A selection of brief public comments and reactions from official representatives of the participating countries in the G8 GOL initiative. Frank Mcdonough, Deputy Associate Administrator, Office of Intergovernmental AffairsWith the rapid growth of Internet and the World Wide Web, governments at all levels see the possibilities. A new form of governance is emerging. One term for it is "electronic democracy."Every national, state, and local government has made a major commitment to the possibilities offered by Internet and the Web. The G8 Government On-Line program sponsored a one year effort to solicit and present important Government On-Line and Democracy experiences and ideas. The 17 papers in the new publication coupled with the important bibliography will add to the wide discourse on the broad area often referred to as "electronic democracy."Olov Östberg of the Statskontoret in Sweden and Steven Clift of the State of Minnesota in the United States led the project. The studies represent work in 17 different city, state, or national governments. The European Union providing a cross-nation perspective did an additional study.
The information in the 17 papers generally falls into two categories
summarized in this introduction.
Participation by All People is a Key Goal in Most Governments
A few years ago, electronic democracy emphasized access to the information held by government, and the ability to vote on the decisions of government. Today the goal is to allow citizens to choose from one of seven levels of participation.
1. Access the information held by the government
Three years ago, providing access was considered sufficient. Today the requirement is seen as being more complex. A simple "memory dump" from the government's computers is not satisfactory in an electronic democracy. Governments now recognize that the data must be of high quality to be useful. Secondly, it must be organized in a manner, which will enable citizens, and the organizations of society to find the information they need to make informed decisions. Thirdly, the citizens need computer literacy and access to computers. Without these resources, simple access to information will be meaningless.
Almost every one of the 17 government's affirms that all citizens must have equal access to information and to the services and other possibilities in an electronic democracy.
All governments have a goal to ensure that no one is left out and that all of the needs of the public are identified and considered. There are many strategies and programs addressing these objectives across the world. The State of Wisconsin in the United States minimizes graphics and maximizes text on its web pages to help ensure access by the disabled population.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development in the U.S. in a short-term pilot program, considered the needs of the low-income residents in public housing projects. The residents, owners, and managers in housing projects developed plans to establish computer centers in their project.
In Taipei, the government of Taiwan works with industry to place Internet accessible computers in the central train station and other public buildings. These are free of charge; and, help to build Internet skills in the population.
At the seventh level of electronic democracy, voting is not yet being done electronically by citizens. The United Kingdom is an example of the typical, current model. In this case, pre-legislative discussion, debate, and consultation are the norm. Then, the elected officials formulate the actual legislation.
There is a great deal of debate about whether citizens rather than elected officials should cast the final vote on legislation. Both sides in the debate have compiling arguments. One side argues that this is what democracy is all about. The other argues that citizens are generally uninformed about the issues and are poorly positioned to cast a vote on important legislative issues. In addition, they suggest that too much pre-legislative discussion could undermine the primary service functions of government. Also, it risks disabling the ability of government officials to conduct intelligent debate; and, it may limit appropriate discretion in the development of policy.
Governments are Implementing Electronic Democracy in a Variety of Ways
Governments began to consider new forms of government with the arrival of the Internet and Web pages. Perhaps, it is a coincidence that these events are occurring at the same time. But, governments at all levels clearly see that Information Technology, and Internet in particular, will enhance democracy andsupport effective citizen participation in government.
The legal structure, culture, and society of a government will affect how Internet and other technologies are introduced into governance. Nonetheless, all governments see Internet as something very different and very promising. Every government has a range of Internet based programs and emerging plans.
Iceland, for example, is converting its libraries into information centers which will provide Internet access to the public. In Australia, "Victoria 21" provides Web access to government information and services. This program isbuilding infrastructure in the communities in Victoria; and, it is building skills in the population.
Bologna, in Italy, provides the "Iperbole System" for its citizens. This is a "free of charge" civic network on the Internet. Iperbole allows the citizens to address messages to the city government in a free-form way. Technology examines each message and determines the appropriate office to route it to for action. The system has 11,000 users. Thousands of e-mail messages are exchanged daily. There are many active discussion groups. The Iperbole system in Bologna, Italy may be a model for all governments.
Barcelona in Spain has a system, which encourages citizen participation through the Internet. Korea, like Barcelona and Bologna, uses the Web and Internet to inform citizens, answer their questions, and involve them in policy and decision making. The Korean paper is particularly valuable because it evaluates the experiences thegovernment had implementing this service. The "what went wrong" discussion will assist other governments considering these new services.
Sweden has used "Citizens Bureaux" since mid 1980 while steadily increasing their authorities and responsibilities. These Bureaux provide a cross government, intersectional approach, which is particularly helpful in rural and suburban localities. Further expansion is being considered; and, linkages to Internet and the Web are in place. One plan is to include National government agencies, local social insurance offices, and county councils on the Citizen Bureaux. The expanded Bureaux would make decisions on such things as additional housing allowances for elderly pensioners and parking permits for the disabled.
The United Kingdom has the "UK Citizens On-Line Democracy (UKCOD). This provides politically useful information and promotes democratic discussion in a neutral, non-partisan manner.
The "Gov News" program in the United States notes that Internet allows each of us to "read the news" like we do with newspapers. Internet also allows us to write and publish the articles as well. This changes the roles we can play as citizens. Gov News promotes "push technology" as an important contribution to electronic democracy. Push technology collects and sends information to people who are interested in a given subject as opposed to mail, radio, and broadcast TV where the person on the receiving end is probably not interested and not really listening.
In these early days of electronic democracy, we may look to the smaller cities, towns, and villages for the first success stories. One participating author in a study of five cities in the United States found that neighborhood associations can best support effective citizen participation in government. The question is how can the neighborhood model addressing citywide issues be used at the state government and national levels? The answer seems to be that we should implement Electronic Democracy in a series of small-scale solutions rather than granddesigns.