The Future of E-Democracy – The 50 Year Plan
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Release Note: Published online January 2002 – This extended and edited transcript is based on a speech given to the international World Futurist Society <http://www.wfs.org> conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 31, 2001. This speech is only the start of a “plan.” I try to share a pragmatic, yet futuristic vision of governance when e-democracy exists as an integrated part of “real” everyday representative democracy. I look forward to the time when e-democracy is simply called democracy. Also, the timeline I use in the speech is quite arbitrary. While the spread of e-democracy strategies will move slowly in the near term, I foresee dramatic leaps in practice brought on by external social forces. E-democracy will become a democratic necessity and not simply an option for most governments. As you read and reflect on what I have to say, please share your comments, ideas and suggestions with me <http://www.publicus.net/e-mail.html> or post them publicly on the web.
Future of E-Democracy Speech Outline
E-Governance - Exceptional Practice Makes Perfect
-- E-mail Notice
-- In-person Public Hearing Recordings and Materials
-- Online Public Hearings and Consultations
-- Wired Politicians Reach Out and Serve, or Perish
-- Local Civic Deliberations and Global Networking
Trending Toward the Future - Why not look through 2040?
-- Family and Social Networking
-- E-Government - The E-Business Model that Works?
-- New Breed of Politician After 2015
-- E-Citizens the Ultimate Challenge
Back in 1994 I helped launch Minnesota E-Democracy <http://www.e-democracy.org>, a non-partisan, non-profit that created the world’s first election-oriented web site. I remember the media excitement. They asked if this was the end of democracy as we know it. They asked if politics would ever be the same. Back then, I am quoted as saying this was simply an “experiment.” To this day I try to reduce expectations and promote a more pragmatic action-oriented vision that says – “Yes, the Internet can improve democracy. Let’s get to work.” The truth is, without significant democracy online efforts, the Internet could instead help accelerate the decline of democracy we hear so much about.
In this speech, I give my working definition of e-democracy, share predictions on the e-governance applications I expect to see on a universal basis in developed democracies about 10 to 15 years from now, and conclude with deeper analysis on four major trends looking out forty years. I picked forty years because a few months ago I told someone that I was ten years into my fifty-year plan. I realized that a 40 year “walk-about” the land of democracy and the Internet wasn’t exactly a plan, so this speech represents my first attempt to create a long-term picture of e-democracy. From this partial picture, we can not only debate what should be done, but also plan and implement measures that can be evaluated in light of well thought out democratic goals and objectives.
Why e-democracy? I want to help people build democracies where every citizen who wants to improve the world around them and be heard on important public issues can participate in public life with freedom and the right to act on their sense of public responsibility. I see a vast democratic divide, much larger than the digital divide, where the scarcity of time and attention is eroding the fabric of civil society and undermining the legitimacy of government. It is essential that we create new channels of representative democracy, enabled by information and communication technologies, that encourage effective “on your own time” participation as legitimate complement to in-person, often time discriminatory forms of political participation.
Commenting directly to the Minnesotans in this audience - through Minnesota E-Democracy and my personal political activities, I seek to shake democratic complacency and excessive partisanship out of our system. I am working hard to bring information and communications technology into the heart of real communities and public policy processes across our state. It is time to shine virtual light on our public decision-making processes and create meaningful avenues for citizen participation in government from anywhere at anytime across our entire state. We can bring the state capitol and city halls and their representative processes into every home, school, library and place of work. With the right information infrastructure combined with essential in-person involvement, we can help solve public problems and not be left on the sidelines only able to protest government action (or inaction). Let’s join other leading efforts around the world and make Minnesota a key global test-bed for the future of democracy. May our lessons of today be understood enough now, so that we may build upon them with gusto. I do not want us to be viewed years from now as a famous spark that failed to light a sustained flame required to help secure the future of democracy in the information age. Let us connect with efforts around the world and build a future for and not against democracy in the information age.
In its totality, the concept of “e-democracy” represents the cumulative work of many democratic sectors and actors. In my “E-Democracy E-Book” <http://www.publicus.net/ebook>I share sector-by-sector analysis of current trends in the following areas:
Democracy means a million different
things to a million different people, so does e-democracy, e-governance,
etc… In my opinion e-democracy is not a “thing” or a magical instant
replacement for traditional democracy. When the different sectors
of democracy in vastly different democracies come see that they are part
of an e-democracy puzzle they are much more likely to take action within
their area of responsibility and not wait for the big plan or a mega-project
that does it all. To build a comprehensive vision, we need to follow
the work of our peers <http://www.e-democracy.org/do>
and support each other as we enhance and improve democracy in this time
of deep information and communications technology infusion into democracy.
Compare this to the other sectors of democracy such as campaigning and advocacy, they will adapt online tools to “win” power and influence. They must to survive. Changing government, our formal legal and legitimate representative democracies, to take advantage of the information age is the starting point for lasting change. I have a great fear that “as is” politics is advancing to the point online that the lack of innovative civic and democratically motivated e-government activity will cement in the minds of citizens the negative aspects of online politics. Will we leave online public spaces to shrill, sometimes delusional voices often dominated by personal and ideological argument where the extremes raise their voice yet the “middle” is nowhere to be found? We must not be complacent. It is time to get inside and help governments initiate online efforts that work to use this medium to achieve better public outcomes.
With my “futurist” hat on, I predict that the following leading practices will be implemented across the board in the vast majority of jurisdictions in economically advanced democracies by 2015. With thousands of political jurisdictions around the world, the diffusion of innovations, strategies, technologies as well as the required public investment will take considerable effort, time, and political initiative. I expect that more universal adaptation of democracy-oriented information strategies and tools will take a couple decades compared to early adopter governments.
The real challenge is to spread innovation from governments with champion-led activities (often with top political and resource support) to those with less initiative, capacity, and political leadership. There will be great differences as well as amazing exceptions among advanced economies and developing democracies. Many less “wired” countries may experience lower levels of grass roots impact, yet overall, many will experience a more dramatic change in their democratic systems than well-rooted democracies. Let us not be satisfied with exceptional implementation in .05 percent of governments. Instead, let us identify emerging applications and accelerate diffusion and investment.
The leading e-democracy practices:
If someone wants a business license or permit where you live or if the government plans to take action on an issue you have indicated an interest in, you will be actively notified via e-mail based on your preferences. Personalization with notification will be the measure of a truly wired democracy. Providing passive information access alone without effective, user specified information dissemination options will be viewed as an anti-democratic needle in the information haystack.
Today a regional government in Jutland, Denmark is building such a system <http://www.betasite.dk/vores-kommuneuk/Default.asp?SideID=3&ID2=3>. Across the Mississippi River from here in the great city of St. Paul you can automatically subscribe to receive city council minutes and agendas in your e-mail instead of having to dig through a passive web site <http://www.govdocs.com/servlet/GovDocs/go?code=STPAUL_CityCouncil>. An open questions remains - will governments make it easy for people interested in the same information or issues to opt-into public group communication online or will all communication related to online content be channeled privately from citizens or interest groups to elected officials?
Miss a public hearing? All public government meetings, at every level, will be announced online and recorded digitally and made available both live and in archived format over the Internet. In-person hearings will also allow remote testimony via Internet-based video conferencing and provide instant digital access to all materials and handouts distributed in the meeting to those watching remotely.
You can currently receive all meetings video taped for television broadcast from the Minnesota legislature (rated in 2001 as the best state legislative web site in the U.S. < http://www.csg.org/eagle/2001/2001winners.htm>) via the Internet. Nothing special here, except they also make notations of key events so you can tune into specific sections of the online archives <http://ww3.house.leg.state.mn.us/htv/archivesHTV.asp>. Next session, the House is considering audio feeds, perhaps with a wide-angle stationary video camera, from all ten House committee rooms simultaneously. My idea for small local governments and various low-budget government advisory committees – use speaker phones to deliver a basic audio feed to an Internet broadcast and archive facility. There are companies <http://www.dotell.com> that do this today.
To counter the extreme political voices heard across the Internet and in the e-mail inbox floods experienced by many elected officials, representative bodies will create special “on your own time” online consultations to gather useful information and citizen experiences for the policy development process. These highly organized and structured online events will have the decorum expected in existing parliamentary and legislative processes. No free-for-all debate here – for that is the role of other parts of the Internet <http://groups.google.com>.
Online consultations are taking off across Europe and Australia with the U.S. trailing far behind. Governments in the U.S. are running into the first amendment and the limitations it puts on moderation or removal of citizen comments by government. U.S. governments will discover that structured online events with decorum do not require content-based censorship rights to work in our system - they will create online spaces where they can move off-topic posts to the appropriate online section. Leading governments will also learn that with anything beyond light facilitation or removing submissions/posts based on content (not including posting style or personal attacks) will lead to citizen complaints and bad publicity.
Perhaps the best online consultation example thus far was the 1999 consultation with survivors of domestic violence and members of the United Kingdom Parliament hosted by the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government <http://www.hansard-society.org.uk/edemocracy1.htm>. It brought out real stories and allowed anonymous interaction among the survivors to help educate the MPs.
Related Resource – DO-CONSULT – The Democracies Online Consultations e-mail list is designed for practitioners designing such online events <http://www.e-democracy.org/do>. You will find additional links to online consultations in the DO-WIRE archive from the same web address.
After a number of cyber-organized people-power ousters (like the removal of President Estrada in the Philippines < http://www.itworld.com/Tech/2987/CW_1-31-01_it/> but at all levels) send shockwaves through political establishments around the world, political institutions will aggressively use the Internet to present useful, easy to understand, and less intimidating responsive access to elected officials. Political parties will also get into the act. The Online Constituent Office will be built to fully represent all current functions in a Congressional or other representative’s office including access to public schedules, voting records, new releases and even an “always on” video conferencing wall to connect remote offices to allow the elected official to meet with the public and their staff back in the district. Elected officials without offices or staff will find the Internet the preferred information infrastructure for all their administrative needs. The first tool to reach critical acclaim will restore e-mail as a viable tool for citizen to elected official communication by building filtering and response assistance tools that help politicians deal with communications overload. However, the political imbalance created by direct e-mail communication from interest groups to staff and private e-mail accounts of public officials will not be fully addressed. In fact, behind the scenes, ongoing e-mail communication will grow as an effective way to influence decision-makers as well as advocates for a political cause.
How the wired politician uses the Internet to seek information and input will have tremendous agenda-setting potential. Today one of the world’s leading “Weos” or Wired Elected Officials is Jan Hamming, a local councilor in Tilberg, The Netherlands <http://firstname.lastname@example.org/msg00274.html>. His frequent e-mail newsletter and live online chats allow him to connect with more immigrants, youth and low-income constituents than before. That is what crossing the democratic divide is all about. His activities help make the point that we must not wait for the digital divide to close before we launch e-democracy activities designed to raise the voices of less represented groups. Using the exclusivity of Internet access as a reason to delay e-democracy activities may further disenfranchise the voiceless and allow those with power to consolidate their information age control on society before all those who want to be online can do so.
I should mention the amazing 2 million subscribers on the new Prime Minister of Japan’s e-mail list <http://email@example.com/msg00266.html>. His e-mail newsletter list probably has more subscribers then the national U.S. Republican and Democratic parties combined. E-mail is king. Watch out as high pitched, polarizing e-mail advocacy lists duel in efforts to generate counter outrage by constant spinning directly to their core supporters. This is the case today with both mainstream (i.e. U.S. Democratic and Republican party e-mail newsletters) and fringe political groups. A decade of this activity will lead most people to believe the Internet is better at dividing people through propaganda and sharing political jokes. If we are not vigilant, citizens will not see the Internet as a useful tool for community involvement.
This trend will have a tremendous impact on governance generally, but depending on the political system and the role of the voluntary and non-profit sector – it will find its home in different places. Lessons from the use of ICT in political organizing among anti-globalization forces (intersestingly enough, the most global in their use of ICT for advocacy) will find their way into mainstream global political systems as well as local communities.
Global networking among those interested in specialized topics will be eclipsed by the formation of local online discussion spaces on public issues. As local discussion forums absorb those “who show up” in local democracy, the creation of public problem-solving sub-groups on specific community activities will complement a new global trend toward peer-to-peer exchange among community leaders working on similar local issues. The flow of information from local levels to international networks and vice versa will finally come into its own in 2015 with intentional design efforts and advanced tools that help people locate <http://www.opengroups.org> online communities of interest.
Minnesota E-Democracy’s activities in places like Winona, Minnesota <http://onlinedemocracy.winona.org> as well as other efforts <http://firstname.lastname@example.org/msg00248.html> point in this direction. We built the “online commons” <http://www.e-democracy.org/do/commons.html> the place for serious yet informal public discourse … now "let’s do something," will become our mantra.
Your comments. What e-democracy practices do think governments and others will take up over the next decade? Share your comments with the author <http://www.publicus.net/e-mail.html> or post them publicly on the web.
So what happens when everything exceptional becomes usual? What will the sectors of democracy online do after 2015? What movements will sweep up e-citizens? What Internet trends will change the rules? In this speech I have not addressed key issues of privacy, surveillance, government regulation and other politics of technology issues. I try to stay focused on politics completely infused with technology and communications - government and democratic institutions as users of technology and not their role as a regulator. Other experts <http://www.interesting-people.org/archives/interesting-people> are far more qualified to comment on technology policy trends. In future writings I hope to address online democratic rights of individuals and groups and share my concerns about the use of technology by government to control people and politics.http://www.markle.org/news/_news_pressreport_index.stm> found that most people think of the web as a big library for information and not a shopping mall or town square, I might add that they also confirmed that e-mail is the communication tool of choice online. It is my own estimation that the average Internet user spends more time viewing their e-mail box than anything else while online. It is the one part of the Internet that a citizen controls. You are a visitor on someone else web site and you tend to feel like a visitor on a government site. Just as you own your own vote, you own your e-mail.
What is the most natural thing that people do via e-mail? They communicate with friends and family and their co-workers if they have e-mail at work. These family and social networks, be they a collection of e-mail addresses or an e-mail list hosted at a site like Yahoogroups <http://groups.yahoo.com>, are strengthening existing relationships and creating information sharing tribes. What shape will extended families take after two or three generations of online networking? How will online social networks, of college friends or local sport clubs (i.e. softball, cricket), institutionalize themselves over a lifetime, will they grow, be passed on, or die out when their original purpose no longer exists?
The post-2000 U.S. election “tie” ushered in the political humor e-mail circuit according to a survey by the Democracy Online Project <http://democracyonline.org/databank/dec2000survey.shtml>. An amazing 54 percent of Internet users sent or received e-mail jokes about the candidates and 39 percent sent or received e-mail about the election with friends or family. Only 1 percent donated to a candidate online.
In 1998 I wrote in my Democracy is Online article <http://www.e-democracy.org/do/article.html>, “Perhaps the most democratizing aspect of the Internet is the ability for people to organize and communicate in groups. It is within the context of electronic free assembly and association that citizens will gain new opportunities for participation and a voice in politics, governance, and society.”
While many online political group discussions will be created intentionally, I think the occasional politicization of “natural” online groups may have the greatest e-democracy impact - particularly during amazing “Internet moments” such as ties for U.S. president, impeachments, and wars. (I presented this speech this in July 2001, see my September 13, 2001 article “The NetResponse” <http://www.publicus.net/netresponse/> for my comments on using the Internet to respond to the attacks on September 11.) I also wonder what will happen when some social networks evolve into political movements and what will happen when these online tribes come in conflict with each other. We got a glimpse of this when attacks by Chinese hackers fostered some of the first patriotic assaults by hackers based in the U.S. on servers in China.
What if serving public needs is our goal and we can drop the requirement for profit? Isn’t that exactly what governments are supposed to do? E-government may be the foundation of what I call the “Public Internet.” The Public Internet <http://www.publicus.net/pi/> will emerge “of” the Internet to support the fundamentally non-profit aspects of the Internet, particularly with public service content and local online communities. The Public Internet is not about transferring existing public goods and media, like public broadcasting or offline social problems to the Internet. It is not just about making online donations to existing charities. The Public Internet will become the foundation for cooperative efforts of government, non-profits, and the private sector that we need to bring the Internet into full and effective public and community service. A quick example – missing children alerts will be placed into a syndication network by the police, broadcast over digital TV and “linked” to by television newscasts <http://www.publicus.net/cis/> so you can take a long as you like to view the child’s image or the sketch of a kidnapping suspect on your television.
Shifting gears, with e-government we will also see a radical growth in transparency in places where laws are currently predisposed toward access and accountability such in most U.S. States and in the Nordic countries. There will be greater conflicts in countries with weak or limited freedom of information laws. Ultimately, the less democratic a country is today, the more a threat the Internet is to the status quo tomorrow.
In society, public officials will be the most publicly exposed people on the planet. Privacy for political leaders – I doubt it. In Sweden, where they actually try to follow their own laws, each government agency is responsible to maintain a register of all e-mail (traditional letters as well) coming in and going out of a government agency for public inspection. It is my understanding, although they vary from agency to agency, these registers will become remotely accessible. Unless laws specifically deny it or classify all government e-mail as private (a terrible idea), this type of register is almost inevitable for all government officials and office legally required to maintain compliance with record retention and archival laws and regulations (here is an e-mail log example in Oregon - <http://www.ci.corvallis.or.us/council/>). My prediction - people will go to jail in the future for illegally destroying government e-mail archives today. With e-mail replacing previously in-person and telephone conversations, there is much resistance with government to the fact that existing laws may allow public disclosure of such communication (this varies vastly between governments). Compliance with the spirit of freedom of information and record retention laws will probably be compelled by the courts rather than be resourced in a proactive manner by most governments.
Without changes in laws <http://www.e-democracy.org/study> and the creation of new functions within government and representative assemblies, the full potential of the Internet in governance will not be realized. Staff and fiscal resources are required to change that way organizations work and to create new content and services. The skills of the public information specialist, consultation facilitator, and librarian will be combined in a new set of e-governance positions <http://www.premiers.qld.gov.au/about/community/democracy.htm> required in the heart of any democratic government. In the end, I expect that the experience of local and regional governance (as well as smaller countries) will give us an early sense about the real impact of representative e-government activities.
Today, the forces of information nature are flooding our hamster cages of life. Politicians and citizens are drowning in information overload, with no context to grab onto. By 2015 I predict up to a quarter of politicians will embrace their new role as information guides. We will respect and follow those who help lead us through the information sea to “dry” places where we can see information in context and accept and trust the leadership of those who reliably tell us what is most important. (This is one reason why online news sites and journalists also have a future.)
I still see most elected officials in the first camp – information controllers or sponges that drip out information in a limited fashion. Even with 25 percent of politicians operating as information guides, ultimately this is still about power, about pursing political goals and serving the political interests of your constituents. Dueling political information guides will struggle for dominance (image 100 U.S. Senators with online political operations like Senator John McCain <http://www.straighttalkamerica.com>) and may or may not form alliances that break down existing partisanship trends. If anything, we may have guides that accentuate political divisions and mistrust among different political groups. I sincerely hope that an ethic of civic trust and multi-partisanship will inspire a new generation of wired elected officials and I plan to help make that happen.http://www.indsoc.co.uk/isociety/press_release.htm> found that people “didn’t know there is an election online” – they were oblivious to the simple idea that they could use the Internet to seek the political information. Today many people think we have a supply problem when it comes to election-related information on the Internet, while there may be quality and usability issues, all political content providers need to realize we have lack of demand issue. Where is the democratic intent? Without it, e-citizens won’t demand much of their democracies nor take advantage of e-democracy investments across all democratic sectors.
Fellow Minneapolitan Leif Utne <http://www.utne.com> said his parents used to hang out in futurist circles and that futurists really like scenario crosses. Felix Nolte, my Swedish futurist friend helped me refine this illustration. I am a scenario cross “newbie” – perhaps you can take all of my raw materials and give them much more rigor.
On the horizontal axis we have the “Democratic motivation of citizens and society” or “E-Citizenship” and “Information and communication technological adoption in democratic institutions and processes” on the vertical axis.
Let me quickly visit the points I have marked on the diagram below:
Very Strong Citizens – Very Weak Institutions – Perhaps the vision of anti-globalization forces assuming cooperative citizens or libertarians assuming self-interested citizens.
Stronger Democratic Institutions - Weaker Citizens – This may be possible particularly where currently strong democratic cultures function on a historical democratic motivation and ethic.
Very Strong Democratic Institutions – Very Strong Citizens – This is the cyber-optimist view presented as a false measure of hope by many academics and journalists who then position themselves as skeptics to a view held by very very very few. If anything, I am fighting this perceived goal more than others with doses of cyber-pragmatism. Unrealistic, even high goals make pro-active attempts difficult to mount or celebrate. If people figure it is too much work or nearly impossible to achieve, then they will dismiss the opportunity.
Weak Citizens - Somewhat Weaker Democratic Institutions – This is where I see things going “naturally” without active intervention and worse, once things weaken we may see a downward slide. I currently believe the Internet can capture sparks of political interest better than any previous medium. If we allow democracy to slide, even a little, the average citizens will sense that democracy does not matter in the information age and pull back their interest and involvement even further. How do we make the Internet matter in real public life? Further, those inspired by notions of direct democracy enabled by technology may instead find themselves fighting to simply preserve the more participatory aspects of representative democracy.
Somewhat Stronger Citizens – Somewhat Stronger Democratic Institutions – This is where I would like us to be in 2015. If we make the Internet work for the 1 to 5 percent of people who “show up,” actively participate that is, in politics and public life between elections, then the Internet will establish itself as a reform tool that will improve both the democratic process and the public service outcomes of governance. This will help attract “average” citizens into online participation. They will not waste their time with things they think do not think matter. Let’s make it matter, and improve the outcomes of democracy through information tools with democratic strategies.
I am bullish about the future of e-democracy and democracy as a whole. There is a growing alliance across the political spectrum pushing incremental change in democratic sectors around the world. Like technological advancements in the Internet, a series of small less noticed e-democracy developments will lead to unprecedented and unpredicted dramatic leaps in democracy. Together we can be an engine of democratic intent as we seek to improve our families lives, our communities, and the world around us.
Please share your comments with the author <http://www.publicus.net/e-mail.html> or post them publicly on the web. I am increasingly encouraged by others to write a traditional “book” on my experiences and ideas related to e-democracy. What do you think? After reading this (and perhaps some of my other articles <http://www.publicus.net>), what would you like to see in a print book? Drop me a note. Thanks.