E-democracy? What can we learn from the US case?

Date May 24, 2002
Speaker Steven L. CLIFT(Online Strategist and Speaker, Democracies Online)


E-democracy is about going online and doing stuff. In politics, campaigning has become a big issue. And people are excited about doing advocacy online. Most people are accessing their political information from the media and portal websites. The key element of e-democracy is the e-citizen. You have to build expectations to encourage people to participate in community and government on the Internet.

What are people doing today that may be universal by 2015? Democracy and government on the Internet will be an evolution. Email notification will be a revolutionary trend: governments will disclose information that people can receive in time to use. For example, people will be notified if a bill is being discussed or a county council meeting is taking place, so that people can participate. You will be able to get notices about things that will affect your particular geography.

Another trend will be in-person public hearings. Governments are doing more to make their meetings available online. You can read the bills being proposed the same time Members of Congress do. The web is getting more information into the public debate. Members can distribute the text of their testimony the same day they present their testimony. With online public hearings, people will be able to participate anytime, anywhere. These hearings work best as compliments to physical meetings.

Government will be more organic. For instance, there is an Australian organization called Community Builders that acts as an early-warning system for government. This year and a half old site is a way for the government to spot emerging issues. It is government as facilitator.

Also by 2015, you will have wired politicians, who will use the net as their primary political tool. Politicians will become online personalities. To set an agenda, they will come to realize that they will need a website. Students, immigrants, and the poor are better reached through the web because web offices are less intimidating than physical government offices. Email newsletters are goods that politicians will have to offer. The trick is to keep the discussions relevant, and oblige participants to sign their real names to their submissions to forums. Another tip is to limit the number of times one person can send a message in a given day.

Looking toward 2040, what can we expect inside and outside the public sector? Families and friends are much more networked. After 9/11, for example, email was the main way to find out if people were safe. Governments have to anticipate how these networks will affect them.

Is e-government the e-business that works? Governments have the advantage of being able to experiment without the risk of going bankrupt. But they are also responsible for creating demand. They have to figure out what people want. Some things will only work on government sites. In the future, as people are flooded with information, politicians (like journalists today) will become guides, directing us to what information is important.

Creating expectations is key. You need momentum. We are still experimenting and seeing what works. The engine of democratic intent is required. In other words, you need a direction.

Questions and Answers

Q: E-democracy can also be about reinforcing the representative system. How can people increase representation?

Most likely, there will be several forums and the Member will assign a staffer to monitor the discussions. The Member, meanwhile, will appear in the relevant forums from time to time. I suggest that those in government set up groups by geography, as well as by topic.

Q: How do e-government and e-democracy differ?

They blend together. But e-government is service and democracy, broadly speaking. A part of e-government budgets should go to e-democracy to generate demand, to facilitate a two-way exchange.

Q: How do you balance the voice of a privileged idling few? How can you reach more people?

Democracy is time-based. You have to be at a certain place at a certain time to participate. Many times, you end up hearing the voices only of those who are upset, the extremes. One way to balance what is expressed is to get different groups or people from different geographies involved. You have to go and do outreach.

Q: Are agencies or parts of governments using the web for the policymaking process?

The governments of Finland, Croatia, and Estonia are all experimenting with using the Internet in the making of policy. The interest in the US is mainly to use the Internet for raising money and winning elections. FreeRepublic.com is one of the most active discussion groups. GOP.gov is good at contacting people on issues.

Q: Is there a certain type of politician that will be better suited to this new web age of democracy?

TV is still the powerful medium and will remain so for the long term. The web is more of a strategic information tool. Those who are more cyber-savvy will gain more power over time.

Q: What is the profile of the average user of e-democracy?

The more local the issue is, the more authentic the participants are. But generally they tend to be well-educated, middle class people.

Q: How will advances in technology affect e-democracy?

Broadband will make it more of a utility. The web captures and creates sparks of interest. Video quality has to approach broadcast for it to become effective, however.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.