empowered participants in the democratic process. The presence of an online venue can identify other interested members of the community, who then can also engage and respond.
Sharna Quirke has studied how governments in both the local and national levels have used technology to facilitate engagement with their constituents. She sees this communal discourse with the government as crucial in e-democracy:
“People are more inclined to express their opinion because its easier to do so from a laptop or tablet and its more likely to be heard or seen. Previously, you would have to write a letter the editor of a newspaper or to your MP, with no guarantee of it being read, much less published. But if you put your position forth in a blog, or an online discussion or even through Twitter, you not only get a more gratifying way to speak out, you may also get other people interested (in these issues).”
Even with digital technology becoming more ubiquitous by the day, government-citizen engagement has remained the same: information is managed and processed by the government before distribution to the public. To express sentiment or feedback, the citizen goes through formal channels and await a response. The exchanges are essentially bidirectional, between the government and the concerned citizen.
e-Democracy turns these conversations into a more inclusive model that is, as Ms. Quirke describes, more triangular in nature.
An upending of the politician-constituent dynamic may be in the offing too. While duly elected officials in theory represent the interests of the public, having distinct political agendas may bias this representation. Political scientist Aries Arugay describes this as the “transactional cost”, where the official takes these interests and tailors them for the sake of political expediency. Dr. Arugay believes that an informed, aware citizenry can reduce, if not eliminate altogether, this cost.
“While these agents still possess political power, citizens can now exercise (their) voice, demand transparency, or even pressure governments to be more responsive (through technology) …it now makes governance (for the politician) more challenging, to say the least,” Dr. Arugay says.
Engagement equals participation: how e-democracy works
As more of us utilize online tools and social media, governments are now looking for ways to take advantage of these changing attitudes. Recognizing this evolution of how communities want to engage and participate has prompted numerous multi-sectoral partnerships that look at how online practices can be utilized to enhance democratic processes.
e-DEMOCRACY INITIATIVES THAT HAVE BEEN IMPLEMENTED WORLDWIDE:
- In 2011 , the Obama Administration created the online, non-partisan portal“We the People” (WtP) where citizens can directly send their petitions. A response within 60 days is pledged for any petition that garnered more than 100,000 signatures. https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/
- To see the archived petitions during the Obama Administration: https://petitions.obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/
- The Canadian federal government has a similar portal, which promises a response within 45 days: https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Home/Index
- The Centre for e-Democracy in Canada has been running the Internet Voting Project, which has been studying the attitudes and feasibility of online voting during elections. Pilot projects have been instituted in select Ontario municipalities: https://www.internetvotingproject.com/
- Crowdsourcing was used in Iceland to determine representation for constitutional reforms as a response to the 2009 economic crisis.
- Online programs were set up by the local government of Milton Keynes, UK to increase youth participation in political and civic activities, which was then expanded to online citizen consultations on public transport and urban development initiatives.
The government should willingly reciprocate the citizens’ desire to engage—and doing this using online mechanisms have had tangible effects. Professor Harrison cites the Obama Administration’s online petition portal “We the People” (WtP) as an established venue for direct communication between the government and its citizens. From its inception, WtP has gathered over 40 million signatures for 480,000 different petitions, covering issues from civil rights to homeland security, to government reform. For Dr. Harrison, WtP is an example of a mechanism that successfully generates interest and participation, and one that fosters a more direct engagement that can be devoid of any mediation from political party, or media organization:
“Electronic petitioning is an interesting democratic phenomenon because it enables ordinary citizens to express opinions and mobilize support for them… we’d like to say that WtP has actually influenced some of the Obama Administration’s policies. Of course, no one knows what effect WtP may have in the future, but at this time it still is available in the Trump Administration.”
Do we see a future where the concepts and practice of e-democracy are not just responses to identified issues, but rather as ingrained components in the political structure? Ms. Quirke believes that once there is a better understanding on how online initiatives actually impact policy development and delivery, this may well be the case:
“A culture change is needed both within the bureaucratic and political levels of government,” Ms. Quirke proposes, “so that online initiatives can be used in tandem with the more traditional offline mechanisms of engagement, and gradually roll these out to address more topical or contentious issues.”
Professor Harrison concurs that with the advances in technology there must be a corresponding willingness of leaders and institutions to learn this new way of ‘listening’ and interacting with the online public, with an important caveat: “This of course cannot mean listening only to the loudest and strongest voices,” she cautions, “avoiding marginalization in contemporary society requires us finding ways to make it possible for everyone to have access, and to look for ways to resolve conflict and abuse, which happens in social media in the form of trolling, cyber-bullying and the like.”
With a more widespread adoption of these online processes comes new societal responsibilities. Dr. Arugay believes that the availability or access to technology, as well as the literacy to use it does not automatically translate to political efficacy. Universal access to these technologies is crucial
, to prevent the creation of new clusters of privilege and inequality. And there is the challenge of sifting through sources of “information”, and parsing which is truth.
But what is beyond question is that the wired, 21st century citizen—more aware, more activist— is looking for newer, more direct ways to engage with government and participate in governance. With technology evolving by the day, there will indeed be a future in which everyone can represent their own interests and engage government in meaningful and productive discussions. In that tomorrow we may well see the elected representative—long a fixture in government and Civics class—become a relic of times past.