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eDem10: A Look at Best Methods for Democratic (and Undemocratic) e-Participation

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, May 6 2010

I'm in Krems, Austria for the two-day eDemocracy2010 conference (hashtag #eDem10), where I'll be giving a keynote talk tomorrow on "The Promise and Contradictions of e-Democracy, Obama-Style." The conference brings together about a hundred people from mostly Europe, with a smattering from Asia and Australia, as best as I can tell. Most are academic researchers of the topic, with a smattering of practitioners and activists. While it never hurts to spend a few days among academics studying politics and technology, the last time I did this (at the Politics Web 2.0 conference in England two years ago), I was struck and dismayed by how little academics actually used the tools they were discussing. This time, there are a number of people tweeting, and the conference papers will all eventually get posted online.

Even better, there's clearly some new winds blowing through what, in my admittedly distant view, has been a musty and dry space. Not to put too fine a point on it: the issue is that while top-down e-government web projects get funding and fanfare, they get very little public participation. Meanwhile, bottom-up civic participation online is booming, but politicians generally ignore it. Australian Axel Bruns summarized the problem nicely in a talk on "G4C2C: enabling Citizen Engagement at Arms' Length from Government." From my notes, paraphrasing his remarks:

G2C (government-to-citizen sites) is seen as mere service delivery, not community consultation. Citizens perceive it as insubstantial spin. Apparent citizen participation as fig leaf for government. Finally, the process of impacting on government decisions is unclear.

C2C (citizen-to-citizen)models may generate open and engaged debate, but often only by the usual (disempowered) suspects. These are perceived as unrepresentative, and unable to match the clout of established lobby groups.

What we’re aiming for is for government to have a stake in this, recognize the outputs as meaningful, but for these processes to run at arms length from government, so they are not viewed as serving the needs of public servants rather than public.

His answer is to look for a new kind of public service model to act as the convenor of these online conversations, a PBS for the digital age if you will, chartered by government and supported by tax dollars, but semi-independent. I don't now if that's the answer, but he's asking the right question: how to blend mass participation from below with authority from above. We've been calling this "We.gov" or "We-government," to distinguish real participation and collaboration from mere service delivery and one-way consultation.

On the flip side, there is what passes for e-participation now. I missed the beginning of Dan Jellinek and Hans Hagedorn’s afternoon workshop on “Best Methods for Undemocratic E-Participation” because the room was (intentionally?) in an almost inaccessible location. But I got to it in time to soak up the vibe. On the screen, a slide listing some of their favorite methods, gleaned no doubt from frustration with various well-funded e-government projects prevalent in Europe:

Useful hints:

-Pick the topic yourself

-E-Participation exercises should only run in one type of technology
-choose a few people to form the core from among your associates
-allow the rest to self-select from the usual e-democracy geeks
-never use moderation—it’s more democratic that way
-report on the exercise six months later in a deeply-buried pdf
-do not connect online activity with offline political or social activity.

Jellinek and Hagedorn asked the 20 or so folks in the room to write up their own suggestions, and they came up with a lot of good ones:

-ask for at least ten points of personal data from each participant
-invite people to pick their own topics and discuss those ALL at the same time
-present the information on the issue in a complex way
-don’t provide information on who is the owner of the process and how it will be connected to decision-making
-shut down the web page shortly after the activity
-have a hidden agenda
-wait until users find you
-pick a topic without reference to what citizens are interested in

Someone asked if this was meant as a joke, and Jellinek answered that had we asked people to put together a list of best practices FOR democratic e-participation, it would have been duller, and that this is meant as a guide to what to avoid. Hagedorn also noted that as politicians are starting to take e-participation more seriously, they want to provoke a debate about quality and standards.

These examples are all drawn from experience in Europe. We’ve never seen anything like this in the United States, right?

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