Democratic placebos

The eDemocracy conversation remains resolutely government centric. Not that civil society isn’t represented, it is. But it still lives on the fringes. As eDemocracy matures specialised systems for consultations, petitions and debates have emerged. They are not cheap, so civil society remains in the slow-lane of do-it-yourself or open-source as government wheels out its ever more grand designs.

Democracy (without the ‘e’) is anchored in the landscape of local community. Shaped by the issues that shape us, to fully engage we need our own sense of place. There is a social context for everything that we do and it is a challenge for eDemocracy to ensure that new electronic systems do not homogenise or diminish local cultural and social values through the top-down imposition of technical solutions.

There is a real problem with democratic drift. People are dis-engaging from democracy and young people are not engaging in the first place. eDemocracy is one part of the solution. There is evidence that people are using the new systems. There are signs that some projects have engaged people on the fringes. But not many.

A problem remains, for me at least, with accountability. Take ePetitions; a good idea in many ways, they are inarguably democracy done light. Nothing, deliberative, engaging or values based there. But if they engage more people, I don’t have a problem. The suggestion from proponents of ePetitions is that the people using them perceive being heard. But are they? How do we know what is going on behind the scenes? What happens to a petition? Who sees it? Who responds to it? Does it make any difference? The answer to these questions obviously depends on where you live, the issue you raised and probably a whole raft of other variables. The point is, you – the citizen – don’t really know the answer because the process is opaque.

Without end-to-end clarity, effective, clear and transparent eDemocracy is a fallacy. At best these processes become a lottery. Or do we just end up with a democratic placebo; a perception on the part of the citizen that something’s happening and a resultant, if temporary, decline in the democratic malaise, yet in reality it’s no more than sugar.

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