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 http://cirn.wikispaces.com/Putting+users+at+the+heart+of+the+Digital+Agenda+for+Europe) 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”. ( http://www.ckyosei.org/docs/EParticipationResearchOnServiceOfCivilSociety.pdf ) 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: http://www.iidi.napier.ac.uk/c/publications/publicationid/13367375 ). 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 – http://pathwaysthroughparticipation.org.uk/.  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.

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March 6, 2011

I’m indebted to Professor Stephen Coleman of the University of Leeds who posted a response on DoWire to a statement by the owner Steven Clift about Facebook.

Stephen argued that: “Facebook is the vogue space right now, as Myspace was before it. These things change. And, of course, in some countries (notably China and India) Facebook is not the most obvious space for government-hosted discussions.

The wider question of whether the Facebook model, based on weak ties between relatively small groups, is the best one for civic engagement is worth reflecting upon. Given the homophilic nature of most online discussion, and the heterophilic nature of democratic citizenship, friends’ networks might not be the most promising avenue for civic deliberation.”

This has to be one of the better rationales for government not to getting too hung up over any particular social medium as a method of engaging citizens. Apart from the fact that the social media are in a constant state of flux, they are largely there for people with similar opinions, so one instance of anti-government propaganda is likely to result in a deluge!

As a fan of the American poet Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem ‘Howl’, I found this You Tube video on social media amusing. It may be to others?