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Moving to e-democracy, will UK be the first in EU?

E-democracy, fuelled by new technologies, is more than a tool of efficiency, customer service or good public relations – it could help create a refreshed public space and a more accountable democracy.

E-democracy may be the 21st century’s most seductive idea. Imagine technology and democracy uniting to overcome distance and time, bringing participation, deliberation, and choice to citizens at the time and place of their choosing. Goodbye, then to “attack ads” and single-issue politics. E-democracy will return the political agenda to citizens. Or so the dream goes. Can the dream become reality? Will e-democracy develop into knee-jerk direct democracy, with every citizen voting on every issue? Will dangerous minorities gain new life online? An a priori solution to these practical questions seems unlikely. We must look to practical experience to find the true merit of e-democracy.

Some European Union countries like the UK might offer obvious place to look for a fair trial of e-democracy. UK is wealthy, internet-aware, and searching for ways to re-engage increasingly indifferent voters. But even in these favourable conditions, e-democracy has not yet flourished in the UK.

UK government working party set up after the 1997 general election to examine and review electoral procedures, recommended that pilot schemes of innovative electoral procedures should be used to evaluate their effectiveness, and that those shown to be beneficial should be implemented more widely. The recommendations of the working party were given effect by the Representation of the People Act 2000, which allowed local authorities to run innovative electoral pilot schemes at local elections in England and Wales. The Government said that the Act would “ensure that the UK’s electoral system is modern, user-friendly and takes account of technological developments and the growing demands on people’s time”. UK Government also initiated in summer 2002 a public consultation exercise on the development of e-democracy, in which it made clear that its goal was to facilitate ‘an e-enabled general election sometime after 2006’ and committed expenditure totalling £30m over three years to the expansion of e-voting pilot schemes.

Last May 2003, UK voters have been offered to vote on the internet, digital television and by text messaging. One in five people in the areas piloting e-voting schemes in the local elections used the new methods to cast their votes. This was the biggest test of new voting technology in the world, with 59 local authorities taking part in the pilot schemes. Around 6.5m people were able to vote by digital television, the internet, touch telephone, text message or by post. Electronic counting machines were also used as part of the process to modernise and reinvigorate the election process. Areas running all-postal ballots recorded an average turnout of just under 50 per cent – two per cent higher than the all-postal pilots last year and far ahead of turnout of around one third elsewhere. Reports said that the e-pilots went well, with no reported security problems.

{{From e-voting to e-participation}}

One worry about e-democracy is rooted in the tension between technophile culture and the culture of democratic theory. Some technophiles suppose that the proper goal of e-democracy is direct democracy, and that this will entail an end to representative government. On the other side of this divide, democratic theorists wonder whether e-democracy is anything more than “instant polling” – suitable for selection of all-star teams, but hopelessly blunt as a tool for solving fine-grained problems of public policy. Both worries share a core: that e-democracy is somehow a fundamental change to democratic practices, involving an entirely new mode of populist democratic life, bearing either great benefits or unbearable burdens. There is no easy answer to these worries. The real effects of e-democracy will largely depend on the technologies employed and on the political culture of the users. But such uncertainties should not lead to an automatic embrace of pessimism. There is nothing about e-democracy that entails populism and the attendant risk of a tyrannical direct democracy. E-voting is just the visible emerging piece of the “e-democracy iceberg”, the immersed part is more about e-participation like e-consultation or online citizens’ advisory panels and may show us the ways how we can democratise the ‘e’ rather than just making democracy electronic.

UK government has identified during the summer 2002 consultation 3 main drivers to carry the e-participation case:

. Disengagement from traditional political structures and processes – but continuing interest in political issues and action
. The concept of “public value” for public services depends on a process of participation and consent
. Growth and potential of new communication technologies to build and empower communities and allow for greater engagement between citizens, representatives and government

The have elaborated a possible model of e-participation implementation :

With several challenges identified:

. Challenge of scale – how can technology enable an individual’s voice to be heard and not lost in the mass debate; how can technology support governments to listen and respond to comments from individuals.
. Building capacity & active citizenship – designing technology to constructively encourage deliberation by citizens on public issues.
. Ensuring coherence – allowing a holistic view of policy-making. There is a need to ensure that knowledge that is input at each stage is made available appropriately at other stages of the process so as to enable more informed decision making by governments and citizens.
. Evaluating e-engagement – there is a need to understand how to assess the benefits and impacts of e-democracy tools on political decision-making.
. Ensuring commitment – governments need to adapt structures and decision-making processes to ensure that the results gathered with e-democracy tools are analysed, disseminated and used.

So to define their strategy to implement e-participation the UK government declared that “The aim and objectives of an e-democracy policy will only be achieved if the ICT tools are available to everyone, effective as a means for democratic participation and trusted by all participants. Therefore, the Government further proposes that the two-track e-democracy policy be underpinned by five principles:

. Inclusion – a voice for all
. Openness – electronic provision of information
. Security and privacy – a safe place
. Responsiveness – listening and responding to people
. Deliberation – making the most of people’s ideas

But there are still a lot of obstacles for such government initiatives:

The first and most important obstacle to full evaluation of e-democracy is, simply, cost. After the bursting of the dot-com bubble, governments are quite reasonably suspicious of wise persons bearing ICTs. While here-and-now issues of service delivery, efficiency, security and inter-operability crowd public servants’ agendas, there is little incentive to invest money and effort in blue-sky e-democracy projects.

The second obstacle, and only slightly behind, are the jurisdictional barriers to e-democracy. The issues most in need of public discussion often cut across departmental boundaries. E-democracy exercises are hampered to the extent that the inevitable problems of their introduction reinforce pre-existing problems of coordination.

A third obstacle to e-democracy is the absence of political will. This can emerge even when passion for democracy overcomes jurisdictional barriers. Politicians, the public service sector and citizens need to share willingness to take up the new methods of e-democracy. It is difficult to assess when these wills have converged, and even more so to measure successful implementation of e-democracy: lower crime rates, better local services, more citizens expressing satisfaction with government?

The fourth and final obstacle to e-democracy is precisely the element of uncertainty or risk. If e-democracy may involve a higher level of risk than existing democratic societies are willing to accept – in terms of the reform of institutions which have long worked well or at least adequately – why choose it?

It is hard to justify supporting e-democracy while its goals and conditions of success remain elusive. But the experience of UK suggests that the imaginative use of e-democracy may in time make it integral to a healthier civic landscape.


{This article is for non-commercial use. It is based on documents from the UK Office of the e-Envoy, from the UK Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and from K.Cluver}

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