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Trust and Distrust in the Austrian Student Council e-Elections

The next session at EDEM 2009 starts with Cornelia Wagner, examining the social acceptability of e-voting in the context of the recent student council elections in Austria. There is a continuing battle between promoters and sceptics in this context, citing the opportunities for better citizen consultation as well as the lack of trust in e-initiatives in support of their arguments, and Cornelia suggests that bottom-up approaches, trust in these systems, and early adoption are paramount for overcoming some of these problems.

There is a stepped approach here: the first level of e-government is represented by government e-portals and administrative applications; the second level enables citizens to communicate and interact directly with the government; a third moves further towards e-participation; and a fourth combines all of this to connect citizens and government. Finally, the fifth level provides for e-voting, e-elections, and similar mechanisms for citizen involvement in decision-making.

A bottom-up approach to this is necessary to harness the linkage between personal involvement and processes of social acceptability. The establishment of lower levels of e-governance is necessary before introducing further technical solutions, which are more demanding of citizen involvement. Further, the successive roll-out of these stages requires the continued trust of the citizens in order to work. Acceptability presupposes trust in technology, and such trust is mainly driven by communicative acts.

Credibility is part of such trust: a technical solution must be a credible solution for democratic participation. The evolution of credibility requires a powerful group of early-stage adapters able to work as role-models. Such early-stage adopters play a role as persons in a position of trust, then; trust is an emergent social property based on the interactions between actors, and driven by citizens' experience.

In the context of student elections, then, the first stage of the e-government period is provided by university Web portals; the second by online communication environments and email; the third by e-participation tools such as those allowing students to register for classes; e-integration is exemplified by registering for exams and e-learning; while the final stage are the student elections themselves. (This seems awfully simplistic to me - registering for classes is a pretty paltry act of e-participation...)

Overall, students show high technical affinity, and are not particularly critical of the use of online technologies, so they should be well prepared for e-voting; they also have limited awareness of potential problems in e-voting environments. So, there generally is no individual distrust in the e-voting system; on a group level, however, distrust can evolve very quickly under the right circumstances and in the absence of objective information.

So, it is important to consider the social acceptability of technological solutions, rather than just their technological transparency; users will ask why there is a need to innovate on something that already works (like paper ballots). It is important to stimulate the public discourse on such issues, and keep a focus on technological solutions; the e-participation pyramid can provide a useful framework for the understanding of different levels of e-participation.

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