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Transparency and Teledemocracy: Issues from an 'E-Consultation'

Abstract

Transparency is a term common to distributed computing, communications studies and other fields that information science draws upon. Its everyday uses and connotations are carried over into these domains, coalescing around some common issues relevant to knowledge management. Transparency is also a common term in political theory and practice, and one that has been associated with teledemocracy; the application of information and communication technology (ICT) to support democratic processes. For example, 'greater transparency' is commonly used to justify the use of ICT by governments to consult with the governed, the topic of the work in progress reported here.

Transparency is an abstract benefit, perhaps more so than 'knowledge management' itself. It promises gain for all, but risks being lost between expectations first raised by political and managerial 'spin' and then deflated by the same corporate forgetting it is meant to address. The paper explores some of this dangerous territory, reflecting on how everyday notions of 'transparency' relate to two current issues in knowledge management and social informatics. Firstly, the design of systems to promote shared awareness of activity and identity, and secondly the study of ICTs to illuminate the invisibility of the 'social infrastructure' they depend upon.

The paper briefly reviews uses of the term 'transparency', drawing on literature from the fields mentioned above. The aim is to delineate dimensions of transparency that may help designers, policy makers or citizens to evaluate what can or should be made transparent in the interplay between technology and due political process. Ethnographic methods were used to document outcomes of an "electronic consultation" project that contributed to a government consultation of 11-18 year-olds in Scotland. A website "e-consultant" was developed, and its usage monitored on-line and off-line, including in events leading up to a "Scottish Youth Summit". Using brief extracts from field notes, the web site itself, and audio and video transcripts of the site in use, the paper will show how those participating in the consultation collaboratively shared and managed awareness of their activities and identities. Reflecting on what was made visible through the e-consultant site, and what was hidden by it, we will discuss the realised and potential "transparency-enhancing" effects of this and similar prototypes. The discussion focuses on the roles of intermediaries and social infrastructure in the project, illustrating the trade-offs between transparently simple design, and transparency of information on the collaboration between consultants (those doing the consulting) and consultees (those consulted). Finally, indications are given of the direction of our ongoing research.