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E-Democracy, 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 policy-making: 

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 democratic actors:

    • Governments

    • Elected officials

    • Media (and major online Portals)

    • Political parties and interest groups

    • Civil society organizations

    • International governmental organizations

    • Citizens/voters

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 diagram:

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. 

Related resources:

  • E-Democracy Resource Links
  • Future of E-Democracy - The Fifty Year Plan
  • E-Democracy E-Book: Democracy is Online 2.0

  • E-Governance

    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 e-democracy development.

    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 more seriously.

    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 include:

    1. Improved government decisions

    2. Increased citizen trust in government

    3. Increased government accountability and transparency

    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)

    Consultation Online

    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: 

  • New Zealand – Participate: 

  • UK E-Democracy Consultation: 

  • Others, including hosting and best practice tips: 

  • Accountability, Trust, the Public Will

    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 or 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.

    Related resources:

  • For more on the e-government and democracy, watch for the 2003 United Nations World Public Sector Report. Details will be shared on DoWire:
  • Top Ten E-Democracy "To Do List" for Governments Around the World 
  • Top Ten Tips for "Weos" - Wired Elected Officials 

  • Public Net-Work

    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 initiatives. 

    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 –

  • International AIDS Economics Network –

  • OneFish –

  • DevelopmentGateway –

  • Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry - Digital New Deal -

  • UK Improvement and Development Agency – Knowledge –
  • Lessons
    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 moderation.

    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 projects.

    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.

    Related resources:
    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 Goals (Word/RTF).


    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: 
    PowerPoint presentation available from (7MB):

    To arrange a presentation or speech on “public net-work” please contact Steven Clift and visit this web page for more information:

    For more information about an online exchange among leading public net-work practitioners, see:

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