About e-democracy

WindsorStar.com – news
Jun 07, 2013.   Lloyd Brown-John

There was a certain mystique surrounding the role of social media in that series of riots and revolutions that rocked much of the Arab world in late 2010 and early 2011.

The vague argument was that democratization within several hitherto autocratic regimes would/ should follow in the wake of street demonstrations and soft-revolutionary political change.

Widespread assumptions were made about the role of social media, both to communicate views and to assemble people for public demonstrations.

Perhaps, it might be suggested, the role of social media was overblown. Nevertheless, there was a new electronic element in the Arab Spring experience.

The role of social media in these several populist-based events raises important questions about the roles not only of social media, but full-fledged electronic media in promoting more widespread public participation in government.

Digital politics may or may not offer greater opportunity for citizens to effectively govern themselves.

As early as 2005 in Germany an online site appeared which offered citizens opportunities to prepare petitions promoting their various preferred causes.

In the U.S an online site, We The People, created in 2011, has so far generated more than 180,000 petitions with more than 12 million signatures. This year the threshold for petition signatures was raised to 100,000 which – at best – guarantees only a basic response from the White House.

In some countries successful e-petitions can lead to a vote on the petition in a legislature.

Many jurisdictions are experimenting with alternate means for citizen engagement in the public policy process. Ontario, for example, had a little dog and pony road show gathering local views on a then-prospective provincial budget. In the final analysis there is little to suggest that the overwhelming majority of views were taken into account.

In my old days in government, a standard response was: “You may rest assured your views will be taken into consideration.”

This was an elaborate euphemism for “we really don’t give a damn for your views or opinions.”

Yet, an estimated 1,500 cities, apparently, make an effort to engage the public in the budgetary priority process. Regrettably there is little empirical data available to draw conclusions about the value of such consultations beyond the cosmetics of involvement.

Some jurisdictions offer e-based policy options whereby one is offered two choices on a prospective policy and persons, and can then vote.

Draft laws and regulations are routinely reviewed by stakeholder organizations and groups in most jurisdictions throughout Canada. The key issue really is, can democracy be improved by more e-based interaction between those who govern and those governed?

Certainly inviting taxpayers to regularly comment upon and/or offer suggestions can be beneficial. But, overall, can it be assumed that democracy improves? First, democratic politics is very much about compromise and accommodation. Having two policy option choices or one petition essentially rules out compromise.

Second, in respect to online petitions, overwhelmingly such petitions emerge from what was once termed the “chattering class” – well-educated, usually males, who are regularly engaged in generating new petitions.

Large numbers of elderly or lower-income people are not usually involved.

As a result, direct democracy through website petitions, among other things, may reflect only one of many perspectives on prospective policy options.

Before governments and legislators begin swooning to the lure of e-based policy decision-making, there clearly needs to be much more considered examination of the contribution to broad-based democracy over the narrow interests of active participants.

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