received on 26/11/08
Report on workshop 6: International and regulatory context
Lasse Berntzen, Associate Professor,
Faculty of Social Science, Vestfold University College, Norway
The workshop was organised as two half day sessions. The aim of the first session was to update workshop participants on current developments within e-government and e-democracy. The second session took a closer look at one specific aspect of e-democracy evolution: The need for regulation of e-democracy.
This report summarizes important issues raised by the speakers. Where appropriate, the discussion of regulatory aspects is included in the summary of each issue.
The future of e-government and e-democracy
Thanassis Chrissafis addressed the current challenges of e-democracy as seen from the European Commission: Fighting the perceived democratic deficit, which requires a new relationship between politicians and citizens, and which is particularly challenging at EU level; reconnecting citizens with politics and policy-making, e.g. with a view to the next European elections and sustaining citizens’ involvement beyond 2009; and reducing the complexity of decision-making and legislation processes in an enlarged EU of 27 countries, in addition to the increasing number of cross-border issues.
Maria Wimmer presented two scenarios developed as part of an EC funded study on the future of e-government (http://www.egovrtd2020.org). In the first scenario, “ambient government”, citizens have a high confidence in government to effectively and efficiently settle issues for the common good. Physical contact between government and citizens is limited since e-services are considered to be of high quality. Decision making is transparent, and local decision making power is increased on behalf of centralized decision making.
The other scenario, “incident politics” gives a more pessimistic outlook. In this scenario, a two-class society emerges. Trust in government is limited because the government is not able to cope with expectations. The society becomes more individualistic, as young, well-educated citizens are mobile and able to adapt, while older citizens with limited understanding of ICT are left out. Due to a disruptive environment, citizens demand security before privacy, and ICT is deployed for that purpose, as well as to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government.
Most of the issues raised by the other speakers show this ambivalence. On one hand, e-government and e-democracy have great potentials; on the other hand, there are possible negative outcomes.
The complexity of e-democracy
The following model presented by the rapporteur shows the complexity of e-government and e-democracy. In order to let citizens take active part in the information society, some basic requirements need to be in place:
First, the underlying infrastructure needs to be present. Next, citizens must have access to appropriate technology. If they do not have access to such technology at home, there must be other options, either by using publicly accessible terminals or through intermediaries. To include disadvantaged groups, e-services must be accessible. Accessibility is partly provided through technological solutions, but may also refer to specialised content, e.g. translations of content into foreign languages. In order to facilitate the use of e-services, it is also necessary to provide relevant education and training.
E-inclusion is a term used to describe activities aimed at including disadvantaged groups in the information society, and is an important cornerstone for the adoption of e-government and e-democracy. In the model above, e-inclusion encompass access to technology, accessibility, as well as the provision of education and training.
Several speakers stressed the importance of e-inclusion. Peter Ferdinand warned that groups may be marginalised due to introduction of new technology: “So on one hand you have the possibility that e-democracy may facilitate the integration, the involvement of certain groups of the society, but at the same time, it may for practical reasons mean that other groups of the society now become less equal than before.“
Jeremy Millard pointed out that there has been visible progress in this area. His research showed that in 2005 only 20% of 30 EU+ member states had inclusive e-government policies, while in 2007 more than 80% of the states had adopted such policies. In 2005 only 10% of the states had policies for multi-channel delivery. The 2007 survey showed an increase to 50%. He also pointed out the importance of intermediaries as facilitators of e-government and e-democracy.
The close connection between democracy and fundamental rights was emphasised by Evika Karamagioli. E-democracy rules and regulatory frameworks should guarantee the respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech and the right to privacy.
Other speakers focused on access to information and transparency as significant prerequisites for a democratic society: Michael Stanley-Jones explained that the access to information and transparency is one of the cornerstones of the Aarhus convention. Sylvia Kierkegaard discussed the current state of freedom of information, and showed some of the complex issues that need to be addressed when discussing regulatory mechanisms. Blanca Rodríguez Antigüedad gave practical examples of the efforts by the Spanish government to implement access to information in their legislation.
The issues of data protection and security were another key point frequently mentioned. Peter Ferdinand gave several examples of potential security pitfalls of e-democracy, including the possibility of foreign intervention in democratic processes in another country, and that information submitted by citizens may be misused by the authorities.
A common issue addressed by the speakers was the importance of trust. Trust is again closely connected to data protection and security. To build trust is possibly the most important task for securing continuing evolution of e-government and e-democracy.
Regulation is one approach to achieve trust. Regulations could include proactive disclosure of data held by authorities with possibility for the individuals to correct and control their personal data. Regulations could also put clear constraints on the use of data collected through e-government and e-democracy applications, e.g. by requiring government agencies to publish legal binding privacy statements on how information can and will be used.
Web 2.0 is used to describe a concept for new ways of utilising the world wide web for creativity, sharing and collaboration. Valerie Frissen pointed out that innovation in the public sector often is slow and problematic, and this is a striking discrepancy compared to the high deployment and innovative use of ICT in civil society, most notably through Web 2.0 applications. She defined Web 2.0 in the following way: An open web environment which activates users in social networks to produce value resulting in shifting user-producer relations. Traditional consumers suddenly find themselves as producers. Successful Web 2.0 applications (like Facebook, mySpace, Flickr, YouTube) are based on a bottom-up approach which is different from the traditional government initiated top-down approach. Such applications have so far shown an amazing degree of success, while the same does not hold for the top-down initiatives.
Governments should therefore learn from Web 2.0, both as an inspiration for creating new and innovative services, but also as a possible source for input into established democratic processes. One specific challenge for is to unleash the potential created by user generated content.
Web 2.0 also introduces new challenges related to regulation. User generated content blurs the distinction between traditional mass media and citizen journalism. Social networks also challenge the right to privacy in new ways
Kim Viborg Andersen pointed out that the lack of uptake of e-government and e-democracy services may partially be caused by lack of media interest. He argued that introducing services in highly visible areas like the health sector may cause more media interest and therefore attract more attention among citizens.
Some speakers mentioned the need for further research. The fields of e-government and e-democracy are rapidly evolving, due to the speed of technological innovations combined with an eagerness to reform both government procedures and democracy. Thanassis Chrissafis gave an overview of current developments in e-participation research within the EU, and announced that funding for e-participation research would be reintroduced in the 7th framework programme. All stakeholders should, however, be encouraged to initiate and fund research projects in these areas.
There is an expressed need for regulation of e-democracy. As one of the workshop participants commented in the first session: “Without regulation authorities can do whatever they want”.
The purpose of regulation is to protect the interests of the stakeholders, including empowerment of citizens and safeguarding democracy. Regulation should also include the protection of fundamental rights of citizens in the new setting represented by the information society.
It will always be a conflict between the need for anonymity and confidentiality on one hand and for identity and authentication on the other hand. Regulation is one approach to balance these needs.
All points discussed earlier have regulatory aspects. Regulation is needed to secure e-inclusion and fundamental rights. Regulation is also needed for data protection and security, and is an important enabling factor for building trust.
Thomas Buchsbaum presented different ways in which E-democracy can be regulated: Through legislation, through quasi-state regulation (“soft law”), through agreements between stakeholders, and behavioural norms. Regulation can be done within existing regulatory frameworks, but also by separate e-acts or rules. He also showed examples of different degrees of government involvement, including the recent Spanish Law on electronic access to information, the Tuscany regional Act 69/2007 on democratic participation, the ICELE Civic Leadership Blogging Guidebook (soft law), and the Dutch e-Charter (community-own rules).
Internet is a good example of self-regulation. David Souter pointed out that the Internet has become an extremely important force in the society without much government involvement at all.
Several speakers warned against over-regulation, and promoted the idea of self-regulation where appropriate. Regulation must promote, not be a barrier to grass root initiatives. It is necessary to do thorough analysis of the feasibility of different approaches of regulation
All layers of the model introduced by the rapporteur are closely interrelated with regulatory aspects. Regulation should secure access to technology, provide for accessibility, ensure education and training, secure fundamental rights in the context of new technology, set requirements for technology to protect privacy, identity and anonymity, and build the necessary confidence that allows people to trust the new way of doing government business and enhance democracy.
Web 2.0 represents a major change in the use of ICT. Both e-government and e-democracy must learn from the success of Web 2.0 applications.
The Council of Europe should continue work on regulatory aspects based on its already strong commitment to human rights and justice.