eParticipation is often equalized with “digital democracy”. Top-down approaches are based on the assumption that participation means involving citizens in governmental power structures. As governmental power builds on the development and execution of policies, it has been tried to make citizens participate in policy making. This led to the idea of a direct digital democracy, where virtually every law could be drafted and decided on by the citizens themselves. However, this vision of open virtual parliament or digital democracy faces several serious difficulties. Firstly, because of the lack of technical solutions for scalable discussion & co-editing, collective drafting is not possible with existing online tools. Thus, there is still plenty of space for new innovations in this field to overcome such technical constrains. More importantly, such a participatory digital democracy would be characterized by single-issue decisions. This certainly can be seen as one of its greatest advantages. But if open drafting would generally result in binding laws, its democratic legitimation would have to be guaranteed. Thus, citizens would have to participate in virtually every running decision at local, regional, national and European level at the same time. Since this is absolutely impossible, decisions would be made by random sets of participants (probably mainly lobbyists) without any democratic legitimation. Clearly, eParticipation cannot and should not be understood as an alternative for existing representative democracy, but rather as a complementary instrument.
To solve this dilemma, today´s eParticipation initiatives do not allow citizens to make binding decisions. Instead they ask people to contribute their ideas and preferences to preparatory stages of official decision-making processes. The binding decisions are still made by the institutions and their traditional decision-makers. In fact, eParticipation today is limited to eConsultations. It neither really empowers citizens, nor does it take into account their very own issues and concerns. As a result, the motivation for participation is very limited.
Instead of having been empowered, many participants may feel somehow betrayed or used to legitimate official decisions. From this perspective, eParticipation might be more interesting for decision-makers than for most citizens, who mainly look at politics as something quite boring and frustrating, which they do not feel very attracted to.
This article is an extract from our paper for this years EDem conference in Krems.The whole paper will be published by the Austrian Computer Society under the titel „BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN BOTTOM-UP AND TOP-DOWN E-PARTICIPATION APPROACHES
- E-PARTICIPATION AS ACTIVE CITIZENSHIP”
The EDem conference series is jointly organised by the Danube University Krems and the University of Economics and Business Administration, Vienna.