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Saving Democracy from the Information Age

Saving Democracy from the Information Age

For the past 10 years, governments have had unprecedented opportunities to use technology to connect directly with citizens. So why haven’t they?

“Is this the end of politics as we know it?”

In the United States, journalists around the country were recently falling over each other to write their local article on the Internet and the presidential election. People are using the Internet to “MeetUp.com” and get involved in the presidential campaign of their choice. It is a real story.

I was actually asked the “end of politics” question by a reporter back in 1994 when E-Democracy.Org created the world’s first election-oriented Web site. Since then I have seen waves of excess hype and scepticism about the role of new media in elections, governance and community.

As far as I can tell, the outcomes of elections, despite the Internet, are pretty much the same — someone wins and someone loses. Most citizens remain cynical about politics and government. Beyond sorting through their e-mail and putting their biography online, politicians seem content to ignore online opportunities in governance until the next election cycle.

Something has changed.

For the past 10 years, governments have had the opportunity to use information and communication technologies through e-government to connect directly with citizens. Government has had the opportunity to become more accountable and transparent, and to build the trust of citizens. Instead, most governments have taken the path of services first and democracy later. Access to information has become easier and many representative processes are more open than before the Internet, but for the most part, what citizens experience has changed little.

Taking a path is different from choosing a path. The vast majority of government “customers” want convenience and efficient service delivery; however, in democracies we are also “citizens”. We are the owners of government. Government has focused on the one-way uses of the Internet and service transactions because few citizens have asked for anything different. Democracy in the ­information age is not a choice that will exist based on citizen demand.

What has changed is that “politics as usual” has figured out how to use the Internet to further their narrow interests. Online advocacy, while democratizing in many ways, is primarily used to generate noise geared towards our representatives and public processes.

Governments in wired countries now face a fundamental challenge. Political interests are raising their voices online, but governments, including our elected officials and representative institutions, are largely unable to “listen” online. When speaking in Eastern Europe, it really hit me: as designed, e-government is not able to accommodate the will of the people. The lack of investment in the online needs of representative democracy, compared to large investments in administrative services, is changing the balance of power in our democracies.

Despite significant policy explorations by governments in the United Kingdom, Sweden and the Victorian ­parliament, for example, it is amazing that the only state or nation to adopt a formal e-democracy policy is Queensland. Not that you need a policy to have significant government-based e­-democracy activity, but it helps to move beyond rhetoric and experiments to real investments that save democracy from the negative aspects of the information age.

What Should Be Done?

At a World Summit on the Information Society session in Geneva, I promoted “democratic evolution” over the path of partisan “virtual civil war”. (Check back with me after the 2004 US election. I predict online campaigning by “politics as usual” will poison many a citizen’s view of the medium in politics and governance.) Governments, as democracies, must act now in specific ways to ensure their ability to e-listen to citizens, to make better public decisions and to more effectively engage the public, civic organizations and business as they implement public policy.

In my Geneva speech, I suggested that the following best e-democracy practices be made universal thorough the rule of law:

1. All public meeting notices with agendas and all public documents to be distributed at that meeting must now also be posted online.

2. All representative and regulatory bodies must make all proposed legislation and amendments available online the minute they are distributed as a public document to anyone.

3. Every citizen must have the ability to access up-to-date listings of all those who represent them at every level of government. Technology and practices must be implemented to allow citizens and, very importantly, elected and appointed officials to communicate effectively online with one another.

4. Funding must be provided and technology implemented to ensure citizens the right to be notified via e-mail about new government decisions and information based on their interests and where they live.

Overall, when it comes to e-government funding, I suggest that no less than 10 percent be set aside for citizen input and democracy. Citizen input embraces “two-way” communication including usability testing, user focus groups, site feedback systems and surveys, and special applications designed for representative institutions and elected officials.

After speaking hundreds of times across 24 countries, mostly to e-democracy interested governments, it is clear to me that what is possible is not probable. The best practices and e-democracy technologies are not being effectively shared. If we want the demonstrated potential of the new medium to spread, democratic intent will be required. The default path I see, without a political and resource commitment, is democratic decline. As we enter the second decade of e-democracy activity, now is the time to use the amazing online tools before us and build information-age democracy for our own and future generations.

Steven Clift is an international e-democracy expert and board chair of E-Democracy.Org. His article for the United Nations on e-government and democracy is available from: http://publicus.net/e-government/

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