E-democracy (a combination of the words electronic and democracy) is a form of direct democracy representing the use of information and communication technologies and strategies by democratic actors within political and governance processes of local communities and nations and on the international stage. Democratic actors/sectors include governments, elected officials, the media, political organizations, and citizens/voters.
E-democracy suggests greater and more active citizen participation enabled by the Internet, mobile communications, and other technologies in today's representative democracy, as well as through more participatory or direct forms of citizen involvement in addressing public challenges.
E-democracy is a relatively new concept, which has surfaced out of the popularity of the Internet and the need to reinvigorate interest in the democratic process.. Access is the key to creating interest in the democratic process. Citizens are more willing to use websites to support their candidates and their campaign drives. In the United States, just over half of the population vote, and, in the United Kingdom, only 69% of English citizens do so.
The research indicates the political process has been alienated from ordinary people, where laws are made by representatives far removed from ordinary people. The goal of e-democracy is to reverse the cynicism citizens have about their government institutions. However, there are increasing doubts concerning the real impact of electronic and digital tools on citizen participation and democratic governance and warning against the "rhetoric" of electronic democracy.
Tools/forms of e-democracy
There has been a significant growth in the last four years, and implementation rates have topped out in many of the categories. To see this data, go to NIC Resources website. Public- and private-sector platforms provide an avenue to citizen engagement while offering access to transparent information citizens have come to expect.
To develop these public-sector portals or platforms, governments have the choice to internally develop and manage, outsource or sign a self-funding contract. The self-funding model creates portals that pay for themselves through convenience fees for certain e-government transactions. Early players in this space include govONE Solutions, First Data Government Solutions and NIC, a company built on the self-funded model.
Social networking is an emerging area for e-democracy. The social networking entry point is within the citizens' environment, and the engagement is on the citizens' terms. Proponents of e-government perceive government use of social networks as a medium to help government act more like the public it serves. Examples of state usage can be found at The Official Commonwealth of Virginia Homepage, where citizens can find Google tools and open social forums.
Government and its agents also have the opportunity to follow citizens to monitor satisfaction with services they receive. Through ListServs, RSS feeds, mobile messaging, micro-blogging services and blogs, government and its agencies can share information to citizens who share common interests and concerns. Government is also beginning to use Twitter. In the state of Rhode Island, for instance, Treasurer Frank T. Caprio is offering daily tweets of the state's cash flow. Also, many state agencies "Tweett"
Practical issues with e-democracy
E-democracy has a number of practical issues surrounding it. In the media, on the Internet, and in popular consciousness, there is a strong and generally unchallenged view that the Internet is the new electronic cradle of democracy. The original source of this view is probably the relatively unfettered speech found in Internet newsgroups, mailing lists, blogs, wikis and chat rooms.
The Internet, as it currently exists, does have several attributes that encourage thinking about it as a democratic medium. Part of this can be traced to the design principles that were established early in its evolution. The lack of centralized control suggests to many people that censorship or other attempts at control will be thwarted. Other attributes are a result of social design in the early days, the strongly libertarian support for free speech, the sharing culture that permeated nearly all aspects of Internet use, and the outright prohibition on commercial use by the National Science Foundation, for example. The Internet's most significant contribution was the idea of unmediated many-to-many communication on a large scale, through newsgroups, chat rooms, MUDs, and numerous other modes. This type of communication ignored the boundaries established with broadcast media, such as newspapers or radio, and with one-to-one media, such as letters or landline telephones. Finally, the reality of the Internet as a massive digital network with open standards suggested that universal and inexpensive access to a wide variety of communication media and models could actually be attained. Some practical issues involving e-democracy include: effective participation; voting equality at decision stage; enlightened understanding; control of the agenda; and inclusiveness.
Citizens' roles in e-democracy
The Internet provides a distinctive structure of opportunities that has the potential to renew interest in civic engagement and participation. Civic engagement can be understood to include three distinct dimensions: political knowledge (what people learn about public affairs), political trust (the public's orientation of support for the political system), and political participation (conventional activities designed to influence government and the decision-making process)
The information capacity available on the Internet allows citizens to become more knowledgeable about government and political issues, and the interactivity of the medium allows for new forms of communication with government and elected officials. The posting of contact information, legislation, agendas, and policies makes government more transparent, potentially enabling more informed participation both online and offline. For more information, visit transparent-gov.
Internet as a campaign tool
The Internet is viewed as a platform and delivery medium for tools that help to eliminate some of the distance constraints in representative democracy. Technical media for e-democracy can be expected to extend to mobile technologies, such as cellphones.
Most importantly, the Internet is a many-to-many communication medium, whereas radio and television, which broadcast few-to-many, and telephones, which broadcast few-to-few, are not. Also, the Internet has a much greater computational capacity, allowing strong encryption and database management, which is important in community information access and sharing, deliberative democracy and electoral fraud prevention. Further, people use the Internet to collaborate or meet in an asynchronous manner—that is, they do not have to be physically gathered at the same moment to get things accomplished.
Using the Internet as a political campaigning tool has become a cheaper and more convenient alternative for many politicians, in comparison to traditional door-to-door knocking or telephone campaigning. Candidates are also beginning to use social networking sites to reach younger audiences, creating potential supporters to campaigns. E-mail chains and political blogs also have had a major impact with online campaigning. Views are expressed by adding comments to political blogs or web pages. Point-and-click advertising (interactive advertising online) also has influenced traditional mail or television campaigning.
The lower cost of information exchange on the Internet, as well as the high level of reach that the content potentially has, makes the Internet an attractive medium for political information, particularly amongst social interest groups and parties with lower budgets.
For example, environmental or social issue groups may find the Internet an easier mechanism to increase awareness of their issues, as compared to traditional media outlets, such as television or newspapers, which require heavy financial investment. Due to all these factors, the Internet has the potential to take over certain traditional media of political communication, such as the telephone, the television, newspapers and the radio. The civil society has gradually moved into the online world.
Another example is openforum.com.au, an Australian non-profit eDemocracy project that invites politicians, senior public servants, academics, business people and other key stakeholders to engage in high-level policy debate.
Novel tools are being developed that are aimed at empowering bloggers, webmasters and owners of other social media, with the effect of moving from a strictly informational use of the Internet to using the Internet as a means of social organization not requiring top-down action. Action triggers, for instance, are a novel concept designed to allow webmasters to mobilize their viewers into action without the need for leadership. These tools are also utilized worldwide: for example, India is developing an effective blogosphere that allows Internet users to state their thoughts and opinions.
Electronic support for local democratic groups
Citizens' associations play an important role in the democratic process, providing a place for individuals to learn about public affairs and a source of power outside that of the state, according to theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville. Public-policy researcher Hans Klein at the Georgia Institute of Technology notes that participation in such forums has a number of barriers, such as the need to meet in one place at one time. In a study of a civic association in the northeastern United States, Klein found that electronic communications greatly enhanced the ability of the organization to fulfill its mission.
There are many forms of association in civic society. The term interest group conventionally refers to more formal organizations that either focus on particular social groups and economic sectors, such as trade unions and business and professional associations, or on more specific issues, such as abortion, gun control, or the environment. Other traditional interest groups have well-established organizational structures and formal membership rules, and their primary orientation is toward influencing government and the policy process. Transnational advocacy networks bring together loose coalitions of these organizations under common umbrella organizations that cross national borders.
The Internet may serve multiple functions for all of these organizations, including lobbying elected representatives, public officials, and policy elites; networking with related associations and organizations; mobilizing organizers, activists, and members using action alerts, newsletters, and emails; raising funds and recruiting supporters; and communicating their message to the public via the traditional news media.
Benefits and disadvantages
Information and communications technologies are neither democratic nor undemocratic; they are merely means to an end and not normative by their nature. They are tools that may be deployed to achieve certain goals (e.g., contradictory goals, such as coercive control or participation can be fostered by digital technology). However, certain institutional framework conditions may either support or hamper the use of electronic means for the benefit of democratic processes. Risks and opportunities of the digitization of democratic processes depends therefore to a large extent upon the particular institutional framework conditions of the chosen democratic model (which is mainly set out in the Constitution, including the type of the underlying social contract, specific aspects of the rule of law, representative democracy or direct democracy, etc.)
Contemporary technologies, such as electronic mailing lists, peer-to-peer networks, collaborative software, wikis, Internet forums and blogs, are clues to and early potential solutions for some aspects of e-democracy.
A number of non-governmental sites have developed cross-jurisdiction, customer-focused applications that extract information from thousands of governmental organizations into a system that brings consistency to data across many dissimilar providers. It is convenient and cost-effective for businesses, and the public benefits by getting easy access to the most current information available without having to expend tax dollars to get it. One example of this is transparent.gov, a free resource for citizens to quickly identify the various open government initiatives taking place in their community or in communities across the country.
Another valuable source is USA.gov—the official site of the United States government. The website is directly linked to every federal and state agency. The information provided by the website is valuable to all citizens, and non-citizens, of the current news and regulations of the U.S. government. These are just some examples of e-government influence in the Internet.
E-democracy leads to a more simplified process and access to government information for public-sector agencies and citizens. For example, the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles simplified the process of certifying driver records to be admitted in county court proceedings. Indiana became the first state to allow government records to be digitally signed, legally certified and delivered electronically by using Electronic Postmark technology. In addition to its simplicity, e-democracy services can reduce costs. The Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources, Wal-Mart and NIC developed an online hunting and fishing license service utilizing an existing computer to automate the licensing process. More than 140,000 licenses were purchased at Wal-Mart stores during the first hunting season, and the agency estimates it will save $200,000 annually from service.
Electronic democracy can also carry the benefit of reaching out to youth as a mechanism to increase youth voter turnout in elections and raising awareness amongst youth. With the consistent decline of voter turnout, e-democracy and electronic voting mechanisms can help revert that trend. Youth, in particular, have seen a significant drop in turnout in most industrialized nations, including Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. The use of electronic political participation mechanisms may appear more familiar to youth and, as a result, garner more participation by youths who would otherwise find it inconvenient to vote using the more traditional methods. Electronic democracy can help improve democratic participation, reduce civic illiteracy and voter apathy and become a useful asset for political discussion, education, debate and participation.
Equally, these technologies are bellwethers of some of the issues associated with the territory, such as the inability to sustain new initiatives or protect against identity theft, information overload and vandalism.
Some traditional objections to direct democracy are argued to apply to e-democracy, such as the potential for governance to tend towards populism and demagoguery. More practical objections exist, not least in terms of the digital divide between those with access to the media of e-democracy (mobile phones and Internet connections) and those without, as well as the opportunity cost of expenditure on e-democracy innovations.
Furthermore, there are still those who are skeptical to the amount of impact that they can make through online participation. Although the government projects supply information, IT illiteracy and the digital divide are grounds to discourage participation. The political advances on the Internet can potentially dishearten non-users to adapt the new technologies.
Electronic direct democracy
Electronic direct democracy is the strongest form of direct democracy, in which people are involved in the legislative function. The notion is utopian in the present capitalistic world, because, realistically, the Internet and other electronic communications technologies are used only to ameliorate the bureaucracy involved with referendums. Many advocates think that also important to this notion are technological enhancements to the deliberative process. Electronic direct democracy is sometimes referred to as EDD (many other names are used for what is essentially the same concept).
EDD requires electronic voting or some way to register votes on issues electronically. As in any direct democracy, in an EDD, citizens would have the right to vote on legislation, author new legislation, and recall representatives (if any representatives are preserved).
Technology for supporting EDD has been researched and developed at the Florida Institute of Technology. The technology is currently used with student organizations.
EDD as a system is not fully implemented anywhere in the world although several initiatives are currently forming. Ross Perot was a prominent advocate of EDD when he advocated "electronic town halls" during his 1992 and 1996 Presidential campaigns in the United States. Switzerland, already partially governed by direct democracy, is making progress towards such a system. Senator On-Line, an Australian political party running for the Senate in the 2007 federal elections, proposes to institute an EDD system so that Australians can decide which way the senators vote on each and every bill. A similar initiatiave were formed 2002 in Sweden where the party Aktivdemokrati, running for the Swedish parliament, is offering its members to decide the actions if the party over all or some areas for decisions, alternatively to use a proxy with immediate recall for one or several areas.
Liquid democracy, or direct democracy with delegable proxy, would allow citizens to choose a proxy to vote on their behalf while retaining the right to cast their own vote on legislation. The voting and the appointment of proxies could be done electronically. The proxies could even form proxy chains, in which if A appoints B and B appoints C, and neither A and B vote on a proposed bill but C does, C's vote will count for all three of them. Citizens could also rank their proxies in order of preference, so that if their first choice proxy fails to vote, their vote can be cast by their second-choice proxy. The topology of this system would mirror the structure of the Internet itself, in which routers may have a primary and alternate server from which to request information.
ICTs and Political Participation
Information and communication technologies (ICTs) play a major role in organizing and informing citizens in various forms of civic engagement. ICTs are used to enhance active participation of citizens and to support the collaboration between actors for policy-making purposes within the political processes of all stages of governance. ICTs offer citizens not only the means to organize themselves, but also to produce cultural codes to represent themselves. ICTs can be seen as an important enabler to the empowerment of citizens or e-mancipation of citizens.
Internet and Youth Civic Engagement
There has been much speculation about the Internet’s potential to facilitate the engagement of younger citizens in politics. This group of young people, under the age of 35, frequently labelled Generations X and Y, have been noted for their lack of political interest and activity for the last two decades. The younger generation is less likely to have established long-standing habits of media use, and are willing to experiment with new technologies and formats. Young adults view the benefits of new technologies as a means of gaining advantage in education, employment, and in the political realm. Younger people have a facility with Internet technology and are more likely than older citizens to use web-based platforms to research and access political information . However, there is on clear consensus on the capacity of new media, including the Internet and social networking websites to engage young people in the democratic process.