e-Democracy: blessing or curse?
How can e-Democracy Contribute towards
Radboud University Nijmegen
Institute for Management Research
Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy, Madrid Spain, October 15-17 2008
In most European countries more than 50 percent of the population own a PC and have access to internet at home or elsewhere. Never before did so many people have access to so much information. Given the impact of ICT on society, the functioning of democracy could not elude all these technological innovations and people had high expectations from the many potential benefits of ICT for democracy. But after two decades of information technology as a political phenomenon some critical comments can be heard as well (eg Mansbridge 1997). The use of information technology may have deepened the confidence gap between politicians and citizens and -in the end- did not expand the number and type of citizens involved in the political decision making processes.
I this presentation I first discuss some positive aspects of technological innovation for the functioning of democracy, followed by a number of reservations. Assessing however, whether e-Democracy is a blessing or a curse, is of course related to the goals one has set. If the goal is inclusion, the next question is whether the introduction of new forms of political decision making together with the use of ICT has increased for example the political participation of women.
However, the demands for a properly functioning democratic political system differ in 2008 from those in the previous century. These days, high quality democratic policy- or decision-making, which representative democracy is often incapable of assuring, should address three criteria: inclusiveness, the quality of the participation and the level of information. Whether e-Democracy matches these criteria is the final topic of this presentation.
ICT in Politics: positive effects
e-Democracy defined by Trechsel et al as “all electronic means of communication that enable/empower citizens in their efforts to hold rulers/politicians accountable for their actions in the public realm” (2003:10) is generally thought to improve the quality of the interaction between citizens and politicians. Summarizing the main arguments, the use of ICT makes it possible to enhance the inclusiveness of political decision making by enabling political institutions –politicians, government officials, political parties- to reach and/or mobilize many more citizens than was possible by traditional means of communication. Second, it increases the transparency of the political process, since it allows governments and legislative bodies to provide information about legal structures, budgets and spending, the ins and outs of the decision making process and up-to-date information about the policies under consideration. Third, the new possibilities for on-line consultation increases the level of responsiveness permitting (local) government to stay constantly informed about people’s wishes and preferences. Fourth, the internet enables citizens to inform themselves more deeply and widely on party positions and political issues and thus improves the quality of opinion formation (Trechsel 2003). Fifth, ICT increases the possibilities for political participation; many new forms of participation have been established with the use of ICT and it has become much easier for interest groups to mobilize people into political action. Sixth, innovation technologies increase government’s efficiency and improve citizen service convenience, which in turn may raise citizens’ approval of government and politics (Clift 2004).
In relation to topic of this workshop we are especially interested whether e-Democracy increases the participation of women, migrants, younger people, lower educated, lower income, and of the political alienated. But before we look into this matter, let us first discuss some negative effects of ICT in politics.
ICT in Politics: negative effects
The opposite view that e-Democracy either has no real impact or even frustrates representative democracy can also be found in the literature (Kampen and Snijkers 2003). More transparency of the political process and greater access to information on issues could easily lead to an input overload. Citizens expect answers to their requests as well as actions and policies based on these demands and are disappointed when these expectations are not fulfilled (Mansbridge 1997). Given the relatively small numbers of legislative representatives, intensive communication with citizens is not really feasible (Kampen and Snijkers 2003). Additional, ICT may enhance distrust in institutions rather than overcoming it for example because of lack (and fear) of technical knowledge (Oostveen and Besselaar 2004). Thirdly, the use of internet is, even when it concerns the downloading of politically relevant information or the chatting with politicians, an individual act. Contrary to the traditional acts of political action there are no face-to-face meetings with fellow citizens, party members or political representatives and this may weaken feelings of civic and collective engagement: “Unthinking IT applications could easily create states of alienated and atomized individuals”(Kakabadse et al 2003:53). Finally, some authors express doubts whether ICT-tools will ultimately increase political participation. Although worries about a digital divide are evaporating somewhat with the constant increase in access to internet, it is still being questioned whether e-participation succeeds in attracting new, so far underrepresented, voices (Clift 2004; Bimber 2001). As Bimber phrases it: ”At the individual level information technology is not ‘democratizing’ and may even undermine the state of political equality” (Bimber 2001:5).
Political Reform and Gender
The high expectations of e-Democracy in the 1990s were insprired by severe criticism on the functioning of representative democracy in Europe. Authors from different European countries refer to a ‘confidence gap between the elected and the electorate’ (Andeweg and Irwin, 2005; Pharr and Putnam, 2000; to a ‘democratic malaise (Johnston, Krahn and Harisson, 2006) or call it Politikverdrossenheit (Maier, 2000) What is wrong with representative democracy is well documented. First there are the increasing figures of dissatisfaction with the democratic institutions such as political parties and representative procedures. Second, the responsiveness of the elected bodies is being criticized by citizens feeling excluded from political decision making. As Zittel and Fuchs point out, the overall complaint is that politicians should listen more to the people and give them opportunities to participate more directly in the decision-making process (Zittel and Fuchs 2007). This lack of identification does also sprout from the biased composition of the representative bodies as far as descriptive criteria -such as gender, ethnicity and age- are concerned (Leyenaar 2004; Fennema and Tillie 2004). More recent, populist parties have pointed to an education cleavage as well when playing into citizens’ dissatisfaction with the long-standing political parties and politicians. Bovens (2006) refers to a ‘Diplomademocracy’ when describing the negative implications of parliaments that consist of 80 percent MPs with a college or university degree compared to less than 20 percent of the population. Third, scholars point to the increasing lack of involvement of citizens in political parties and elections. Not only the number of people actually participating matters, also the type of people who participate. When certain groups of citizens are consistently excluded from any form of participation and decision-making, their voice is systematically unheard and it is unlikely that those who make the decisions will take their interests into account (Lijphart, 1996).
The dysfunctioning of representative democratic institutions led to the introduction of many new forms of involving citizens in political decision making. For example in the Netherlands in the 1990s many new types of policy making could be found, especially at the local level, that involved consultation, negotiation and deliberation among government, civil society and citizens. The format used in these new policy making processes also varied widely; sometimes a small planning group consisting of citizens, civil servants and representatives from, for example, a housing corporation or a shopkeepers’ organization was involved in intensive consultation, but in other cases the process was open to all citizens, who, for example through the use of internet, could join by commenting alternative plans (Leyenaar and Niemöller, 2003). Empirical studies of the actual participation in these initiatives show, however, that the goal to increase the number and type of participants were not met: not more citizens participated and surely no newcomers addressed the political scene. Wille (2001) concludes after having examined projects in five different local communities: “Women, youth, ethnic minorities and the lower educated are often strongly underrepresented in interactive policy-making”.1
So in the 21st century representative democracy is still being criticized and the search for reform continues. In my opinion 21st century, high quality democratic decision-making should address three criteria: inclusiveness (i.e. representation), the quality of the participation and the level of information.
Democratic processes should be inclusive, in the sense that members of all groups affected by the policies (representation), should participate as much as possible directly in the decision making process. The quality of the actual participation refers to both the number of times that citizens are able to participate directly in the political process as well as to the intensity of the participation. Does participation involves saying yes or no to options stated in a referendum or does it imply informative deliberation in a citizen’s assembly? Further, citizens should be qualified to participate in decision making processes, meaning they should be well informed about the pros and cons of the addressed policy measures or of alternatives, and be able to weigh them.
The question to be answered is then whether the application of ICT in politics meets the requirements of these three criteria more so than the traditional model of representative democracy? Will e-Democracy be able to counter the declining levels of political involvement and political trust and enhance inclusion?
ICT has clearly expanded the opportunities for citizens to express their own ideas on political issues and thus become more involved in political decision-making. Applications such as chat sessions with politicians, discussion fora, e-polling but also internet voting and e-petitions carry the ability to enlarge not only the number but also the types of people engaged in politics. Tools like weblogs of politicians allow for a greater identification of electors with their representatives. However, ICT is no solution for the biased representation that we find in the legislative bodies. As long as there is a selection –often by political parties- prior to the actual election the result will be biased in favor of those who belong to the same networks as those already in power. Only random selection would guarantee inclusive access to political decision-making which is one of the reasons for the increasing popularity in the use of citizens’ juries and citizens’ assemblies (consisting of randomly selected participants) for (local) decision-making on political issues.
Internet is an endless source of information used by state agencies, representative bodies, politicians, political parties and interest groups to inform citizens about their intentions, their policies and the decisions made in the name of the people. These days each agency has its own website and/or e-newsletter and through direct email citizens can receive customized information on issues of their interest. Internet is also a very good source to learn about the rules of the game thus empowering people: how are politicians selected, what are the selection criteria, who voted for this Bill. But research shows that all this applies mostly to already interested people who are desirous of learning more (Bimber 2001). Traditional modes of communication, especially TV-news and campaign spots, are still needed for reaching out to the average not-very-politically-interested citizens. Other problems are the information overload and –consequently- the continuous reduction and simplification of the content of political news which affects the quality of information. So although the Internet undoubtedly has increased the possibilities for people to inform themselves, the existence as such does not solve the problems of exclusion and the information gap between elected and electors.
The intensity of participation differs with the type of participatory arrangement. For example the referendum generally scores low on this criterion since the act of participation consists only of saying yes or no to a proposed question. The intensity may increase of course when citizens make the effort of informing themselves on the issue. Participatory arrangements like interactive policy making where citizens are invited to participate at an early stage in the policy making process or participatory budgeting where individuals decide on the spending of (part of) local government budget involve a more intense level of participation. The same is true for participation in a citizens’ jury, citizens’ forum or citizens’ assembly because these allow richer and more mature deliberation on important issues. A number of democratic theorists recognize deliberation as a central feature of the democratic process (Dahl 1989; Page 1996). Recently the discussion has turned up whether this deliberation has to take place in a face to face setting or whether it can be computer mediated (Gastil 2000). Advantages of the latter are the lower costs and the fact that computer-mediated interaction reduces the influence of social status. Gastil however concludes that face-to-face deliberation may be more appropriate for political decision-making since this “involves complex issues, moral conflict, and an inescapable uncertainty about the wisdom of final judgments” (2000:359). Further, a certain degree of group cohesion (more easily developed in a face-to-face setting) may facilitate the reaching of compromises (ibid). However given the increasing popularity of deliberative processes involving citizens in real life politics it may be expected that deliberation through internet will be developed further.
The application of ICT as such will not strengthen democracy. It is clear that ICT has a tendency to involve a larger part of the population and to offer more information. However, the increase of opportunities to participate (potential higher inclusiveness) is not enough for an increase in actual participation and (new) participatory arrangements are necessary. A positive development is the use of random sampling for the selection of participants in a policy- or decision making process. I refer to the growing practice of citizens’ juries and citizen’s forums which are forms of decision-making that involves ordinary citizens in important decisions and allow richer and more mature deliberation on important issues. Furthermore, ICT offers much more information to citizens. But more information in itself is not an advantage. The information is largely unstructured, unbalanced, contradictory etc. and many people need the structuring role of the media to filter, sort, and balance and interpret the overwhelming amount of information that is available on the internet.
With regard to the Future of Democracy, the huge amount of unstructured information and the many new forms of participation are in urgent need of some form of guidance to further develop the potential of both. New actors to fulfill that role are necessary, while ‘old’ actors like parties, politicians and journalists should adapt to such a new role.
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1 Translation by the author.