Participating in a democracy

January 21, 2012

Following the very active debate on the UK and Ireland E-Democracy Exchange following the announcement of the publication of the Digital Participation in Scotland report I thought it worthy of a brief summary of some of what had been said and the concepts that had been considered. A key element of the debate was about participation (or e-participation), democracy (or e-democracy), and ultimately what the terms mean and how they can conceivably be measured.

David Newman, part of a group that produced one of the big ideas for the digital agenda (diagram presented at pointed to the failing of the report that it didn’t meet the latter two of the four stages people go through when integrating digital tools into their lives and work: 1. Accessibility, 2. Skills and competences 3. Effective use 4. Empowerment.

I then supported him stating my own argument is for feedback loops as standard, that are consistently employed to change systems. However my BIG concern is that government and therefore participation is so BIG that even those elected or employed in it can’t appreciate the magnitude/complexity, so how the hell does the citizen? This brings with it the issue of where to start and end feedback loops. I entirely agreed that the measures named were of little use and had argued this point endlessly!

Andy Williamson supported this saying his research “clearly shows that engagement becomes effective when you ask, listen, respond, and act”. Professor Stephen Coleman agreed with the preceding arguments whilst asking “which metrics should the report have been measuring?” Ella Taylor-Smith, inquiring about the strategy the report was linked to, raising the issue that digital participation was described in another Scotish strategy as “people’s ability to gain access to digital technology, and understand how to use it creatively. Increased digital participation can improve people s quality of life, boost economic growth and allow more effective delivery of public services.” Which hardly the conventional definition of e-participation. Andy Williamson then went on to raise the matter that there appeared to be no actual ‘voting citizens’ involved in the charter.

At about this point Steven Clift jumped in with a lengthy commentary around work he was due to publish on ‘Inclusive Social Media’ – there were an extensive number of measures in the proposition. Pedro Prieto-Martin of CKYOSEI stepped in suggesting that it was a matter of differing definitions. He also mentioned their own paper “The e-(R)evolution will not be funded”  which paid some attention to evaluation issues, especially around EU-funded projects. Pedro was also concerned at the number of evaluation criteria that required collection and analysis. He then pointed out that their association claimed that the best way to advance the field was to “closely align eParticipation research with citizens and civil society needs”. ( ) He proposes viral growth, satisfaction, and impact as potential measures.

Ella reported that they also used a final analysis based on input, actions, output, outcomes and impact in the final results report of the HUWY project. (Avalilable here: ). In terms of definition she preferred that of Ann Macintosh – “use of information and communication technologies to broaden and deepen political participation by enabling citizens to connect with one another and with their elected representatives” Macintosh, A. (2006) eParticipation in Policy-making: the research and the challenges . In P. Cunningham & M. Cunningham (Eds.) Exploiting the Knowledge Economy: Issues, Applications and Case Studies; IOS press, ISBN 1-58603-682-3, pp.364-369, which seems a pretty good one to me too. She also directs to a wider view of participation –  Ann Macintosh also concluded her contribution by informing us that she has “been working recently with colleagues, Simon Smith and Jeremy Millard, considering the issue of eParticipation evaluation. The results of our study can be found in a paper soon to be published in the International Journal of Electronic Governance. In it we present a framework for evaluating eParticipation, distinguishing between factors which lie at least partly within the control of the stakeholders in an eParticipation initiative and factors which are largely external. It uses a three-layered impact assessment framework distinguishing between outputs, outcomes and impacts. Its multi-layered character is intended to prompt evaluators to consider links to high-level policy goals, culturally-specific understandings of eParticipation and the chain of transformations which condition long-term impacts. In this way one can, not only, move from outputs to impact but also select different evaluation criteria depending on purpose/stage.” This is a paper that should prove very interesting.

One of the difficulties in the debate is the difference in political structures between the US and the rest of the democratic world. My own view is that in representative democracies, participation is difficult to deliver without potentially tilting the balance of the representatives power, so they don’t tend to be in favour of it – something I labelled in my dissertation one of the ‘antinomies of e-government’. The issue of definitions is not unusual, again in my dissertation I spent a number of pages going through a range of definitions of ‘e-government’ before even trying ‘e-democracy’, which is equally debatable, as will be ‘e-participation’.

P.S. My apologies if I’ve missed or misquoted people – it did go on for pages…and its all here on Democracy Online.

To the e-barricades!

May 25, 2010

Dan Jellinek of E-government Bulletin fame has reported on the recent EDEM10 conference. Two presentations are picked up on in particular. The first is that by Dr Andy Williamson of the Hansard Society who described how the e-democracy sector had failed. The reason behind this, he believes, is that only 4% of the UK population are actively involved in politics or community work and that more needs to be done to get the claimed interest (far more claim to be interested) into action. He does recognize that moving towards a more deliberative system (surely the intended outcome of e-democracy) will be as a result of evolution and will require changes to the system of government.

The other presentation reported by Dan is from Ismael Pena-Lopez, of Catalonia, who examined the digital divide and saw the rise of a “goverati”, who had the skills to access the electronic information around governance. Ismael is not the first to raise the issue of a potential elite forming, elsewhere in the literature there have been fears that those employing the e-channels for political ends and those with existing interest and access to politics, whilst not perhaps doing it deliberately, are developing a niche of their own.

In my own research I’ve borrowed the terminology of philosophy, Immanuel Kant in particular, describing these situations as the antinomies of modern government. E-government has been brought in, full of promises of improving access to government, as well as services it delivers. However, being in a representative democracy the shift to any level of participation, as required by the tenets of e-democracy may take some time, as those in power may not wish to relinquish power quite so easily…or have the ability to release it.

Keeping mum

April 27, 2010

I frequently cringe when I see Mumsnet established as a standard for e-government style engagement. This was confirmed by a piece in the New Statesman of the 26 April 2010 by Alice Miles entitled “Don’t kid yourself about Mumsnet“.

Alice clearly picks out the iffiyness around those who believe social media are making headway in politics when she says “The strange relationship people have with “online” is a challenge for adherents of “e-democracy” and undermines the fashionable theme of the “Mumsnet election”. Will Mumsnet make such a difference on 6 May?”

She’s also done her research when she looks at the usage proportions of the various media and states “Compare these with the proportions expecting to get information from blogs (3 per cent) or social networking sites (2 per cent).” This and research from Professor Graham Smith results in “a distinctly limited role for mature online political debate.”

This is also supported by the comment on my “The twittering parties” by Andy Williamson of the Hansard Society who stated “the latest Audit of Political engagement asks some of these questions and shows that 4% of the general electorate follow a politician on Facebook and 2% on Twitter.”

We’ll soon see the results, but how much of this is directly down to the Internet I believe will be little and remain unclear.

The twittering parties

April 11, 2010

There are two new reports from the Hansard Society on the hot topic of the Internet and politics. The first is a modest three page “digital paper” entitled “Politicians get their clicks” by Dr Andy Williamson which challenges the assumption that the Internet will make a similar difference in the UK elections, as it was claimed occurred in the U.S. The second, at 64 pages, is named “Behind the digital campaign“, and largely supports this, with the tag line that in the UK “parties are digital followers not leaders.”

These rather contrast with a separate study from Sitemorse and Alterian which aligns political party web sites with their claims about the Internet. In fact it’s more a review of the party web sites and government web sites, as assessed by Sitemorse. I suppose it does analyze and attempt to compare the amount of effort that the mainstream political groups have put into their sites. In contrast, the Hansard Society reports recognize that the web sites may probably be less important than the energy they employ in maintaining sophisticated back office systems of supporters and potentials voters.

Sitemorse’s distraction with government web sites may assume that politicians have some control over Whitehall web sites, but personally I remain sceptical. The main recent, and continuing, drive has been a cull of the excessive number of them, as identified in the operational efficiency programme, which does seem to be working and, as the report flags up, brings to the top.

Can I suggest a random survey in the street asking how many citizens actually look at a political party or politicians web site? Politicians may be relevant in community and local politics, but less so in distant Parliament. I also probably share concerns about digital exclusion and remain confident that pushing leaflets through letter boxes and generally door-stepping will occupy the parties most.

Passive democracy

February 14, 2010

The latest publication from the Hansard Society is by Andy Williamson, director of the Hansard Society eDemocracy Programme. The research study is entitled “Digital Citizens and Democratic Participation – An analysis of how citizens participate online and connect with MPs and Parliament.

This 21-page report compares national data for those who use the Internet, with what he labels the ‘digital leaders’, or the early adopters of social media who also declare an interest in politics.

Unsurprisingly, the conclusion is that people want to use the new media to engage with their politicians, not for one-way traffic . However, I imagine this was always the case before the Internet, but that town hall and Whitehall were even more physically and emotionally detached from those they represented and, as with shopping and information, it’s all been brought truly home, or potentially so.

I hope our representatives pay heed to the recommendations on page 16, and that these are also paid attention to nearer home at town hall level. They could also do with being observed by all our representatives, everywhere, since there now being rather a lot of unelected representatives in organizations that manage services for us.

Whilst one can email one’s MP one frequently gets a letter back, as happens with some service organizations. This is also one of the recommendations – that digital interactions are made two-way.

I still have concerns that representative democracy is intended to be one way and that we need to change the system to get two-way communications. I am also concerned that whilst it will be the younger and more educated minority that employ their skills to chivvy politicians, those without those skills and abilities will be excluded doubly so.