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eParticipation: 5 Questions, 5 Answers (#1)

26. January 2009 – 19:56 by Rolf Luehrs

For almost a decade I have been involved in the conceptualisation and realisation of eParticipation projects. Most of these projects were so-called moderated online discourses.

The basic idea of these discourses is to create a meaningful link between the general public or the electorate and politicians or governments, between those considered to be affected by political decisions and those who have to make the decisions.

The methodology we have developed for conducting moderated online discourses is called DEMOS. It has been designed to keep the threshold for participants as low as possible while simultaneously enabling a structured and result-orientated discussion. Users can contribute anonymously and spontaneously, they can participate actively or as observers, they can write contributions, take part in polls or surveys or communicate with other users. The one requirement is registration, including a valid email address.

We – my team and I at TuTech Innovation GmbH – have applied this model to different themes and locations with varying cultural and environmental backgrounds. Whenever we talked to the people responsible for deciding whether or not the public should be involved online, we were asked almost identical questions and confronted with similar objections.

I thought it might be worth discussing these questions openly in a series of blog posts. Here is my answer to the first out of the five questions:

Is the general public really competent to discuss complex political issues?

There are two problems which make it hard to answer this question straight with yes or no. The first problem has to do with the term general public. This term is usually used in opposition to politician or elected representative. But there is a second underlying distinction which is that between layman and expert. Seen from this perspective the public is on the layman side of the equation. Members of the public are those lacking in-depth knowledge about specific policies and are furthermore neither able nor willing to think in terms of the general public interest.

Although it is very likely that some participants will always confirm this cliché, it is only half of the truth. The other half is that citizenship is only one of the various roles we all have to play in modern society. Whatever else we are, we are all citizens. And as long as an online discourse manages to attract participants with different professional backgrounds, a lot of expertise will be available from which the discussion can benefit.

The second problem has to do with the difference between the capability of the individual and the results achieved by the cooperation of many participants. In that regard especially, online discourses have the ability to widen the limited horizons of individuals. Particular views and arguments will be challenged by opposing statements and, in most cases at least, the weakest arguments will quickly be sorted out by the online community. Furthermore, different aspects will be addressed by different participants and fit like different parts of a puzzle. Shining a light on all imaginable aspects of a given subject in a very short time can be regarded as the biggest strength of online discourses.

For these reasons my final answer is: yes, we are!

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  1. 5 Responses to “eParticipation: 5 Questions, 5 Answers (#1)”

  2. By Simon Smith on Jan 28, 2009

    Is this an attitude you encounter from elected representatives themselves or from managers and technicians? It would be astonishing if it were the former: surely they discuss complex political issues with the general public in offline settings already!
    If it is the administration staff who doubt the competence of the general public, that implies a failure of communication within government. It is depressing that the case for this should have to be made from the outside, by eParticipation professionals like yourself.

  3. By Rolf Luehrs on Feb 2, 2009

    Hi Simon,

    sure, politicians are discussing complex political issues with the general public. It makes, however, a huge difference to launch a citizen consultation on a specific subject matter being responsible to consider what ever the results will be.

    Further more it is rather a concern than an attitude. Think of e.g. a discussion about a big urban development project. To my experience not only politicians or the responsible civil servants will be unsure if citizens could add valuable arguments, but also domain experts like architects or investors. While the latter are afraid of the public taste or the limited understanding of the economic limitations, politicians may worry that citizens have no sense for political feasibility.

    Finally, I do not think these concerns are limited to eParticipation. The discussion about direct citizen involvement in policy development is as old as democracy itself. One of the most prominent critics of participatory democracy was Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), who considered citizens both, too ignorant and too superficial to play an important role in politics.

  4. By Stewf on Feb 10, 2009

    Glad you found a use for my interrobang image! Please link back to the photo page on every instance. Thank you.

  5. By Rolf Luehrs on Feb 10, 2009

    @stewf thank you for licensing that picture under creative commons! Sure, I’ll link back to your page every time!

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  2. Feb 9, 2009: Pep-Net - Pan European e-Participation Network » Blog Archive » eParticipation: 5 Questions, 5 Answers (#2)

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