E-Participation - ‘Surprisingly Weak’?

16. June 2009 – 13:52 by Dan Jellinek

The finding of a new academic report that e-participation has a “surprisingly weak” effect on democratic decision-making, and on helping people to engage with democracy, should not come as too much of a surprise.

The report, ‘Empowering communities to influence local decision making – A systematic review of the evidence’ (https://fastlink.headstar.com/clg1), was produced for the UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government by Professor Lawrence Pratchett, Dr Catherine Durose and Professor Vivien Lowndes of the Local Governance Research Unit, De Montfort University; and Professor Graham Smith, Professor Gerry Stoker and Dr Corinne Wales, at the University of Southampton’s Centre for Citizenship and Democracy (see also https://www.headstar.com/egblive/?p=229).

The truth is that leading academics, from these and other bodies including the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Leeds, have been complaining for some time that there is little in-depth research into the actual effects of e-participation projects on political engagement.

For too long, it has been argued, the value and power of tools such as discussion forums and e-petitions are taken as gospel – their mere existence appears to ‘open up the system’, and allow greater engagement.

The truth, or course, is far trickier: if the underlying political systems are not set up to proper deliberate on the results of online exercises, for example, then they are all but futile. There is also the spectre – raised once more in this new report – of the digital divide, lingering over this debate and reminding us that those that do get involved and engaged online are more often than not those who were already getting engaged using existing media and means.

On the other hand, the new tools can be successful in individual cases, the new report finds.

So where do we go from here?

I tend to think these kinds of findings are inevitable in what are still early days of internet-based e-participation tools. Most political systems, and particularly the established, barnacle-encrusted Western democracies of Westminster and elsewhere, are slow to change, so the various stages of recognizing the possible value of such tools; putting them in place; encouraging their use; measuring their use; and finally, embedding them into the political system itself; will inevitably take some time.

We should not draw Luddite conclusions from such reports, or give up, but they add some sobering perspective: many arguments about the value of e-participation remain to be won, and the more we can measure, assess and prove their value, the quicker they will become part of the political establishment.

  1. 7 Responses to “E-Participation - ‘Surprisingly Weak’?”

  2. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei on Jun 16, 2009

    Modern Democracy was designed, from its beginning, to restrict citizen participation in government to the its minimum (voting every 4-5 years).

    If e-Participation is dependent on the political and managerial will of our current administrations… it is difficult that it will be able to really influence public decision making.

    Only if new forms of e-Participation are created, that do not depend on the leadership and funding coming from the body aimed to be influenced… will e-Participation be independent enough to aim “there where it hurts” to politicians and political precesses, and fully exert that influence to affect decision making.

    Currently, public authorities have a near perfect monopoly on e-Participation. By definition, the prices established in a monopolistic market are consistent with the monopolist’s interests. The same happens with e-Participation exercises. The influence they have is consistent with the interest of the Public Authorities, which currently means “small influence”. Mostly there where the e-Participation exercise doesn’t really challenge, or even do reinforce, the interests of public authorities.

    If Public Authorities monopoly on e-Participation is not broken (partially, at least) do not expect e-Participation to become really challenging and influential.

  3. By Dan Jellinek on Jun 17, 2009

    Well, I think you are constructing artificial barriers in your own mind here between government and the people. It is all very well to say that a general election every few years is a ‘restriction of democracy’ to the minimum but in fact it is the single most important aspect of any democracy - a free and fair vote for your leadership every few years would be appreciated in China or Zimbabwe rather more than an e-petition system.

    Once a government is elected by the people, it is partly the prospect of the next election, albeit a few years away, that dictates their actions, and again this places important influence where it should be - with the electorate.

    Of course, any body is free to create e-participation platforms, and do - many charities and foundations fund such work. Many of the best examples I have seen though tend to be funded at least partly from either local government or central government funds, for almost the opposite reasons you suggest - in fact it seems that in a relatively well functioning democracy such as ours, plenty of money can be made available for ‘pure’ systemic work on citizen engagement, with no party agenda.

    So you say public authorities have a ‘monopoly’ on power - well, in a democracy, that is as it should be! Would you rather have private concerns leading the improvement of our democracy?

    Change may be slow, the system may not be perfect, etc, etc, but Churchill’s dictum is still the only reasonable view ont ghe matter of democracy…

  4. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei on Jun 17, 2009

    Hi Dan,
    I haven’t said public authorities have a “monopoly” on power. I’ve suggested they currently have a near perfect monopoly on “e-Participation”. It’s not really the same. But anyway, for sure public authorities should NOT have a monopoly on “power”, as you stated. The only monopoly public authorities must have is on “violence”, not on power (and even this could be discussed). Actually… even if public authorities wished to have a monopoly on “power”, they cannot. Power (influence) is distributed through the whole society, and it is good it works that way. Private concerns, by the way, in our “relatively well functioning democracies”, currently have too much influence on public authorities, and of course… they are also leading the “improvement” of our democracy (specially at the European level). In Brussels there are more than 15.000 lobbyists working full time to influence the decisions of just 736 MEP. This often means that they draft law proposals for the Parliament and The European Commission. While citizens are “citizens” only one day every five years (on elections day), this is actually the only day when lobbyists rest, and thus keep influencing decisions the remaining 1820 days.

    What does it really mean “relatively well functioning democracies”. Europe, with a greater than 50% rate of non-participation in elections? Italy, where private business, mass-media and government are fully mixed in a mess, and where the tourism minister has been recently recorded performing a fascist salute? Or Spain, where political parties are “banned” almost in every election, and where lots of irregularities have been reported with regard to the last European Election votes counting?

    Indeed, Churchill said in 1947 that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. And he was right. But aren’t 62 years enough time for democracy to deserve some merit on its own, and not just because of the shortcomings of the alternatives? I hope so!!
    It seems, actually, that liberal representative democracies are not doing very well, earning more citizen’s affection. Is really Churchill’s dictum “the only reasonable view on the matter of democracy”? It seems to me quite unreasonable. ;-p

    And actually, the whole business about (e)Participation is aimed at fixing the problems of democracy. Because voting every five years has proved not to be stimulating enough, to make politicians care properly for citizens’ necessities and desires.

    My claim was that we have a real problem, that partly explains why (e)Participation has been so… “surprisingly weak”: most politicians claim they want participation, but they do not actually want participation, if it means that they have to lose some part of their share of power. They usually want participation, but with the condition that it doesn’t change anything.
    Politicians are like a child that needs to eat some medicine to recover from a serious illness. But they dislike its taste, and will do everything in their hands to avoid swallowing it up (even if it is going to do them well on the long term!).

    I’m not stating that we need an (e)Participation that does not involve politicians.
    (e)Participation will involve politicians or it won’t be. But we need new forms of (e)Participation that are not so much controlled by the political elite. For sure, “private concerns” would be even worst! We need an (e)Participation that is self governing and transparent, and autonomous enough to exert influence “there where it hurts”. An (e)Participation that improves prospects of election, when their results are carefully pondered and considered by politicians. And an (e)Participation that, on the other hand, will ruin the career of the politician involved, if he/she is not able to react to it in a respectful and attentive way.

  5. By Dan Jellinek on Jun 18, 2009

    Sadly I don’t have time to debate these interesting issues properly (I really mean that, not just being off with you - horribly snowed under) but I would hold by most of what I said - you can define ‘power’ differently but the ultimate power must rest with the elected government in a democracy, until the people remove that government or it removes itself.

    Overall I simply do not share your pessimistic and negative view of our democracy. Of course there are many flaws you can point to, but even the MPs’ expenses debacle to me shows the health of our democracy, not its sickness. It is the end result of 100 years of erosion of deference, opening up (which must go further), freedom of the press, etc etc. But I don’t like the way everyone has jumped on their moral high horses. People should remember they are imperfect as well.

    And you can’t just say ‘We need…’ this and that - let’s try and create it, as many of us are, in our own way, and if it works to improve our democracy, then that’s excellent.

    As for Churchill’s view being unreasonable… do you mean to say you would prefer a non-democratic system?

  6. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei on Jun 18, 2009

    Dear Dan,
    Don’t be sad. I feel we have already “squeezed” this subject enough (for now). It may seem that we disagree on our fundamental views… but I think we do not. From the beginning, I agree with the intention and the message of your article.
    My comment intended to complement, not to argument against your entry.
    And from then… well, you have said the glass is half-full, and I’ve said it’s half empty. But we are at least looking at the same glass, and I think your views and mine complement each other.
    I’m not really that pessimist. I’m myself working, with all my energies, to help improve democracy.
    My point basically is that, in order to make e-participation more effective (this was the subject of the blog entry)… for sure we need to be patient, understand that change takes time (specially for “government bodies”), and keep working on showing the effects and value of participation to further convince them. That’s ok.
    But I argue that, in addition to that, we can frame e-participation in a way (not in a shy way! :-) ) that enables it to have much more effect, on its own. And I think much of this can be achieved taking advantage of web 2.0 net-forming dynamics, that enable new and more powerful and more autonomous forms of Participation (citizen expression and mobilization).

    The problem with that expression: “relatively well functioning democracies”, is that our democracies are very different, and cannot just be sanctioned as a “bunch”. Their origins and characteristics are very different. UK has a centuries long history of democratic development. Spanish “democracy” (and most of its institutions), on the other hand, were established and devised within a fascist dictatorship. The MP’s expenses debacle would be unthinkable in Spain, were a lot of top politicians are being charged and prosecuted on several corruption cases, but they do not plan to resign… till the judge sends them to jail!! :-)

    As for Churchill’s sentence… What I consider unreasonable is that you consider it to be the “ONLY” reasonable view on the matter of democracy.
    This doesn’t mean I’d prefer a non-democratic system. I would actually prefer a REAL democratic system: one that I can endorse not because it is not worse than the alternatives, but because I’m proud of it.
    Churchill seemed to consider democracy and other forms of government as “items”, as finished products. But democracy is a “living, creative process” instead. And I do not want the democracy of XVIII century, nor the one from 1947, and I do not want the democracy of 2009. I do want a more evolved and more mature form of democracy. The 2050’s democracy, maybe?? :-) Let’s work together to achieve it. And bring our politicians and political bodies with us, for sure!

  7. By Rolf Lührs on Jun 22, 2009

    Hi Dan & Pedro,

    very interesting debate, indeed! This kind of discussion is what I would like to see more often in our blog. Thanks!


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