The OECD has rediscovered eDemocracy, which I will talk about soon. But let’s first look in the OECD archives. The report Impact of the Emerging Information Society on the Policy Development Process and Democratic Quality was commissioned in 1998 by the OECD Public Management Service to explore how the new information and communications technologies (ITCs) and the emerging “information society” (IS) are changing the way governments handle information in the policy making process, and to discuss some of the issues these changes raise for the conduct of democratic government.
A summary of the major findings and conclusions
The new information and communications technologies (ICTs) have many strengths:
- speed (compression of time and distance);
- relative ease of access;
- relative low cost.
“As a result, more information is available more readily.”
“They are affecting the major players in the policy process in many different ways:
- The media are better informed, more questioning, and better able to play a role in government accountability in the emerging Information Society (IS).
- Interest groups are also better informed, better linked through networks, and, in most of the countries visited, better able to bring pressure to bear, especially on the middle level of bureaucracy; access to the top is still, however, limited.
- Lobbyists who do not use the new technologies to rally support around their clients’ interests could lose some power as their principals get direct access to information they used to pay lobbyists to obtain; lobbyists will, however, continue to sell their prime asset: access to decision-makers.
- Political parties have become more electoral than policy machines as they have adapted to the emerging IS and adopted many of the new technologies to raise money, organise workers, get out their messages, and neutralise the opposition.
- Legislatures are increasingly squeezed between the general public and the executive; the new technologies make plebiscitary democracy more feasible and this possibility is putting pressures on representative democracy.
- Relations with the general public have not, and are unlikely to, change much; they will be able to communicate faster, but not necessarily to greater effect with policy-makers.
- The bureaucracy appears to be increasing its influence as it has the resources to enhance its synthesising and advising role.”
The study concludes that the ICTs have not improved the links to decision-makers or the democratic quality of policy and governance.
“The IS and the new technologies have done little to enhance democratic values such as the frequency and quality of participation in or the transparence of policy-making and governance. Nor have they improved government credibility. The growth of a confrontational media has done little to advance these values. On the other hand, in a positive vein, the purposeful use of the ICTs has the potential to advance some of the other important touchstones of democracy — accountability, political equality, freedom of speech and association, and the treatment and role of minorities — especially if they become simpler to use and more widely distributed.”
The report argues that the ICTs have altered the environment for policy-making, often in negative ways, and driven a number of important developments which are affecting the ability of governments to govern and their willingness to embrace the new technologies:
- “The policy-making process has become more complex.
- It is increasingly difficult for governments to set and maintain their agenda; once decisions are taken it is more and more difficult to make them stick; it is more difficult for governments to get their way on issues.
- This has resulted in an enormous stress on “marketing” policy decisions, facilitated by the new technologies with their ease in segmenting markets and speeding delivery of tailored messages. Increasingly vast amounts of time and resources are spent on communications planning and implementing communications strategies.
- There is a tendency for governments to move into the infotainment business. This is accentuated by the need of governments to be seen to be doing something; the media often drive governments to develop “symbolic” or short-term solutions to symptoms rather than root causes with the result that major issues are left untouched.”
The democratising potential of the ICTs must be accompanied by other important changes:
- “the advent of a new technically literate generation to positions of power (since the spread of new technology requires leadership from committed users at the top);
- improved technologies for interactivity, synthesis and feedback;
- higher priority and greater political will on the part of decision-makers to better link the public to the decision-making process in a substantive way; decision-makers must contain their propensity towards secretiveness and their instinct to “ration democracy”; and last but not least;
- greater desire on the part of the public to participate actively in the policy process.”
… progress depends less on technology and more on social and cultural development, government priorities, political will and the structure of institutions.
The 1998 OECD-report was prepared by Roberto Gualtieri, former senior official in the Government of Canada, based on interviews with government officials and others in eight OECD countries — Canada, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.