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Designing e-democracy in Scotland

Abstract

Since the late 1990's the UK Government has sought to address common concerns with strengthening social cohesion, democracy, and genuine engagement between citizens and their local, regional and national governments. It began a programme of modernisation highlighting the use of information and communication technology (ICT), and in particular the internet, as a vehicle for the dissemination of information and the provision of some government services. While different societal factors encourage and hinder civil society in engaging in active citizenship, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive - formally devolved from the UK Government in May 1999 - is attempting to bring the voices of citizens and the needs of society into the practice of decentralised government. Consequently much more attention has been brought to bear on the design of technology to support the democratic process.

While many may still have to be convinced of the possibilities of enhanced democratic participation, the move towards the use of new technologies and the new focus on citizen engagement in Scotland provides the opportunity for e-democracy to emerge. Working towards the goal of e-democracy, the International Teledemocracy Centre (ITC) in Edinburgh was set up in 1999 by Napier University in partnership with British Telecom. It aims to develop a body of ICT, supporting skills, tools and techniques, designed specifically to facilitate the use of advanced, creative and multi-faceted methods of electronic communication, capable of enhancing democratic interaction between the people and the Parliament.

This paper begins to articulate how citizens are engaging with government, with their elected representatives and with each other about some of the issues that concern them, using technology specially designed for the purpose. It is noted that others elsewhere (e.g. Sclove, 1995; Mansell & Silverstone, 1998) have drawn attention to the importance of technology design and its ability to constrain or support democratic action. Reflecting on both the UK Government's and the Scottish Executive's stated aim to broaden democracy and the main aims and goals of the ITC, this paper examines the nature of e-democracy and considers concepts of democracy, issues of democratisation, and issues surrounding citizen access and participation. In addition, the paper discusses the design and use of two electronic tools developed by the ITC between 1999 and 2001 i.e. e-consultant and e-petitioner. Finally, the paper presents analyses of findings drawn from research to monitor and evaluate the use of these tools and the arrangements which accompany their entry into society.

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