E-Democracy: The Promise of the Future is a Reality Today
By Steven Clift
Online Strategist and Public Speaker 
Editor, Democracies Online Newswire

Copyright 2002 Steven Clift - All rights reserved. This article may be freely linked to, cited or quoted with simple e-mail notification to the author and a commitment to share copies of any final derivative works. The full text of this article may only be redistributed online or in print with the express permission of the author.

Network with others in Japan or Asia interested in e-democracy via my Democracies Online country contact e-mail lists. Join the main DO-WIRE e-mail announcement list here.

This speech was given as a 30 minute keynote address.  It was received warmly as an "easy to understand speech in English" to over 400 people at Japan's first conference dedicated specifically to e-democracy.

E-Democracy: The Promise of the Future is a Reality Today

Speech by Steven Clift, http://www.publicus.net
NTT Data INFORUM 2002 e-democracy symposium
Tokyo, Japan, May 22, 2002

This speech is available in Japanese from:

Good afternoon.

In the spring we envision many possibilities.  Today we live in a spring with exciting new potential for better  government, for stronger communities, and more participatory citizens. This spring flows from the information and communication technologies (or ICTs) revolution.

However, unlike with technology, we are not experiencing a revolution in democracy.  We are not experiencing a revolution in governance or politics.  Rather, we are in the midst of a ICT-fostered political evolution that will change our leaders and citizens alike. We do not know whether this technology-based evolutionary struggle for political relevancy will strengthen or weaken democracy. 

We must ask the questions - Will ICTs build on our humanity and democratic ideals?  Or will instead technology accelerate the pace of life so much that we will no longer have time to contribute to our broader communities or public lives? 

I believe that the future of our information age communities, our democracies, it is up to us.  In each of our countries, we must work hard to secure the benefits of ICTs in decision-making, government transparency and government accountability.  It is important to support online citizen participation in order to help solve public-problems. The alternative is to accept weakened democracies, and less responsive governments. 

Technology is naturally used for private connections within our families and within our circle of friends.  We hear a lot about e-commerce and online entertainment and other hyped possibilities.  Now it is time to consider "public" uses that go beyond our important private lives.

Even within the public sector all around the world, the use of technology continues to focus overwhelmingly on privately oriented individual and business transaction services without consideration of the potential of "representative e-government."  With "representative" I am referring to those institutions of government like parliaments or local city councils.  I am concerned that our elected officials will not have access to the information tools required to govern effectively based on citizen needs and input. We need to develop technologies and methods that ensure that citizens are heard by our  representatives in the noisy information age.

There is nothing wrong with using ICTs in our private lives; private communication, since the invention of paper, has been the economic engine of communication systems.  There is nothing wrong with using ICTs to provide government services. I support it. People want convenience.

Our challenge today is to build momentum for the use of ICTs in our public lives.  It is time to connect online with our neighbors and diverse people in our local communities.  We must interact publicly online with civil servants at city hall as well as learn and deliberate on major public policy issues facing our respective nations. Simply put, an information society, requires information age governance and citizens.

There is nothing like spring. Everything seems possible again.  Almost reborn. 

Speaking of spring, the introduction I wrote for this speech actually was inspired by an opportunity the other week to fill my lungs with spring air after long cold winter.  I was soaking up the evening sun on Lake Calhoun in my home city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Minnesota is right in the center of North America with Canada just to the north.  It is home of companies like 3M.  It is home of the Mall of America.   In fact the mighty Mississippi River doesn't start in Mississippi, it starts in Minnesota, in the northern part, as a small stream.  It winds its way of 2000km to the Gulf of Mexico, and the process helps to define the center of the of United States.

Minnesota E-Democracy - http://www.e-democracy.org

Let me share my direct experience from Minnesota.  Minnesota E-Democracy is today a very small stream, but perhaps its ideas and practices will flow out of our state and help define the future of democracy.

Back in 1994, when I was 24 years old, I sent out a simple e-mail.  I sent it to group of people interested in online community networking. I asked - who would be interested in putting candidates for U.S. Senate and Governor in Minnesota on this new thing called World Wide Web?  I also asked - who would be interested in organizing a public e-mail list, an online discussion, where people could discuss the elections?  The volunteer response was amazing. Early "e-citizens," as I call them, came from everywhere to help build the world's first election-oriented web site.

Here are three lessons we have learned over the years:

1. Citizens can make a difference in politics with new technologies.

2. Discussions of state and local issues will continue after the elections are over.  In fact, the quality of discussion improves once citizens can focus on issues and not just electoral  politics..

3. Agenda-setting is key. Generating public opinion through many-to-many communication is a unique strength that ICTs bring to democracy and community.

Today, eight years later, Minnesota E-Democracy, is a thriving non-profit NGO, volunteer-based organization, which helps people navigate political, government, and election information from across Minnesota. Most importantly, we serve as a host for online information exchange and discussions of state and local issues.  Our citizen-to-citizen and citizen with government online discussions prove the democratizing potential of the Internet is not just a myth.  They also prove however that democratic intent in the use of ICTs is required to foster better democratic outcomes. No democratic intent - then I doubt we will see many democratic outcomes.

Our largest forum, the Minneapolis Issues Forum opened in 1998. Over 800 people today including our Mayor, neighborhood activists, journalists and others - participate in daily discussions. This forum has a real agenda-setting impact in our community. The local discussion topics, from parks to police, often show up in the media and go around city hall as well as  community meetings.

The online forum in St. Paul, across the river from Minneapolis, reflects a different style of more personal politics. Volunteers help the forum manager by sharing links to local news stories in order to prompt discussion. Down the  river a two and a half hours drive from Minneapolis and St. Paul, you reach the small city of Winona, and the forum there connects community leaders and citizens for dialogue on local issues as well as organizes in-person events and special events online to talk about issues like education. They had discussions about simple things like where they should put stop signs, is our community a friendly community. This shows that local relevance is key to building an interactive foundation that matters to everyday citizens. 

My experience leads me to believe that without e-citizens, there can be no e-democracy.

I know that you will learn more about the Minneapolis Issues Forum during the panel discussion. But in terms of lessons, let me point out that most content on the Internet is one-way, particularly content from government, political groups, and the media. Most online discussions are rarely local or regional, they are often global based on hobbies and unique life situations. 

My secret recipe for successful e-democracy  is make it two-way and embrace geography, particularly local geography.

On our forums, people are just as much readers as they are content producers.  By sending a simple e-mail to the group, anyone can share an idea, ask a question, post an event announcement or express an opinion about a local or state issue. 

Minnesota E-Democracy's volunteer forum managers, work to keep discussions issue-focused and respectful. Our guidelines encourage personal responsibility with  advice like, "E-mail unto others as you would have them e-mail unto you." Civility and respect are essential.

Participants must sign their posts with their real names and may not post more than twice a day. These rules encourage more people to participate in the discussion, they also help ensure that people are accountable to their words they write and share with others. 

Let's be realistic. If you go on the internet today, 99 percent of  the political discussion you will find is disconnected junk, our discussions in Minnesota are only half junk. The miracle is that at least half of our  discussion has real value. Our organization's mission is to learn about that and build upon that value. We seek to help other communities across our state and beyond build new online forums where none exist today. I hope to return to Japan a year from now in order to connect with dozens of similar forum organizers across your own country.


"Government by day, citizen by night." That was my motto. While I volunteered for Minnesota E-Democracy in 1994, I haven't told you about my previous day job.  From 1994-1997, I coordinated e-government for the State of Minnesota and I ran the homepage for our state government.  My past government experience and meetings with government leaders from dozens of countries since 1997, gives me an important perspective I like to share.

E-democracy, the concept - not the organization, is alive and gaining momentum within governments around the world. You must look through the rhetoric about the democratizing potential of the Internet for concrete actions. The use of ICTs can deliver on democratic ideals like transparency, accountability, policy consultation, better representation, and citizen participation. 

While I'd like to see civil society organizations like Minnesota E-Democracy in every city, state or prefecture, and country, government-based e-democracy efforts are currently the most sustainable.  Government action and e-democracy investment is vital today.

In a democracy, government is something we all own, something we have a right to influence and change. We want government services anywhere at anytime, we must also ensure effective forms of online and in-person democratic participation on our own time from home, work, school, or on the go. 

Speaking of "on the go" - In Japan, where mobile communication is so strong, I hope to learn about your ideas for government-led e-democracy and perhaps mobile or "m-democracy"? 

When you first heard the term "e-democracy," did you think "online voting?" Someday you will be able to vote online. I support it if it is combined with at-home postal voting and the required security.
However, I am skeptical that online voting itself will make government more effective or democratically responsive.

Voting is an act where citizens give their power to others in order to be represented. I fundamentally believe that citizens must be able to participate in governance all the time, not by directly voting on everything, but in meaningful ways that involve their ideas, energy, and abilities. Therefore I encourage governments, as stewards of the public trust, to invest most of their e-democracy resources between elections. This will allow us to reap the benefits of the information society through improved public decision-making and better social outcomes from government work and citizen involvement.

E-democracy as we will experience it exists in bits and pieces scattered across the Internet today. You can read all about it on my website http://www.publicus.net and on my Democracies Online Newswire. But let me share with you today some leading examples.

Example 1 - Policy and leadership

A recent UK report on e-government found that the average UK local government provides only one-fourth of the potential online services that the leading local governments in UK are currently able to provide.  In Sweden, studies have found that having an in-house "champion" or leader. It is a better indicator of e-government success than how large  the city is or how much money they have. Applying the lessons from those studies, it is common sense to conclude that most of the leading government-sponsored e-democracy applications can easily be imagined and likely exist somewhere today. More universal, "more universal" is the keyword, e-democracy in government will thrive at the national and local levels around the world where the "champions" are and political leadership come together to make things happen.

Speaking of political leadership, in the UK, the E-Envoy is preparing a major E-Democracy Policy and the parliament now led by MP Robin Cook has a committee exploring the issue of E-Democracy specifically. In the State of Queensland, Australia, where I was last November, they released their e-democracy policy and are busy building their e-democracy applications. While policy leadership is not required to have exciting government e-democracy developments, it will help secure the resources required to build the next generation of applications.

Example 2 - E-mail Notice and Personalization

While your Prime Minister Koizumi's e-mail newsletter may seem like old news in Japan, there is nothing like it on the same scale anywhere else in the world. I know of no other world leader who can directly e-mail millions of people. From the local level on up, every elected official should have the ability to send e-mail newsletters to interested constituents.
Moving beyond elected officials for a moment, right now in the City of St. Paul, Minnesota you can subscribe to key documents like public meeting notices and agendas. The moment the staff upload a frequently updated document you can choose to be notified. This is called personalization.

I 'd like you to imagine a "My Democracy" service where citizens could type in their address, select topics, and be given options for web, e-mail, instant message delivery or wireless notification of important information they care about. This innovation does not change what information a government makes public. It simply unleashes the political power of timely access and use. Unfortunately there are only a few government sites that employ these techniques today.  Luckily there are thousands of the commercial and academic sites from which we can learn 

Example 3 - Wired Elected Officials

I travel the world looking for Wired Elected Officials or "Weos" as I call them. I'd like to find out who Weos of Japan are.

If you take a look at Jan Hamming, a local councilor in the Tilburg, The Netherlands, his web site is the closest thing to an online constituent office you would gain access to the information experience available in his physical office. While nothing replaces the value of direct in-person contact, Jan has found  that his online chats and other forms of online constituent input brought him closer to students, low-income citizens, and immigrants. Why? For many people interacting with a politician online is much less intimidating than going to a government office.

Shouldn't all elected officials have the tools to better represent their constituents? Yes, it is time to invest in real online services for elected officials of all political parties so that our voices may be better heard through them in government decision-making.

Example 4 - Online Consultation

E-Rulemaking by U.S. Federal government and online consultations now being hosted by governments in Canada, Australia, and European countries are working to better connect citizens and diverse interest groups to the administrative policy side of government.  For those interested in  this, I have a "Top Ten Tips" article about online consultation on my web site. 

One clever mobile democracy story, perhaps online consultation in its simplest form, comes from Finland.  The transit authority in Helsinki has employed a creative two-way strategy - if you have a suggestion for the bus or tram service you can send it in via text messaging on your mobile phone. It will automatically appear on their public web site for all to see. If the bus drives past you without stopping, perhaps soaks you with water from a mud puddle, you can hold the agency publicly accountable. Interestingly enough, the number of compliments, yes compliments, to their text message system, has positively surprised the transit authority. 

Example 5 - Representative E-Democracy

Most e-government resources reside in the administrative side of government. It makes sense that in most countries, this side of government can afford to invest in next generation e-democracy and e-government activities.  While I support this activity, I am concerned about the long-term implications of connected executives and disconnected representatives. 

I believe that the online activities of representative institutions must also be accelerated.  We must not allow ICTs to be used in ways that cause unintended shifts of power away from our representatives.  We need to ensure that public bodies can hold each other accountable and not overturn our constitutional designs based on inequitable investments in information and communications strategies and applications.  I expect parliaments, legislatures, and local councils to take up the ICT challenge in order to remain politically relevant and keep what power they have.

Today, in Minnesota, the legislature is leading the way. They are beating the online efforts of the executive, the executive led by Governor Jesse Ventura, former pro-wrestler, you may have heard of him. The legislature streams the debate live on the Internet from the floor of the chamber and also put it on television.  When an amendment to legislation is proposed you can get a copy online from home at the exact same time the legislators get it themselves. 

Legislators carry laptops and plug them into the Internet while in the legislative chamber. You can send them e-mail while they are on television and share information they might find useful in the debate. Legislators are also information seekers, they use the web from the chamber to research and hope to find quotations and statistics they can use moment or later in the legislative debate.

Another big step for local councils and parliaments will be the sharing of decision-making input from their public processes with others.  This involves taking place testimony, in-person meeting and put them online for broad access.  We need to take this one step further and encourage people to exchange information on a two-way basis as part of official online public hearings.

Before I conclude I want to share a "bookmark" about the other democratic sectors. Online activism, online campaigning and political parties as well as the role of the private sector and the media also define the future of e-democracy. My "E-Democracy E-Book" on my web site http://www.publicus.net/ebook explores these areas in much more detail.  All the sectors of democracy need to come together to do their part.


It is spring, or I guess early summer now in Tokyo, but still spring in Minnesota.  We must dedicate ourselves to meet the public challenges the new season and take advantage of the opportunity before us.

As we move forward, most democratic actors in society will collaborate and compete in a healthy way in order to build a bright future for democracy.  Our information societies will make democracy more real and compelling to the average citizen.  They will transform governance and citizen participation.  They will help us improve our communities and nations within which we live.

The only way to make this vision a reality is to roll up our sleeves and get to work.  Together, we will not allow the use of technology to degrade our democratic ideals and needs.  Instead, we will ensure that ICTs deliver on what is good in our societies. We will use it to bring communities together and strengthen our nations and world in ways we desire and can imagine.
Thank you.


Network with others in Japan or Asia interested in e-democracy via my Democracies Online country contact e-mail lists. Join the main DO-WIRE e-mail announcement list here.