[LINK] ‘Goverati’, Or The E-Democracy Delusion
brd at iimetro.com.au
Tue May 18 19:48:54 AEST 2010
Report: ‘Goverati’, Or The E-Democracy Delusion
By Dan Jellinek
The e-democracy sector has so far failed to have a significant impact on
the development of modern democracy, Andy Williamson, Head of Digital
Democracy at the Hansard Society in the UK, told this month’s annual
EDEM10 conference at Danube University Krems, Austria.
“I want to talk about why we’ve failed, and we have, in quite a few
ways,” Williamson said.
“If I look back on ten years on what we could have done, we have done
lots of great things, but we have not created the momentum or the
culture change that we thought we could create, or the buy-in from
government or citizens’ organisations.”
The barriers to progress have come from both sides: the slowness of both
citizens and government to engage, he said.
On the citizen side, practitioners need to capture people’s imagination
by focusing on popular issues and making it easier for them to take
part, Williamson said.
“Not many people are actively involved in politics or community work –
just 4% of UK adults – though a further 5% are interested in being
involved, but are not sure how. I would suggest that that is our target
“Research also finds that some 24% of people want more of a say in how
their communities are run. Now, if you ask those people if they are
interested in politics, or democracy, most of them will say no. But if
you ask them if they are interested in education, health and so on, they
will say yes.”
People are busy, and the internet does not of itself motivate people to
do anything, he said. “What motivates me is an issue which I feel
passionate about. But the internet might lower the threshold of
On the government side, policymakers need to become better attuned to
online activity and take account of what is already working, Williamson
“We have to try to shift the thinking in the policy cycle about how we
understand single issue campaigning. We can’t expect government to be
viral and issues-based, or to be immediately reactive and responsive,
but where it goes out to engage, instead of developing its own models,
it could go out to places where activity is already taking place and
start to put policymakers into those places as well. Hopefully this will
build relationships and over time help create cultural change.”
Ironically however, success in engaging more people online might bring
its own problems, he said.
“It is ideologically wonderful to think you could devolve government
down to lowest level of citizens, but how do you actually do it? If I
were to split you into two groups to decide the decor of this room, and
one side said one colour while the other side said another, what do I do
with the result? How do I aggregate it? How does localised
decision-making filter back up to regional and national government?”
Over time, democracy needs to become more deliberative at the same time
as digital participation activity would become more representative and
capable of aggregating up people’s views, Williamson said. “It’s not a
revolution, it’s an evolution.”
The conundrum of whether or not digital engagement projects are actually
enhancing our democracy was picked up by another speaker, Ismael
Peňa-López of the School of Law and Political Science, Open University
In a talk entitled ‘Goverati – e-aristocrats or the delusion of
e-democracy’, he took an economist’s-eye-view of e-participation,
examining it as a process with inputs and outputs that are being changed
The first requirement of democracy is information, Peňa-López said.
“Before the internet, information was scarce, kept in the government in
boxes, and access costs were really high. If you wanted to exert a
democratic right, and be informed on deciding whether to build a road
bridge in your area for example, it took a lot of time and money to get
the right information.”
The next stage of democracy is deliberation, he said. “Once you have
information, you deliberate with other people on what is the best way –
a bridge or a tunnel?” In the pre-internet era, you would have had to
gather everyone in a big public square, but it would be impossible: “You
don’t have a big enough place, and how would you get heard with three
million people there?” But now this stage too could move online.
The third stage is negotiation, a process of compromise whereby people
change opinions and arrive at an agreement. The cost issues of this
stage are the same as for deliberation, he said.
Fourth comes decision-making, often through voting, where again there is
a cost, particularly for large voting exercises like general elections,
“and this is one of the reasons we only do it every four or five years.”
Finally, closing the circle back to the stage of access to information,
comes accountability of politicians and governments for their actions.
“Now we want to know what has happened, who did what. In a pre-digital
era, everyone has to write down what they did, all the papers were kept
in some basement, and you have to spend thousands of euros photocopying
Because of the time and money involved in each stage of the old system,
societies invented two types of intermediary, political parties and
governments, to carry out all democratic tasks on behalf of the people,
“But now input and output of all stages are the same – information – for
the first time in history. In most of the world, no capital or labour is
required to access information now online, or it is really, really
cheap. Knowledge is not cheap, but it is easy to transmit. So scarcity
is not an issue any more. And costs are very low.”
This means it is easier for people to engage directly in democracy,
without intermediaries, he said.
So what are the problems?
The main new problem is that of the digital divide, Peňa-López said.
“Sometimes the press says ‘everyone is saying something online’, but
really it is just a few thousand people on self-supporting political
sites, and there are 40 million people in Spain, only two-thirds of whom
Participation is also about much more than just access, he said. Digital
competency, for example, can be about “knowing who is real and who is
not online, who this digital personality is and who it is not.”
The danger is that a new ‘e-politics’ divide will be created whereby the
same people who did well influencing the old mainstream media will do
well influencing the new media, Peňa-López said.
“My fear is that if initiatives are cool-based, hype-based, and if we
don’t train people, the ‘goverati’ will take it on, and they will just
be swapping with the existing elite, and we might be excluding people
rather than including them unless we work on digital competency and
brd at iimetro.com.au
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