I’ve been busy lately. Thanks to BT, I was in beautiful Bologna, eating incredibly good food and launching our new report, Bowling Together: Online Public Engagement in Policy Deliberation. We, Stephen Coleman and I, also launched our new website, bowlingtogether.net, with the report and our collaborative blog.
From our report (Introduction):
The purpose of this study is to examine some of the issues that have been neglected so far in the debate about e-democracy. We would identify four areas where new thinking is needed:
Firstly, there is a need to think through the democratic rationale for online public engagement in policy deliberation. There are a number of concerns about the cognitive capacity of the public to comprehend the policy process and contribute usefully to it; these should neither be uncritically accepted nor lightly dismissed. These concerns call for an evaluation of the role of the public within a democracy. Should the role of democratic citizens stop at voting or stretch to deliberating? Will a deliberating citizenry, which is connected to the policy process, undermine representation and lead to direct democracy? Or will it strengthen the democratic process and help restore public confidence in the traditional methods of democratic governance? How can public opinion become informed and informing? These are not totally new questions, although the potential of a more connected democracy has pushed them to the fore. This study attempts to link the rationale for online public engagement to wider democratic theory.
Secondly, it is vital that institutions of governance, including both elected politicians and policy-forming bureaucrats, consider carefully the impact of online public engagement upon their own practices. And it is equally important for them to work out how they can adapt their practices to a more engaged and connected political environment. This study outlines the kinds of changes that are required.
Thirdly, there are implications in all of this for the nature of citizenship. The skills and strategies required by citizens with access to new channels of participation in policy-making are bound to become more sophisticated than those required in the more limited world of ‘analogue politics.’ This study explores these new skills and strategies and reports some new evidence from UK and Danish polls of internet users on their expectations for e-democracy.
Fourthly, although it is taken as read throughout this study that technology is a potential tool of democracy, rather than the sci-fi designer of a new political world, there is a real danger of the discussion of technology being neglected in the debate about e-democracy. Technology is never neutral in any process, least of all the democratic process, and so it is important to think about desired ends in terms of appropriate technologies for their achievement. This study seeks to analyse the existing ICTs and offer some recommendations about best use.
Finally, so as to root this study in the real world, rather than a speculative universe of futuristic schemes for the democratic use of ICTs, we have included brief accounts of some recent international attempts to engage the public online in a deliberative fashion. These are not presented as examples of best (or worst) practice, but in order to show that some (although very few) initiatives are taking place and that these are still experimental, learning experiences rather than evolved models.