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The role of an "e" in advancing democracy

The "e" can make the government better by bringing in the greatest resource the government has, and that is the public.

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Interview with Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication at the Institute of Communications Studies, Leeds University (UK), and co-Director of the newly established Centre for Digital Citizenship, by Krista Baumane, Development Director of Centre for Public Policy Providus

What do you mean by e-Democracy and has that definition in any way changed over the years you have been working with it?

By e-Democracy I mean the process of trying to run a society where public voice plays a meaningful role in policy formation and decision-making using tools that the age of the Internet makes available to us. Has my view in any way changed? Yes, it has. I was much more interested in institutions at the beginning of my research and I am much more interested in civil society now. I am still interested in both, but I would place far less confidence in governments, parliamentary institutions and political parties to respond imaginatively and creatively to this kind of situation than I might have done a few years ago.



What do you think about the impact on democracy of blogs and social networking sites, with politicians and the public using them increasingly?

I think the great success story of the last five years has been the development of the Internet as a citizen-to-citizen process of mass communication. Many-to-many, rather than one-to-many. Politicians look at social networking and say, how can we work within social networking, using the old, industrial broadcasting top-down model where we speak and everybody listens. By and large, however much they try and make it not look like that, it tends to be like that.

What I think politicians should be doing is going out into the blogosphere, issuing their comments within the discussions that are already taking place, showing that they are willing to learn, respect, and listen. That is very different from every politician having his own blog. I am not against politicians having blogs but I am not in favor of it if the sole purpose of the blog is to serve as a brochure for how good they are. Because we have had that and it is unconvincing.



Many politicians' blogs do look like a press releases and they appear to be written by someone else. Can you mentione some positive examples of genuine blogs/communication?

One of the best blogs produced by a British Member of Parliament is Austin Mitchell’s[1], but if you asked him today if he was a blogger he probably would not know what you mean because he knows nothing about the technology. He uses his blog to tell stories about what is going on in the parliament, what happened in the background. Anyone who is really interested in politics would want to read it, because you can get a lot of information from there that you can not get elsewhere.

There is a guy Slugger O’Toole who writes a blog about Northern Ireland[2]. It is one of the best places on the web to find out what’s going on in Northern Ireland.

So, I like to see the blogs produced by soldiers in Iraq or journalists in Iraq who can not get their stories out at the length they would like to. I am interested in people who blog from a position we can not imagine ourselves being in. I am not interested in a research assistant writing a blog for a politician.



One often hears at conferences on eGovernance, that if you apply "e" over bad government, you get bad e-government, i.e. it only makes things worse and is a waste of money. Do you see any chance that the "e" could serve to bring about positive change in governance in less than democratic countries?

The "e" over bad government where you have any level of corruption or people who do not want transparency, is extremely good, because what the "e" does, it opens the windows where elites would otherwise be hiding in the shadows. In a place like China, where you have a bad and terribly corrupt government, they are starting to use the "e" in order to prevent people from taking bribes for services that should be free. So, I do not take the view that you should not add the "e" even to bad government, but what I do think is that the "e" can then make the government better by bringing in the greatest resource the government has, and that is the public.



In the UK, Downing Street commissioned MySociety[3]– a civil society organisation – to run their e-petitions site[4] a year ago. How do you evaluate this experiment and, in particular, the cooperation between government and civil society?

Well, there has not been any evaluation and as with any big project, we have got to have a full, critical and independent evaluation. We have got to know who is signing these petitions – is it the usual political activists, is it the people who would normally go to the government website, is it a representative sample of the British population or of the intertnet users? We do not know any of that, we can only guess. That data is not being collected at the moment. I think this is a technologically driven project and my worry with projects like this is that you start with the technology and the politics is a sort of an add-on afterwards. It seems to me that democracy is an inherently political and social question and technology is what you use to make those democratic outcomes better for ourselves, more convenient, more effective and so on.

So, I worry about the e-petitions because it is not a deliberative process. It is replicating what we have always done with petitions. You sign your name against one sentence, agreeing or disagreeing with it. I do not think that is the way to go.

What do I think of MySociety doing it? I think MySociety is doing much better things elsewhere, within civil society. I think they have to be careful – as we all do – the closer you get to the center of government, the more you can become appropriated by the government.



You have criticised the e-petitions system for lacking any deliberation, while – correct me if I amwrong - there is a long deliberation tradition in Britain. How do you explain, then, the absence of deliberation on-line when off-line it is very much present?

It is a very good question and I wish I had a simple answer. We do have a lot of good off-line deliberation – citizens' juries, panels, deliberative polls – a whole range of methods that seem to work. And then on-line, you stick up a petition, sign your name and, if there are a million of you, it gets a response from the Prime Minister. I think part of the reason is that the technologists who are driving this do not know enough about politics and democracy. The message is that we should not have lots and lots of technologically-driven projects.



Who should drive them, then?

We should! I think, the communities should drive them, for a start. I am a great believer in projects by various groups – unmarried mothers, minorities, school kids, the disabled or unemployed, for example – all of whom are perfectly capable of running these projects, who do run these projects, some of whom are really good. And yet every time the government looks at these projects and says, "That is a good idea! – we will go and reinvent these projects ourselves, as long as we can control them".

The control issue goes back to what I was saying in my talk[5] earlier this morning – when mass media invites people to interactively participate in TV programmes, they realise that the nature of the programmes has to change, influenced by the public decision. The government has to start realising the same thing. It is not a question of saying "We want interactivity!" but we do not want that interactivity to have any effect on what we had originally intended to do.



The interview took place during the conference „e-Democracy ‘07“ on 8th November, 2007, in London.
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[1] www.austinmitchell.org

[2] www.sluggerotoole.com

[3] www.mysociety.org

[4] http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/

[5] Key-note address “2007 – The Year in E-Democracy” at the conference “„e-Democracy ‘07“ on 8th November, 2007, in London.


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