This is the second article about the evaluation of eParticipation projects and their role in participatory democracy, which will be posted by the members of the TuTech team over the course of the next weeks. The first one by Bengt Feil can be found here.
Quantity matters – especially for everything related to the Internet. Just think of the exploding internet penetration rates throughout the recent decades, dizzying stock prices during the new economy or the number of weblogs counted by Technorati.
Since the term web 2.0 has been coined we are flooded by incredibly huge numbers of social network users everyday and only since Obama has managed to mobilise millions of people via the Internet public administrations and politicians seem to consider the participatory potential of the Internet seriously.
However, the flipside of the obsession with scale is that not enough attention is paid to the quality of citizen participation on the Internet. Is a project or service really valuable just because tenth or even hundreds of thousands of users were using it? What does the sheer fact that lots of people wrote to their MP via the Internet or participated in a online petition tells about the contribution of this service to the improvement of political culture or decisions? Or the other way round: Is a political discussion of a certain subject irrelevant just because just a few hundred people participated?
I believe that counting heads or contributions is not a sufficient measure to evaluate what eParticipation can do for Democracy. Even worse, to only stare at numbers obstructs the view to the core strengths of eParticipation like providing a space to express and shape opinions, to exchange arguments, to collaboratively work or create and being heard by political and administrative decision makers.
Still, quantity matters, but for different types of eParticipation to an entirely different extend. If we look ad crowd sourcing-like projects in the political realm it is reasonable to assume that the more citizens participate the better the results will be. If e.g. a public administration wants to learn more about the actual quality and state of streets, buildings and places it would help a lot if as many participants as possible send their comments, photos or videos. But if the same PA asked citizens for proposals on how to more efficiently spend tax payer’s money, the quality of these proposal counts in the first place.
It has been demonstrated quite a few times that deliberative Internet discussions can lead to concrete results, that these results were amplified by traditional media and finally led to better policies. Some of these cases have been introduced here on PEP-NET (1, 2, 3) and none of them managed to attract huge numbers of active participants.
Rather than trying to realise sort of mass-deliberation on particular policies we should try to increase the number of eParticipatory opportunities. A model for this could be the so-called “Long Tail” describing the niche strategy of selling a large number of unique items in relatively small quantities instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. Chris Anderson showed that products which are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current blockbusters. Transferred to the eParticipation domain this would offer the opportunity to achieve high overall participation rates while keeping up a good deliberative quality in the particular projects.