The term edemocracy encompasses the many ways in which new technologies can be exploited to enhance political processes.
Broadly speaking, these fall into two categories: electronic voting (voting electronically in elections) and electronic participation (using the internet and related technologies to facilitate the engagement of citizens in consultation and community planning).
Across the globe there are hopes and expectations that edemocracy and related electronic services such as egovernment will reverse the decline in the interest and engagement of citizens in the democratic process and will promote greater social inclusion.
Research to date indicates that some of the barriers to this reversal include the growing digital divide, lack of education and awareness of the potential of IT among many of the public, and the underlying lack of motivation to engage in the democratic process.
The former UK government e-Envoy, Andrew Pinder, in his foreword to the 2004 Report of the Digital Inclusion Panel, comments, 'Digital inclusion is not about computers, the internet or even technology.
It is about using technology as a channel to improve skills, to enhance quality of life, to drive education and to promote economic well-being across all elements of society. Digital inclusion is really about social inclusion…'
To achieve greater social inclusion requires that those who are currently marginalized in society must be enabled to actively participate in the determination of both individual and life chances.
In order to be able to influence the shape of future technologies, stakeholders such as the young, the old, the disabled, groups marginalized by beliefs, ethnicity or lifestyle need to be actively engaged in the identification and articulation of their goals, needs and aspirations, and in the evaluation and validation of alternative options.
A participative approach to the development and delivery of electronically enabled services can achieve the benefits both of shaping systems to meet the needs of stakeholders, and empowering the stakeholders to become more informed users/consumers of the technology and services.
Achieving digital engagement will entail more than just a matter of ensuring that designs do not exclude individuals or groups from access to technology.
The process of engaging individuals in the design and use of digital technologies has been investigated over decades. Enid Mumford cited the following four reasons for the dearth of participation:
- People don't know how to organise participation: 'some would like to but shy away because it seems difficult, complex and uncertain'.
- It does not yet form part of the culture of many organisations.
- Role boundaries: right to design, right to manage.
- In the past, it wasn't so necessary.
The first point, which relates both to lack of knowledge and skills and to the inherently challenging nature of the process of participation, is explored here, in the context of local egovernment in the UK.
In a scoping study conducted by the edemocracy study team of the BCS Sociotechnical Group among council staff in a small sample of boroughs, towns and cities involved with the implementation of local egovernment in the UK, real disappointment was reported with the poor response to some committed efforts in targeting a number of groups perceived to be excluded.
This endorses Mumford's finding of almost 15 years ago, that 'people don't know how to organise participation'. However there are groundbreaking initiatives with groups at particular risk of exclusion.
Such as, in the UK, projects like Womenspeak (see further reading), a project to give Irish women travellers an online voice and similar projects with Asian women.
The National Local Egovernment Project is also a helpful source of information on the experience of citizen engagement.
One pilot project has shown that young people, with no history of interaction with their local politicians or of engagement in community affairs, were enabled to engage in a rewarding dialogue with them through electronic communication.
However this achievement required far more than the provision of the technological infrastructure. The pilot took place in a school where students were taking the citizenship course as part of the national curriculum.
The managers of the pilot project had first to convince teachers of the value of the pilot and to gain the participation of local councillors.
The teachers then provided students with access to the technology, created awareness of the possibilities and potential benefits of communicating with local councillors, offered support and rewarded success.
In other words, extensive efforts were made to motivate all the stakeholders, to establish powerful social support to inspire, inform and encourage the electronic participation of young people.
The examples cited reveal that some key facilitators to uptake of electronic services are social and psychological support, inspired leadership and education.
The findings suggest that barriers to electronic participation are the same as the barriers to participation generally - perceived lack of relevance to the individuals, lack of awareness of the available mechanisms for participation, and the belief that nothing will change as a result of their involvement.
These findings help to explain why, despite significant progress towards the delivery of online services across the UK usage of local egovernment is still relatively low.
While 80 per cent of government transactions take place with local government, only around one in 10 UK citizens have used online government services, compared with half of the Canadian population.
The data suggests that this may in part relate to the poor history of citizen engagement in the delivery and implementation of local egovernment thus far.
IT on its own cannot achieve citizen participation and engagement; a sociotechnical approach is required.
From a strategic perspective, the sociotechnical approach should be institutionalized in the formulation of public policy, planning strategy and commissioning of all IT systems, which will impact on the public at large. It also needs resources explicitly for the participative process.
The prevailing lack of understanding about how to achieve participation is not the consequence of a dearth of such knowledge and a need for more research.
On the contrary, there is an abundance of rich knowledge available. But this knowledge is not currently reaching many in local government.
The urgent need therefore is for the promulgation of state of the art knowledge through innovative and wide-reaching learning opportunities for all relevant stakeholders.
There are ready and willing recipients in local government who will make excellent use of such opportunities.
- The National Strategy for local eGovernment, HMSO, London.
- Report of the Digital Inclusion Panel, The Stationery Office. 2004.
- Human Factors for Informatics Usability, Shackel and Richardson, Cambridge University Press.
- Sociotechnical Explorations of e-Government in the UK. Damodaran, Nicholls, Henney, Land, and Farbey.
- Womenspeak: E-Democracy or He-Democracy? The Fawcett Society.
- E-Government leadership: engaging the customer. Accenture.
In a nutshell
- It is hoped that edemocracy will reverse the decline in the interest and engagement of citizens in the democratic process.
- Stakeholders such as the young, the old, the disabled, groups marginalized by beliefs, ethnicity or lifestyle need to be actively engaged in the identification of their needs.
- Some key facilitators to the uptake of electronic services are social and psychological support, inspired leadership and education.
- There is an urgent need for the promulgation of state of the art knowledge through innovative and wide-reaching learning opportunities for all relevant stakeholders.