[LINK] ‘Goverati’, Or The E-Democracy Delusion

Bernard Robertson-Dunn brd at iimetro.com.au
Tue May 18 19:48:54 AEST 2010

Report: ‘Goverati’, Or The E-Democracy Delusion
By Dan Jellinek
egovernment bulletin

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 
of Catalonia.

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 
by technology.

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, 
Peňa-López said.

“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 
are online.”

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 
digital divide.”



Bernard Robertson-Dunn
Canberra Australia
brd at iimetro.com.au

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