« e-Democracy: who dares? »
I want to share with you something that I discovered that was very surprising for me on Monday. Monday last week I discovered for the first time that we are really and truly in the internet age.
Now, this to me seems to be very, very important for understanding what democracy is about in the electronic age and what we can deliver with e-democracy. We are really in the internet age. If we think about how we use technologies in our day-to-day lives, whether it is Skype or some other technology that we are using, they are very much fundamental to everything we do, they shape how we got here to this conference today, they shape how we are going to communicate with our families later on, how we will communicate with our organisations and so on. So they are fundamental to what we do.
Well, I am also aware that there have been very many e-democracy initiatives led by both governments and citizens, some of which have been a success but more of which have been a failure and we are going to talk more about those - both myself and Vasilis I think - in the next few minutes.
There is also, and I think this is fundamental to this whole conference in the next few days, significant uncertainties about what technology should be doing for democracy. Should it be reinforcing existing institutions of democracy by supporting politicians and parliaments in their work and governments more generally by enhancing transparency for example? Should it be engaging citizens more directly in the policy process in decision-making and so on? Should it be seeking to improve the quality of deliberation so that citizens have more information and more knowledge with which to understand the political process? Should it be about building communities - actually helping communities to develop the resources that they have?
I am going to deal with three very brief questions in the few minutes that I have available. Like all good academics, I can of course expand on this indefinitely if you really want me to talk forever but I am going to try and keep my comments fairly brief.
So, let me start with our first question: where are we now in relation to e-democracy? And I want us to think about governments versus citizens here. Governments I think are generally, in Europe, on the cusp of e-democracy. That is they are not quite there yet. They have done a lot of experimentation, the Council of Europe as part of its CAHDE work ( Ad Hoc Committee on e-Democracy, sorry, for those of you who do not know about CAHDE), has spent the last two years among other things collecting information on what every country in Europe is doing in relation to e-democracy. And most countries, not all, but most countries can claim to be doing some things in relation to enhancing democracy using new technologies. There have been lots of experiments: for example we can point to the e-voting experiments in Switzerland and Estonia, some would claim they are not experiments but real life, that’s not the debate I want to get into, but they provide us with real life examples of what is happening in relation to e-voting. In other countries developing e-parliament solutions are becoming very important and I see that Gherardo Casini is here from the United Nations talking about that whole project that they’ve developed in relation to that later in the week. In other countries there are whole systems of electronic petitioning taking place: in Scotland, in Germany, and Estonia as well has a version of this, and various other countries as well are doing e-petitioning. Governments are sponsoring a whole range of things that might take place to enhance democracy. There has also been a big explosion in terms of e-consultation and e-forums in different countries.
The second question that I was going to answer is “how do we get here?” I will do it very quickly; I will allow Vasilis to do the more detailed historical process, but I think the interesting point I would want to draw out is that where governments have got to in relation to e-democracy is to come through e-government. So they started first of all putting services to citizens on-line, providing websites, creating systems in which you could order, pay your taxes, buy products and so on from the government, replicating the business sector, the commercial sector in terms of that model and then they have added on e-democracy. So we see in many countries, and this is particularly true of my own country, the United Kingdom, that governments see e-democracy as another service which it might provide citizens with. It is starting to move away from that now but in the past it was actually described as a service: e-democracy. Citizens do not see e-democracy in that way, they see a whole range of different things which they are using online and they have come to the political process, where they have done so at all, through their social and economic activity on the internet. Again they do not distinguish what is a government website and what is a commercial website in terms of how they might use it. They might complain about the government website which has a hundred and one different things which you can do on it whereas if you go to your travel agent website, Expedia, or if you go to a book website, wherever, you can only do one real thing on it, making it much easier to use. But they do not really distinguish them in terms of how they would want to use these websites, how they would want to use these technologies. So, what we have is governments expecting citizens to use their technologies in a whole range of different ways which do not reflect the repertoires of action and the approach to using the technologies which citizens have. This is very much true of my students, but also true I think of the wider communities in which we live.
Which leads me to the third question I have got, which is: “where are we going ?” And again I am going to be fairly brief here so there is time for questions but the real thing about where are we going I think is this challenge: to create democratic institutions that people want to access and know how to access when they want to without having to jump through lots of hoops, lots of leaps. So when I want to buy a book, I do not have to go through lots of steps; I have got a preferred supplier that I use to buy a book. When I want to book an airline ticket, I go to a particular travel agent and do that. I do not have to do lots and lots of searching around websites trying to find it. Now, if I want to save lots of money I might do, but this is the sort of repertoires of actions that citizens have and we have to find ways of supporting citizens in that process.
I want to finish by talking therefore about both the potential and the risks of e-democracy. The potential for e-democracy is great. If we can seize this moment - and I think this is the moment: we have arrived at the internet age at last - if we seize this moment, then we can actually make democracy more efficient in terms of how it works for citizens, more effective therefore in terms of the way in which it approaches citizens, and more effective in terms of the way in which it builds consensus, provides opportunities, for transparency, in short: makes democracy work better.
But there are significant risks for governments in going down this route. And I am going to finish on a negative note by just highlighting a few of the risks which I think governments face. One is the privacy risk. That is that governments who use these technologies for a whole range of things, from countering terrorism through to promoting democracy, run the risk of undermining their good democratic works by using the technology in anti or non democratic ways in which citizens feel that they are being watched. And you are not going to participate in a potentially “dangerous” discussion if you feel the government is watching you and trying to catch you out. So I think in certain established democracies this is less of a problem but in less established democracies the issue of privacy is a significant issue which governments need to tackle.
Finally, and I think this is a positive risk so I am going to end in a positive note, is that failure is inevitable if we go down the e-democracy route. If we are going to be bold, and take risks there will be failures, there have already been failures and there will be more but we can learn from these failures and in that way e-democracy will build slowly into something which becomes part of the mainstream activity of those very young people that I was referring to at the start of my presentation.
Thank you very much for listening to me.