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e-Democracy: Citizen engagement and evaluation

Introduction

Democracy assumes participation of ordinary citizens, yet for many years the majority of people in representative democracies have not participated in political arenas much beyond casting their vote occasionally at elections. However, ideas about representative democracy are changing. Those who govern now realise they can do so more effectively when conscious of the needs and attitudes of those they govern. Having acknowledged public scepticism and cynicism about politics -- evidenced in annually decreasing turn-out at elections and growing dissatisfaction with democratic authorities -- many governments in representative democracies world-wide are attempting to develop new philosophies suited to modern society, mass communications, and more discerning life-styles. In attempting to increase transparency and democratic accountability, many are turning to contemporary ICTs to modernise and change the way their administrations work. In addition, they are attempting to bring citizens on-line to prepare them for living and working in the Information Society. Importantly, there is widespread support for new forms of citizen agency and a more committed and active public to exercise power and participate more fully in the routine process of government. Active citizenship is regarded by the OECD (2001: 11) as: "a relation based on partnership with government, in which citizens actively engage in defining the process and content of policy-making."

Political support for increased citizen participation is supported by the arrival of ICT capable of widening public interaction. The concept of e-democracy -- i.e. the relationship between democracy, the public and new ICTs -- has been described in two distinct ways. The first, stemming from communism and socialism (Held, 1996), and often associated with more populist approaches, suggests the role of ICT is to support direct or plebiscitary forms of democracy, where the sum of individual opinion provides indication of the common will (Foster, 2001). According to Held (1996), the justification for this model is that the free development of all can only be achieved with the free development of each. A key demand is for Governments and politics to give way to self-regulation. The second typology, drawing from different models of democracy and considered appropriate to address demands in modern representative democracies, is concerned with the role of ICT in supporting stronger forms of democracy (Barber, 1984), affording citizens roughly equal opportunity to be involved in political progress (Sclove, 1995: 37) and offering opportunities for more participatory democracy (Held, 1996), and wider and more direct citizen deliberation (Friedland, 1996; Coleman, 1999; Coleman, 2001). The philosophical case for this model supports a reciprocal relationship between democratic processes and democratic structures, endeavouring to support rather than constrain people's freedom.

The latter typology portraying possibilities for broader interrelationships between ICT and society are central in this chapter. With this in mind, we discuss how possibilities for more interactive participation through electronic petitioning (e-petitioning) in Scotland can begin to foster effective participation with citizens having the opportunity to help set the political agenda. Reference is made to a study conducted by the International Teledemocracy Centre to monitor and evaluate e-petitioner, an online tool designed to support the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament in their intention to open up the Parliament to petitioning by ordinary members of the public, and so increase possibilities of including public opinions in parliamentary workflow. With reference to current political interest in integrating public opinion to make policy processes in representative democracy more participatory, we then consider how public opinion gathered through reasoned interaction -- using new ICT and non-technological methods of communication -- is significant in policy decision-making, and to what extent the actual impact is being monitored and evaluated.

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