or Virtual Civil War
Remarks as prepared by Steven
Clift for the Promise of E-Democracy WSIS Event, Geneva, Switzerland, December
2003 (Released online, January 2004)
Copyright 2004 - Feel
free to distribute widely. Notification
Event information from: http://egov.unitar.org/spip/article169.html
Event video from: http://egov.unitar.org/spip/article187.html
my speech in Real Video
(Due to time constraints,
I saved some of my prepared text below for the lively discussion.)
Join the revolution?
I don't believe the Internet
is inherently democratic. To me, most people and organizations are fundamentally
anti-democratic by nature. Many of those in power and those clamoring for
power are self-centered actors. They operate within the miracle we call
representative democracy. Most accept the idea that democracy is good,
but these actors do little to ensure its strength.
After a decade working directly
with e-democracy issues, I've concluded that "politics as usual" online
may be the tipping point that finishes off what television started – the
extinction of democracy and democratic spirit.
Those hoping for an almost
accidental democratic transformation fostered by the information technology
will watch in shock from the sidelines as their favorite new medium becomes
the arsenal of virtual civil war - virtual civil wars among partisans at
When I open e-mail from all
sorts of American political parties and activist groups, I see conflict.
I see unwillingness to compromise.
Let's be optimists and suggest
that the Net is doubling the activist population from five percent to ten
percent. The harsh reality is that we are doubling the virtual soldiers,
an expendable slash and burn online force, available to established political
As the excessive and bitter
partisanship of the increased activist population leaks into the e-mail
boxes of everyday people, I predict abhorrence of Net-era politics among
the general citizenry. I fear the extreme erosion of public trust not just
in government, but also in most things public and political.
Instead of encouraging networked
citizen participation that improves the public results delivered in our
democracies, left to its natural path, the Internet will be used to eliminate
forms of constructive civic engagement by the other 90 percent of citizens.
A 10 percent democracy of warring partisan is no democracy at all.
Compounding the problem,
the billions of Euros in e-government focus almost exclusively on one-way
services and efficiency. Government makes it easy to pay your taxes online
- while doing little to give you a virtual - anytime, anywhere - say in
how those taxes are spent. Many elected officials are turning off their
e-mail for citizens, leaving it on for lobbyists to reach their staff directly,
and building what I call “Digital Berlin Walls” of complicated web forms.
One-way “e-governments” based on efficiency to the exclusion of "two-way"
democracy are the norm. Unfortunately, most governments are saying e-services
first, democracy later.
In summary, online political
strife combined with governments that are incapable of accommodating our
public will present a dark future for democracy in the information age.
Join the democratic evolution!
Everything I've just said
contrasts dramatically from the exceptional experiences of citizen groups
and governments leading the way with the best e-democracy practices.
Everyday in Minnesota, I
experience the power of online discourse among citizens. I am impressed
by online innovations in many parliaments and government agencies. And
I've been inspired by the online activism of many groups.
However, we have an enemy.
It is not "politics as usual." They must compete to survive. Our enemy
is our indifference to our generational democratic obligations. We have
a duty to make the most honorable use of the unique information age opportunities
We have a choice, we can
strategically use ICTs to improve our communities, strengthen society,
and address global challenges or we can ride the ICT-accelerated race to
the post-democratic bottom.
It is time to give more than
lip service to e-democracy experiments, research, and best practices.
It is time to bring the democratic
intent and values required to make the demonstrated possibility of the
new online medium a universal reality.
Build the democratic evolution!
To make what is possible
probable, the time for action has arrived.
The new media, led by the
Internet, must be used to help us meet public challenges. It must be used
to transform anti-democratic states and break apart hyper-partisan and
unresponsive politics at all levels. We must be smarter, faster, and more
committed than "politics as usual."
How? In the next decade,
I ask you to join me in three specific campaigns.
1. The Rule of Law - Mandate
the democratic evolution!
By making exceptional and
essential e-democracy best practices universal through the rule of law.
We know most of what works,
the technology exists, and great examples abound. Nothing optional in government
will become universal or wide spread if it remains unfunded or a choice.
Laws must be passed to require
A. By 2005 all public meeting
notices with agendas and legally public meeting documents must be posted
online not just on a cork board in some government office. No electronic
notice, no meeting.
B. By 2006 all representative
and regulatory bodies must make all proposed legislation and amendments
available online the second it is distributed as a public document to anyone.
Once passed, no law, rule, regulation, and budget details not freely available
online should be considered enforceable. No transparency ... then no authority
and no money.
C. Next, citizens have a
right to be notified via e-mail about new government information based
on their interests and where they live. Timely notification allows people
to act politically when it still matters. Governments must fund and implement
such systems. Maintaining garbage dumps of government data is choice against
openness and accountability. Any government in a OECD country without an
online personalization and notification system by mid-2006 will be added
to my list of anti-e-democratic governments.
D. By 2007 citizens need
access to complete, always up-to-date, local “MyDemocracy” directories
of all their elected officials and government organizations. No contact
data, no power. A global network of these standardized and networked databases
will be a tool from which we can build 21st century democracy.
Remember, we must develop
and pass laws that require these things to happen. I see no short
cut without resources and legal mandates from our elected officials.
2. Public Net-Work - Leverage
By building the online infrastructure
to help citizens and their governments meet public challenges through a
new concept I call “public
If e-democracy is primarily
about input into government decision-making, "Public Net-Work" is about
stakeholder and citizen involvement in the implementation of established
government priorities. Leading governments are moving from sole providers
to facilitators of those who want to roll up their “virtual” sleeves and
solve similar problems. Think e-volunteerism instead of e-consultation.
The few Public Net-Work projects,
New South Wales and the downtown
community policing efforts in Minneapolis, use many of the same online
tools we need for e-democracy. E-democracy technology investments are really
a two for one opportunity – better input and effective output in the public
3. Online Public Issue
Forums - Localize the democratic evolution!
We must establish two-way
citizen-based e-democracy forums in every locality and connect them with
one another on a national and global basis.
When I travel through a town,
I always envision the community bonds among people and think about how
the online world might help reconnect neighbors and communities.
In 1994, E-Democracy.Org
built the world's first election-oriented
web site. More importantly we built an online forum where Minnesotans
-from across the political spectrum- could discuss real public issues.
We turned the once a year in-person town hall meeting into a 24 hours a
day, seven days a week, 365 days a year online civic event.
In 1998 we took our model
local. In Minneapolis,
Paul, and Winona we
use e-mail, the tool of choice among most people online, to facilitate
many-to-many discussions. We build public space online that has agenda-setting
power in real community. These forums work. They work well. I cannot imagine
my local democracy without one. What about your local democracy?
Citizens cannot wait for
governments to build or fund these forums. By volunteering and working
to pragmatically recruit the participation of elected officials, community
leaders, and journalists they will attract diverse citizens and new voices
rarely heard in traditional time and place discriminatory forms of democracy.
On the other hand, governments,
media organizations, and civil society groups cannot wait for spontaneous
citizen-led e-democracy activity. They need to join together and foster
new local democratic institutions "of" the Internet and not just "on" the
Internet. Like the creation of public broadcasting by past generations,
something new must be created for the public benefit based on the democratic
opportunity presented by new technologies.
Whether started by unaffiliated
citizens or fostered by those on the inside who see the big e- democracy
picture, an option you can take home is the opportunity to establish a
E-Democracy.Org chapter with an effective online forum “of, for and
by” your community.
Long Live The Evolution!
What is possible with e-democracy
is not probable unless we make it happen. Our opportunity to use these
tools to raise the voice of citizens, improve representative democracy,
and solve public problems is tremendous. And, what currently appears likely
is not democratically desirable, unless we, unless we build online public
spaces and democratic opportunities online from the center that bring people
together and build the democratic evolution.