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Why edemocracy won't push UK voters' buttons.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

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Edemocracy is a favourite New Labour concept. But what does it actually mean?

The Office of the E-Envoy has been a prominent champion of edemocracy, ever since it was established in 1999 ‘to ensure that the country, its citizens and its businesses derive maximum benefit from the knowledge economy’ (whatever that means) (1). In November 2001, UK prime minister Tony Blair even established a Cabinet Committee on Edemocracy.

Steven Clift, who runs the Democracies Online newswire (2), has traced usage of the term edemocracy as far back as 1987 (3) – and since then it has been used in a multitude of ways to describe the relationship of technology to politics. So far as the UK government is concerned, the term is used to describe everything from using IT to make practical improvements to government bureaucracy and services, to solving the crisis in voter turnout and the problem of political disengagement.

The fact is, though, that the first thing most people think of when they hear the word ‘edemocracy’ is electronic voting, or e-voting. And it is in this discussion that the government’s nonsensical approach to IT and democracy becomes most clear.

Outspoken critics of edemocracy, such as US computer scientist Rebecca Mercuri, tend to focus their criticisms on the danger that e-voting might lead to corruption (4). In the UK, BBC correspondents Mark Ward and Bill Thompson object to electronic voting on the grounds that ‘wide-scale fraud would be too easy to commit’, and ‘the gains to be made by any organisation that could fix the results of a UK general election are so great that almost any amount of effort could be justified’ (5).

But these criticisms let the government off the hook. Of course, there are technical challenges to setting up electronic voting. And since the Florida vote-counting scandal in the US presidential elections of 2000, governments are particularly wary of opening voting procedures up to mismanagement or fraud. The UK government is receptive to concerns about e-voting, and indeed the Cabinet Office recently met with Rebecca Mercuri to discuss her concerns (6).

The real problem with e-voting, however, is not technical but political. Governments are looking to technology as a panacea for all their ills.

The UK government is sensitive to the accusation that it views e-voting as a way to solve deeper political problems. For example, in the Cabinet Committee on Edemocracy’s recent consultation paper In the Service of Democracy, the section on ‘E-voting’ opens with the defensive statement: ‘Electronic voting will not solve the problem of low turnout in elections.’ (7)

But let’s face it, if the UK government were not panicking in the face of diminishing public engagement with politics, it wouldn’t be so obsessed with the ins and outs of new voting methods. And when it develops its approach to edemocracy beyond push-button polling stations, it is clear that this discussion is really an attempt to recast political participation in technical terms.

Robin Cook, Leader of the House of Commons and chair of the Cabinet Committee on Edemocracy, is quite frank about the fact that this committee ‘was set up to make…connections between government and public’ (8). Because the internet is something that an increasing number of people use, and because there seems to be more political discussion online (where potentially everyone with a computer and a connection has a voice) than there is offline, the government sees the internet as a way out of its political isolation.

If anyone doubts that this is the rationale behind the edemocracy project, they need look no further than In the Service of Democracy, where the whole thing is spelled out. The paper explains that ‘the development of the government’s edemocracy strategy is prompted by trends in three main areas’, namely:

  • ‘participation in the traditional institutions of democracy is declining’;
  • ‘despite this decline, many citizens are prepared to devote energy, experience and expertise to issues that matter to them’;
  • ‘information and communications technology (ICT)…offers new channels of communication between citizens, elected representatives and government that may help to engage citizens in the democratic process’ (9).

This schema is presented in such a way that it appears as though edemocracy is all about benefiting the UK citizen. But it’s pretty obvious that ‘engaging in the democratic process’ is something that the government, confronted by a public with which it has little connection, and riddled with insecurity about the electorate’s lack of desire to engage in the political process, needs us to do for its benefit – whether we want to, or not.

The same message comes across from the Office of the E-Envoy, which describes the three principal objectives for edemocracy as ‘facilitating participation in the political process’, ‘broadening participation’ and ‘deepening participation’. This is a catchall set of aims intended to connect the government with the public in any way possible (10).

Robin Cook elaborates upon these objectives for edemocracy, when he argues that the government needs to:

  • ‘facilitate participation by making it easier for people to access information’
  • ‘broaden participation by opening up new lines of communication to people who in the past may have felt excluded from the democratic process’
  • ‘deepen participation by building more active relationships with members of the public based on a continuous dialogue’ (11)

Observe how Cook starts with the straightforward technical objective of ‘making it easier for people to access information’, but quickly moves the goalposts to ensuring ‘continuous dialogue’ between government and the public. The assumption behind this is that people, left to their own devices, will not take part in politics. People are drawn into a process of neverending chit-chat about the minutiae of policy. The question of what the government is talking to people about, and what it is trying to get them to participate in, is ignored in favour of a banal, technical imperative of engaging people in a continuous dialogue.

Cook’s middle objective, of broadening participation to encompass the ‘excluded’, similarly represents a political cop-out. The problem of political engagement, as evidenced by falling voter turnout, is not just that there are large sections of the electorate that ‘in the past may have felt excluded’ from the democratic process, but that those people who were engaged in the past are left cold by politics today.

If the government’s genuine objective was to reinvigorate the democratic process, it would be as concerned about regaining the active engagement of those one-time voters as it is about getting more bums on seats in front of PC screens.

‘While ICT can improve access to democracy’, argues Cook, ‘without government action the technologies themselves could become new barriers for those already excluded’ (12). This is a rather convoluted way of saying that the government would rather the electorate didn’t use technology to play with politics, unless it can act as our playground supervisor. The word ‘excluded’ here purports to mean ‘disenfranchised’ or ‘without access to technology’, but is in fact a code word for ‘not in contact with the state’.

The New Labour government is by no means alone in using edemocracy to compensate for a lack of connection with, and lack of support from, the public. The latest bout of infighting amid the beleaguered Conservative Party, for instance, was marked by a plea from Conservative headquarters for the public to send in mass emails, expressing support for party leader Iain Duncan Smith. This rather pathetic spectacle was reported as an example of edemocracy in action (13).

Whatever the political party, today’s preoccupation with edemocracy indicates an abdication of leadership. Constantly turning to the public to find out its views, through a ‘continuous dialogue’, is a poor substitute for coming up with the kind of political ideas that might inspire the public to participate in the first place. You can’t reinvigorate politics by begging the public for ideas – if anything, this will only add to people’s estrangement from politics.

There is also an anti-democratic kernel to the concept of edemocracy. A ‘democracy’ defined by the government’s eagerness to hear the public’s detailed views, is one in which the government has no clear obligation to act on any of those views. Genuine democracy can only exist when the democratic mechanism is clear and unambiguous, not when the democratic mechanism is intensely specific and minutely negotiated.

Edemocracy is made to appear democratic through a sleight of hand, where the concept of ‘democracy’ is expanded until it means ‘any interaction between citizen and government’. So In the Service of Democracy argues that ‘influencing the decision-making process can take any number of forms, from voting in an election once every few years to active membership of a political party, or from responding to a government consultation to participating in a pressure group campaign to lobby politicians’ (14).

But there is a significant difference between joining a party, and voting, and being invited to express your views to government in the form of edemocracy. Whatever the limitations of party membership or voting, they require a level of commitment and an expression of support for something. The current notions of edemocracy, by contrast, require no such commitment; and because the government’s intention is to glean ideas from the public rather than put forward ideas of its own, there is little basis for expressing support.

When government seeks to put the expression of particular views by the public on a par with party membership, or even with voting, this does not represent a new open-mindedness but a further dismantling of what makes democracy effective.

Certain critics of edemocracy are alert to its democratic shortcomings. For example, a recent report produced by the centre-left think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) (15), assessing government-hosted online discussion forums, complains that ‘the innovative feature of the discussion spaces is weakened by the fact that comments made there by citizens have no constitutional status. There is no obvious mechanism of accountability and response from government.’ (16)

The accountability point is a crucial one. But instead of upbraiding the government for attempting to invent a new democratic mandate in the form of online discussion, the IPPR proposes ‘a major roll-out of edemocracy spaces on the internet…. These spaces should have formal constitutional status, and elected representatives should be expected to make use of them as an integral part of constituent interaction.’ (17) Rather than confronting edemocracy’s lack of democratic legitimacy, this strategy simply asks that edemocracy be made to appear legitimate, through an official stamp of approval.

Edemocracy is a political con. It pretends that politics is alive and well (when it clearly isn’t), and that technology will make politics more democratic (when it won’t). The true ‘e’ in ‘edemocracy’ does not stand for ‘electronic’, but for ‘eroded’.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Playing at democracy, by James Woudhuysen

Connecting to what?, by Sandy Starr

No votes for e-democracy, by Mark Birbeck

Was it the UK’s first internet election?, by Sandy Starr

Where communication is king, by Tiffany Jenkins

(1) Homepage of the Office of the E-Envoy website

(2) See the Democracies Online website

(3) See An Internet of Democracy, Steven Clift, Communications of the Association for Computing, November 2000

(4) See Rebecca Mercuri’s writings on e-voting in the electronic voting section of the Notable Software website

(5) E-voting: A load of old ballots?, Mark Ward, 7 January 2002; Why e-voting is a bad idea, Bill Thompson, BBC News, 19 July 2002

(6) See Fears raised over e-voting, BBC News, 17 October 2002; Don’t trust computers with e-votes, warns expert, Stuart Millar, Guardian, 17 October 2002

(7) In the Service of Democracy: A Consultation Paper on a Policy for Electronic Democracy (.pdf 911 KB), Cabinet Committee on Edemocracy, July 2002, p41

(8) Speech to the ‘Reviving Democracy’ conference, Robin Cook, ePolitix, 11 April 2002

(9) In the Service of Democracy: A Consultation Paper on a Policy for Electronic Democracy (.pdf 911 KB), Cabinet Committee on Edemocracy, July 2002, p8

(10) Edemocracy briefing, Office of the E-Envoy

(11) Speech to the ‘Reviving Democracy’ conference, Robin Cook, ePolitix, 11 April 2002

(12) In the Service of Democracy: A Consultation Paper on a Policy for Electronic Democracy (.pdf 911 KB), Cabinet Committee on Edemocracy, July 2002, Preface by Robin Cook, p4

(13) See Email us for unity’s sake, say Tories, Patrick Wintour, Guardian, 7 November 2002

(14) In the Service of Democracy: A Consultation Paper on a Policy for Electronic Democracy (.pdf 911 KB), Cabinet Committee on Edemocracy, July 2002, p23

(15) See the Institute for Public Policy Research website

(16) Code Red: Progressive Politics in the Digital Age, Ian Kearns, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2002, p11-12

(17) Code Red: Progressive Politics in the Digital Age, Ian Kearns, Institute for Public Policy Research, 2002, p47

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Topics Politics

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