Speech by De la Quadra Salcedo. Conclusion Session.
Allow me to begin by saying how pleased I am to have taken part in this forum. I have attended all of the sessions and feel that we have made what might be described as a “Kantian effort of rationalization” with regard to new technologies and electronic democracy, by endeavouring to answer three questions: “What can we know?”, “What can we expect?” and “What should we do?”.
One way or another we have tried to answer all of these questions. Information technologies are now a reality which we cannot ignore. A reality which is in some ways paradoxical because information technologies are a human invention but are, on the other hand, in some respects like a natural phenomenon. They are human creations and as such the opposite of a natural phenomenon, but once established they take on their own logic and develop their own momentum and this raises questions and challenges to which we have sought to respond.
ICTs and the opportunities they offer for electronic democracy, with both their advantages and disadvantages, cannot be ignored. They offer advantages in that they open up a world of opportunities for spontaneous expression to individuals and society by providing them with a platform for making their opinions known; their personal opinions and those of any groups to which they may belong. They also afford the public authorities the opportunity to take account of such opinions, however disparate they may be. And they are probably unavoidably disparate in that they reflect, as I said earlier, spontaneous and diverse interests, which are not necessarily shaped by organisations, political parties or trade unions, for example, but are the product of individual reactions or of informal groups. But that is also why they have a certain value which should not be ignored but taken into account by the public authorities. ICTs also offer citizens possibilities of exercising some control over public affairs, firstly because they provide access to information about what political representatives are doing and secondly because they give individuals and groups the opportunity to take part in the decision-making process.
These are undeniable advantages. However, there are also risks, which are not necessarily inevitable or intrinsic but only potential. One of the risks I would like to draw attention to is the possibility of a digital divide. This can be avoided by taking the appropriate political measures, including giving people training in these new technologies to ensure that being unfamiliar with ICTs does not prevent them from having access to the information society and its benefits. This quite apart from the need to ensure that people have access to ICTs, no matter where they live, so that the unavailability of technological means does not also result in a digital barrier or divide.
These are difficulties and risks, which, as I have already said, can be overcome. However, there is another risk which is probably just as important and that is the excess of information. In the information society with its new technologies there is sometimes too much information. What is needed, as we saw in some of the workshops, is probably some new intermediaries between this mass of information and the end users; intermediaries giving our citizens the confidence to organise such information, so that they can be selective and not be overwhelmed.
Google was of course mentioned but it is possible that other intermediaries will emerge. Intermediaries that every member of the public will have confidence in; they might be universities, journalists or blogs. We do not know what new intermediaries will help to organise this excessive build-up of information – which can be confusing when there is too much of it – into a form that is more accessible and easier to understand.
The public authorities need to make the most of these advantages and avoid the disadvantages. In order to do so, they must be conscious that electronic democracy is not a substitute for democracy, but that it is a tool for strengthening and enriching our democracy.
Indeed, representative democracy relies on citizens showing commitment to integrated projects, which, per se, involve a juggling act between means and ends – means which are always scarce and ends which are always diverse and sometimes contradictory or require too many resources. As a result we are obliged to prioritise and co-ordinate our activities so as to eliminate contradictions between our different objectives. This hierarchy of objectives reflects a hierarchy of values and this is a characteristic of representative democracy, which requires citizens to take a comprehensive view of all the problems and choose what can be done in keeping with the scarce resources available.
Their role is therefore irreplaceable but they sometimes come up against rigidity, bureaucracy, and such like and that is what recourse to electronic democracy and the use of information technology can help avoid, by offering ways of keeping the public better informed of what their elected representatives and governments are doing and making it possible for citizens to exercise greater control over the public authorities and also to take part in decision-making processes.
The public authorities must also taken into account and attempt to ward off one of the risks that I mentioned – the excess of information and related problems – by providing citizens with public sector-related information in a structured and accessible form enabling them easily to exercise their power of supervision and their right to be informed of what their representatives are doing.
We are talking here about all aspects of digital democracy. I believe that there are many dimensions and levels to digital democracy. It is, of course, to be found in participation in the decision-making process, the highest level of which is the legislative level. But democracy is also applicable to the administration and the executive, i.e. electronic governance in the strict sense of the term. It is important that the public participate through the use of information technologies at these levels where discretionary power is significant and where important political decisions are taken in the legislation implementation stage. This gives them the opportunity to ensure that both the government and the administration comply with the golden rule that all public authorities and public services have to abide by the law, in other words, the principle of complying with the wishes of the majority, not only when legislation is being drafted, but also when the law is being applied on a day-to-day basis. And in this connection I would like to finish by mentioning that a law on electronic access to public services was enacted in Spain in June 2008. This was an important step in the right direction as it helped transform what might be seen as a form of enlightened despotism – i.e. graciously giving the public electronic access to public services – into an approach which accepts that citizens have a right to electronic democracy. The aim is no longer to graciously give the public electronic access to public services, but to recognise that citizens have a right to communicate with the administration – and the government – by electronic means, thereby placing the administration and the government not in the position of enlightened despots but as having a duty to respect citizens’ rights, wishes and aspirations, and I believe that it is in this way that we will progress towards electronic democracy.
These are the points I wished to make. I firmly believe that representative democracy and electronic democracy are fully complementary, the latter being a tool to achieve the former, and that the opportunities provided by the information society undeniably foster and strengthen electronic democracy.
Thank you for your attention.