E-Governance and Public Net-Work
By Steven Clift
Copyright 2003 - Permission
required for print or electronic redistribution.
Version 1.1, September 2003
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While the art and practice of government
policy-making, citizen participation, and public work is quite complex,
the following illustration provides a simple framework used in this paper:
In this model of traditional government
1. Citizens provide occasional
input between elections and pay taxes.
2. Power in the Governance infrastructure
is centered with political leaders who determine broad policy priorities
and distribute resources based on those priorities and existing programs
and legal requirements.
3. Through government directly, and other
publicly funded organizations, Public Work represents the implementation
of the policy agenda and law.
Over time of course, bureaucratic barriers
to reform make it difficult for leaders to recognize changes in citizen
needs and priorities. Citizen input, outside of elections, often
has a difficult time getting through. Disconnects among citizens,
leaders, and those who implement public work are often based on the inability
to easily communicate through and across these groups.
As our one-way broadcast world becomes
increasingly two-way, will the governance process gain the ability to listen
and respond more effectively?
The information-age, led by Internet content,
software, technology, and connectivity, is changing society and the way
we can best meet public challenges. E-democracy, e-governance, and public
net-work are three interrelated concepts that will help us map out our
opportunity to more effectively participate, govern, and do public work.
E-democracy is a term that elicits a wide
range of reactions. Is it part of an inevitable technology driven revolution?
Will it bring about direct voting on every issue under the sun via the
Internet? Is this just a lot of hype? And so on. (The answers … no,
no, and no.)
Just as there are many different definitions
of democracy and many more operating practices, e-democracy as a concept
is easily lost in the clouds. Developing a practical definition of
E-Democracy is essential to help us sustain and adapt everyday representative
democratic governance in the information age.
After a decade of involvement in this field,
I have established the following working definition:
E-Democracy is the use of information and
communications technologies and strategies by “democratic sectors” within
the political processes of local communities, states/regions, nations and
on the global stage.
The “democratic sectors” include the following
Media (and major online Portals)
Political parties and interest groups
Civil society organizations
International governmental organizations
Current E-Democracy Activities
Each sector often views its new online
developments in isolation. They are relatively unaware of the
online activities of the other sectors. Those working to use information
and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve or enhance democratic
practices are finding e-democracy a lot more challenging to implement than
speculating on its potential. This is why it is essential for the
best e-democracy lessons and practices to be documented and shared.
This simplified model illustrates e-democracy
activities as a whole. Building on the first diagram it, sits
as a filter on the “input” border between citizens and governance in first
Governments provide extensive access to
information and interact electronically with citizens, political groups
run online advocacy campaigns and political parties campaign online, and
the media and portal/search sites play a crucial role in providing news
and online navigation. In this model, the “Private Sector” represents
commercially driven connectivity, software, and technology. This
is the whole of e-democracy.
E-democracy is not evolving in a vacuum
with these sectors only. Technology enhancements and online trends
from all corners of the Internet are continuously being adopted and adapted
for political and governance purposes. This is one of the more exciting
opportunities as e-mail, wireless networking, personalization, weblogs,
and other tools move in from other online content, commerce, and technology
areas and bring innovation and the opportunity for change with them.
Looking to the center of model, the only
ones who experience “e-democracy” as a whole are “citizens.”
In more “wired” countries most citizens are experiencing information-age
democracy as “e-citizens” at some level of governance and public life.
In developing countries, e-democracy is just as important, but exists as
more of an institution-to-institution relationship. In all countries,
the influence of “e-democracy” actually reaches most of the public through
its influence on the traditional media and through word of mouth via influential
members of the community.
“E-Citizens” - Greater Citizen Participation?
To many, e-democracy suggests greater and
more active citizen participation enabled by the Internet, mobile communications,
and other technologies in today’s representative democracy. It also
suggests a different role for government and more participatory forms of
direct citizen involvement in efforts to address public challenges. (Think
e-volunteerism over e-voting.)
Some take this further and view the information
revolution as an inherently democratic “disruptive technology” that will
dramatically change politics for the better. This view has diminished
considerably, as existing democratic actors have demonstrated their ability
to incorporate new technologies and online communication strategies into
their own activities and protect their existing interests. They have
to in order to survive.
In the future, most “e-democracy” development
will naturally result from ICT-accelerated competition among the various
political forces in society. We are experiencing a dramatic “e-democracy
evolution.” In this evolution, the role, interests, and the
current and future activities of all actors is not yet well understood.
There is still an opportunity to influence its development for the better.
Things will change, but as each democratic
sector advances their online activities, democratic intent will be required
to achieve the greater goals of democracy.
of E-Democracy - The Fifty Year Plan
E-Book: Democracy is Online 2.0
I use the phrase “Representative E-Government”
to describe the e-democracy activities of government institutions. Others
call this “e-governance.” Whether a local government or a United Nations
agency, government institutions are making significant investments in the
use of ICTs in their work. They are expressing “democratic intent.”
Their efforts make this one of the most dynamic and important areas of
There are distinct differences in how representative
institutions and elected officials use ICTs compared to administrative
agencies and departments. The use of ICTs by parliaments, heads of
state/government, and local councils (and elected officials in these institutions)
lags significantly behind the administrative-based e-government service
and portal efforts. This is a services first, democracy later approach.
This focus of e-government resources on
services does not mean that e-democracy is not gaining increased attention
in some governments. In fact, leading e-service governments are now
at a point where they are exploring their e-democracy responsibilities
Goals for E-Democracy in Governance
Investment in traditional e-government
service delivery is justified based on the provision of greater citizen
convenience and the often-elusive goal of cost-savings. Goals for
e-government in governance that promote democracy and effective governance
1. Improved government decisions
2. Increased citizen trust in government
3. Increased government accountability
4. Ability to accommodate the public will
in the information-age
5. To effectively involve stakeholders,
including NGOs, business, and interested citizen in new ways of meeting
public challenges (see public net-work below)
The first area of government e-democracy
exploration has focused on consultation within executive policy-making
processes. Governments, like the United Kingdom and Canada, are taking
their consultative frameworks and adapting them to the online environment.
New Zealand and Canada now have special portals dedicated to promote the
open consultations across their governments. This includes traditional
off-line opportunities as well as those where online input is encouraged.
Across the UK, a number of “online consultations” have been deployed to
gather special citizen input via the Internet.
Consulting Canadians: http://www.consultingcanadians.gc.ca
New Zealand – Participate: http://www.govt.nz/en/participate
UK E-Democracy Consultation: http://www.e-democracy.gov.uk
Others, including hosting and best practice
Accountability, Trust, the Public
These three themes are emerging on the
e-democracy agenda. Building government accountability and transparency
are a significant focus of e-government in many developing countries.
E-government is viewed an anti-corruption tool in places like South Korea,
Mexico, and others. Trust, while an important goal, can only be measured
in the abstract. Establishing a causal relationship between e-government/e-democracy
experiences and increased levels of trust will be difficult.
Ultimately, the main challenge for governance
in the information age will be accommodating the will of the people in
many small and large ways online. The great unknown is whether citizen
and political institutional use of this new medium will lead to more responsive
government or whether the noise generated by competing interests online
will make governance more difficult. It is possible that current
use of ICTs in government and politics, which are often not formulated
with democratic intent, will actually make governance less responsive.
One thing is clear, the Internet can be
used to effectively organize protests and to support specific advocacy
causes. Whether it was the use of e-mail
groups and text messaging protesting former President Estrada of the Philippines
the fact a majority of Americans online sent
or received e-mail (mostly humor) after the Presidential election “tie”
in the United States, major moments in history lead to an explosion
of online activity. The social networks online are very dynamic and governments
need to be prepared to accommodate and react to “electric floods.” When
something happens that causes a flood, people will expect government to
engage them via this medium or citizens will instead view government as
increasingly unresponsive and disconnected with society they are to serve.
For more on the e-government and democracy,
watch for the 2003
United Nations World Public Sector Report. Details will be shared on
Ten E-Democracy "To Do List" for Governments Around the World
Ten Tips for "Weos" - Wired Elected Officials
Public net-work is a new concept. It represents
the strategic use of ICTs to better implement established public policy
goals and programs through direct and diverse stakeholder involvement online.
If e-democracy in government represents
input into governance, then public net-work represents participative output
using the same or similar online tools. Public net-work is a selective,
yet public, approach that uses two-way online information exchange to carry
out previously determined government policy.
Building on the first diagram, the following
“bow-tie” model suggests a more fluid communication environment that can
be used to bring citizens and public work stakeholders closer to the center
of governance. It also suggests that policy leaders can reach out
and develop closer relationships with citizens and stakeholders.
What are public net-work projects?
Public net-work projects have the following
things in common:
1. They are designed to facilitate
the online exchange of information, knowledge and/or experience among those
doing similar public work.
2. They are hosted or funded by government
agencies, intergovernmental associations, international government bodies,
partnerships involving many public entities, non-governmental organizations,
and sometimes foundations or companies.
3. While they are generally open to the
public, they are focused on specific issues that attract niche stakeholder
involvement from other government agencies, local governments, non-governmental
organizations, and interested citizens. Essentially any individual
or group willing to work with the government to meet public challenges
may be included. However, invite-only initiatives with a broader base of
participants are very similar to more strictly defined “open” public net-work
4. In a time of scare resources, public
net-work is designed to help governments more effectively pursue their
established missions in a collaborative and sustainable manner.
In order to work, public net-work initiative
hosts need to shift from the role of “top experts” or “sole providers”
of public services to facilitators of those working to solve similar public
problems. Public net-work moves beyond “one-way” information and
service delivery toward “two-way” and “many-to-many” exchange of information,
knowledge, and experience.
Publicly accessible public net-work projects
currently use a mix of ICT tools available. The successful projects
adopt new technologies and strategies on an incremental trial and error
basis. Unleashing all of the latest tools and techniques without a user
base may actually reduce project momentum and user participation.
To succeed, these projects must adapt emerging
models of distributed information input and information sharing and develop
models for sustained knowledge exchange/discussion. They must also
build from the existing knowledge about online communities, virtual libraries,
e-newsletters, and Communities of Practice/Interest.
Some of the specific online features include:
1. Topical Portal - The starting
point for public net-work is a web site that provides users a directory
to relevant information resources in their field - these often include
annotated subject guide links and/or standard Yahoo-style categories.
2. E-mail Newsletter - Most projects keep
people up-to-date via regularly produced e-mail newsletters. This human
edited form of communication is essential to draw people back to the site
and can be used to foster a form of high value interaction that helps people
feel like they are part of the effort.
3. Personalization with E-mail Notification
- Some sites allow users to create personal settings that track and notify
them about new online resources of interest. New resources and links to
external information are often placed deep within an overall site and "What's
New" notification dramatically increases the value provided by the project
to its users.
4. Event Calendar - Many sites are a reliable
place to discover listings of key current events and conferences.
5. FAQ and Question Exchange - A list of
answers to frequently asked questions as well as the regular solicitation
of new or timely questions from participants. Answers are then gathered
from other participants and shared with all via the web site and/or e-newsletter.
6. Document Library - Some sites move beyond
the portal directory function and gather the full text of documents. This
provides a reliable long-term source of quality content that often appears
and is removed from other web sites without notice.
7. Discussions - Using a mix of e-mail
lists and/or web forums, these sites encourage ongoing and informal information
exchange. This is where the "life" of the public net-work online
community is often expressed.
8. Other features include news headline
links from outside sources, a member directory, and real-time online features.
CommunityBuilders New South Wales – http://www.communitybuilders.nsw.gov.au
International AIDS Economics Network – http://www.iaen.org
OneFish – http://www.onefish.org
DevelopmentGateway – http://www.developmentgateway.org
Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry
- Digital New Deal - http://dnd.rieti.go.jp
UK Improvement and Development Agency – Knowledge
1. Government partnerships, with
their public missions and resources, often make ideal hosts for broad,
horizontal information exchange. Government departments that feel
their status/purpose will be threatened by shifting from an expert gatekeeper
to an involved facilitator are not ideal hosts.
2. All online features must be designed
with the end user in mind. They must be usable and easy to learn.
Complex systems reduce the size of the participatory audience – public
net-work cannot rely on an internal office environment where people are
required to learn new systems or use specialty software beyond e-mail and
a web browser. To provide a strong incentive, these systems must save the
time it takes those implementing public policy to do their job effectively.
3. Public net-work sites broaden the awareness
of quality information resources on a timely basis. Finding what
you need, when you need it is more likely to occur when a community of
interest participates in building a comprehensive resource. However,
over time these sites will naturally face currency issues that must be
handled. There are limits to the value of information exchange. Too
much information, or bad information, can paralyze decision-making or distract
people from the task at hand. All good things should be taken in
4. Building trust among the organizations
and individuals participating in the development and everyday use of a
collaborative site is essential. This relates to developing the “neutral
host” facilitation role, along with sustained funding, by the host.
Special care must be taken when building partner relationships and host
“branding” kept to a minimum. Partnerships, with clear responsibilities
and goals, will better position efforts as a truly participatory community
5. Gathering and sharing incentives, particularly
for resource links is a particularly tricky area. Involving people
with solid librarianship and communication skill sets is essential.
Creating a more sustainable model where participants more actively submit
information (e.g. seeking submissions from users for more than 5% of link
listings for example) is an ongoing challenge. In-kind partnerships where
staff time is donated may be more effective than relying on the time of
unaffiliated individual volunteers. With more localized efforts,
individual volunteers may be the best or only option.
6. Informal information sharing has tremendous
potential. To effectively encourage horizontal communication, facilitation
is often required. Projects must leverage existing online communities and
be willing to use technologies, like e-mail lists if that is what people
will actually use. In my opinion, the CommunityBuilder.NSW site is
one of the few sites that effectively integrate e-mail and web technology
to support sustained online deliberation and information exchange.
7. The connection to decision-makers and
authority is significant. Government-led public net-work projects
require political leadership and strong management support. Paradoxically,
an effective online involvement program on the implementation side of government,
if connected to government leaders, may operate as an “early warning system”
and allow government to adapt policy with fewer political challenges.
The public net-work section above
is based on an article I wrote for the OECD's E-Government Working Group.
An expanded discussion of case examples and the future direction of public
net-work is available in Public
Net-work: Online Information Exchange in the Pursuit of Public Service
To be involved in defining the future of
democracy, governance and public work at the dawn of the information-age
is an incredible opportunity and responsibility. With the intelligent and
effective application of ICTs, combined with democratic intent, we can
make governments more responsive, we can connect citizens to effectively
meet public challenges, and ultimately, we can build a more sustainable
future for the benefit of the whole of society and world in which we live.
This article originally prepared for ACP
FMKES Workshop: http://www.onefish.org/id/159181
PowerPoint presentation available from
To arrange a presentation or speech on
“public net-work” please contact Steven Clift and visit this web page for
more information: http://www.publicus.net/speaker.html
For more information about an online exchange
among leading public net-work practitioners, see: http://www.publicus.net/publicnetwork.html