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So much e-participation. But how much e-democracy?

22. April 2009 – 16:57 by Roberto Zarro

Wednesday the 8th of April the Emilia-Romagna Region, with the partnership of Pep-Net and the scientific collaboration of the University of Bergamo, organised the international seminar “E-democracy 2.0: Institutions, citizens and new networks: a potential lexicon”. Around 200 people were present to the event, which was really interesting for the quality of thoughts and suggestions brought from the speakers. A summary of the many themes discussed during the day (in italian version) and all papers and slides presented by the speakers are on line on the website of Partecipa.net, the e-democracy project promoted by the Emilia-Romagna Region (www.partecipa.net). Here we just try to take a shot of the main themes issued from the conversation among academics, experts, practitioners and simple “fan” of the e-participation.

Summarising at the maximum level, two great issues came out from the seminar. The first concerns e-participation: there were really great expectations about this concept at the beginning of the Internet revolution; furthermore these expectations were hardly cooled by the events; but now, with the web 2.0 explosion and the Barack Obama’s digital exploit already echoing from overseas, the term e-participation seems not only “trendly” again, but also much more than just a good claim.

The second evidence is that if blogs, social networks, peer to peer and so on really propelled the hopes of people who trust the e-participation perspective, the e-democracy idea – and with the term we mean here the direct use of the nets by the institutions to enrich and enlarge decisional processes, especially in the local contexts – is at the moment not so “trendy” or expanding. It’s obvious that where people work hard, and public institutions are really interested by the potential of e-democracy, some good results can be obtained. This issued for instance by the interventions of Rolf Luehrs, Pep-Net’s coordinator, and Sabrina Franceschini, manager of the Emilia-Romagna Region’s e-democracy projects. At the same time anyway, nobody can deny that the web 2.0 wave swamped the “e-democracy little island”, and that institutions seems now really unsettled about the role they can really play in an universe, the Net, that becomes everyday more open, horizontal and participative.

But where’s the news, someone could right observe? If we remember, also in the early days of e-democracy, people produced a lot of good ideas, some interesting experiences, a great number of unfounded projects and so much disillusions. And to be honest, the 8th of April in Bologna, we had more times the feeling to hear new words to express well-known and widely assimilated ideas, at least among experts and practitioners of the matter. Just for instance: today we say that we need finally to reduce chaos, vivacity and complexity of Facebook or MySpace if we want to exploit their big potential also in the institutional contexts; and yesterday we told exactly the same, but referring to forum, newsgroups and the necessity to catch synthesis from so reach and “dense” environments. Obviously, these thoughts are valid also today, and it’s natural that they’re now synchronized to languages, tools and brand of the present. But it’s also obvious that the e-democracy itself, especially if we refer to its top-down expression, is characterized by some paradoxes and limits, and that this is maybe the main reason who makes so hard the processing of new ideas in this disciplinary context.

But if this is already problematic, at least for those who support the idea of e-democracy, maybe today, in the era of web 2.0, it’s even worse than yesterday. Ten, fifteen years ago people spoke a lot about the possibilities to use the net to reduce the distance between institutions and citizen and make these one a little bit more stakeholders and influential. But if this scenario materialize itself very few, for several years also the whole web, or at least the “mainstream” web, remained first of all vertical, informative and one-way, or maximum two-way only in a technical manner, with the development of e-commerce, home banking, ant e-government, for instance. Today, at the contrary, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube and their “brothers” make quite automatic the equation between web and participation (much more less that one between nets and marketing and control technologies, and this worrying aspect emerged several times during the seminar in Bologna), and it seems strange that the institutions, who are anyway the main warrantor of participation rights, are being overwhelmed by a so significant innovation. Or, summarising more: the feeling is that in a world in which anyone takes part, or at least has the illusion to do it, the only ones who don’t take part are exactly the institutions, which appear so even more distant and disconnected from common sense, than how they already appeared yesterday.

After collecting this kind of feelings, we anyway must go beyond, trying to understand how the institutions could be part again of this game, and how horizons and ambitions of the e-democracy could overlap, at least partially, those one in constant widening of the “e-participation 2.0”. And if we know the difficulty to find good answers, also because of the already mentioned limits of e-democracy, there are anyway concrete hypothesis about the way to follow, and some valid ideas emerged also during the seminar in Bologna. Starting from the apparently biggest issue, clearly highlighted from Anna Carola Freschi (University of Bergamo) at the end of the event: “exactly in Italy, one of our best academics, Stefano Rodotà, raised years ago the issue about the necessity to write a Constitution for the Internet. The idea was relaunched also in international forums, like the WISIS, and it’s absolutely fundamental for all the debate about the e-participation. Only a system of civil, social and political rights up to new technologies can further a democratic use of the Net and a not-manipulated participation, a real dialogue between citizen and institutions”.

Going further, institutions can sure make more, but it’s not here that we pretend to do the list of the possible steps. For this purpose we refer: again to the webpage who collects and summarize the issues dealt during the seminary (www.partecipa.net); obviously to the fresh and animated Pep-Net’s blog; and, more general, to the Net itself, which is naturally full of good ideas and proposals. Here we just collect a couple of suggestions emerged from the event which took place in Bologna. Te first is the idea, expressed by Sabrina Franceschini, that institutions could and should transform themselves, at least partially, from provider to enabler of e-participation. The other one, formulated by many speaker (among them, Brian Loader, Laura Sartori, Wainer Lusoli and Rolf Luehrs), is the thought that institutions, but also ONG, should promote more educational project in which people could grow a greater sense of civic and citizenship. These projects should be taken obviously also on line, and they should help people to understand what is the real nature of the nets and which kind of opportunities, but also risks, they could find using them.

Finally we refer a little bit ironically to a recent news, suggesting how one of the biggest weak point of institutions, their slowness, could become suddenly and paradoxically useful in a scenario that is probably sacrificing too much to the “real time imperative”. A recent study realized by the University of Southern California, reported form several news agencies, offers indeed an academic evidence to a feeling already spread in the Net, and also elsewhere. In Facebook and Twitter’s era, tell us the researcher, with times of action and reaction even more compressed, the possibilities that behaviour and choices could be wrong and immoral are becoming greater and greater. This because ethic and moral require long times, and also common sense is full of sentences who highlight the importance to be slow to make wise choices. So, if there are no doubts about that, and if it’s also undeniable the idea that institutions could never win the “speed race” against web 2.0 tool, maybe the institutions could play a new role injecting slowness and “stickiness” in the digital arteries. Should they do so, maybe sometime the “all and now” rule could be defeated by the “who slow goes, safe and far goes” rule. Safe and far going, much more better if with a lot of other people, participating, also on (and thanks to) the digital nets.

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  1. One Response to “So much e-participation. But how much e-democracy?”

  2. By Rolf Luehrs on Apr 23, 2009

    Great post, Roberto! I especially like the new perspective on the (lack of) speed of institutions you opened and I think it is not just because moral and ethics require time. Speaking of public administrations it is part of their function to stick to routines or to defend procedures and rules against the hype. Administrations in general have to act predictably, reliably and in-line what has been politically decided. At the same time institutions and administrations have to catch up with major societal changes and must adapt to it. But this takes time and their slowness can be seen as a corrective to the accelerating speed of the rest of the world.

    However, this should not be taken as an excuse to lean back and do nothing – as history shows this could be very dangerous. It is important for PAs to observe the outer world carefully, to open up their walled garden and to listen to what citizens expect or researches and consultants recommend.

    Fortunately, this is exactly what more and more administrations do. The seminar in Bologna is one example for this and the considerable interest of lots of local and regional public administrations in PEP-NET and eDemocracy in general also underpins this trend.

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