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Learning from e-Democracy Failures in Sweden

The second presentation in this session at CeDEM 2011 is by Elin Wihlborg, whose focus is on a specific case study of e-democracy practices in a Swedish municipality – focussing in this case on reasons for failure, which are just as important to investigate as obvious successes. We need to start, though, by considering the concept of ‘democracy’ in the first place, which is often glossed over – it’s about forming a demos through finding a common ethos and participating in an inclusive fashion, and about kratia: thinking through the exercising of power.

What happens when we add ‘e-’ to this concept, then? Again, we need to consider how ‘e-’ anything affects both the ‘demos’ and the ‘kratia’ element of the term ‘democracy’. This is about politics from the institutional all the way through the everyday level, then, and democracy from the national to the local level. Similarly, we need to challenge the idea of empowerment, of course – what constitutes empowerment, who is empowered, who extends an invitation to participate and ‘be empowered’ in the first place?

Institutionalising e-Participation in Europe?

The next session at CeDEM 2011 starts with Francesco Molinari. His interest is in the processes of institutionalising e-participation in Europe. There is an enormous amount of information, evidence, and outcomes from a wide range of e-participation projects in the EU – how can we learn from them and develop more systematic approaches within European and member state institutions? What role does the researcher and practitioner community play in this?

The story begins with the EU e-participation Preparatory Action, which set up 30 pilot sites in 18 EU member states and engaged 100,000 citizens. 50 public sector entities were involved, and 70 MEPs took part as well. The overall investment was €20m, so that’s about €200 per participating citizen. Per pilot, an average of 3,300 citizens took part (or 2,000 per public sector entity, or 1,400 per MEP). These activities also created some economic impact, creating a market for leading innovative technologies.

PAAS: Assisted Citizen Access Points in Tuscany

The second speaker in this morning session at CeDEM 2011 is Sara Tavazzi, who works in the Italian region of Tuscany. She’s introducing a network of assisted access points to citizen services called PAAS. Some 45% of Tuscan families owned a PC in 2003, and only some 37% had Internet access; while this will have increased in the meantime, those are relatively low figures, then.

The Tuscan region pursued three actions to improve e-government, then – for public administration, for businesses, and for citizens; the latter was approached through a new regional law that also introduced the PAAS network, as part of broader efforts towards citizen participation in regional decision making, better services, and better participatory deliberation processes. Digital citizenship, digital rights, information flows, and general citizen engagement are also goals of this.

Managing Government Business Processes

We’re entering the second and final day of the CeDEM 2011 conference here in Krems. The first speaker of this session is Bojan Cestnik, whose interest is in business process outsourcing and its connections to citizen participation. Bojan starts by noting that the availability and sophistication of user services provided by governments are steadily improving; there is also a strong EU policy stating that no citizen should be left behind by these services in 2010. At the same time, participation figures remain limited: only 28% of citizens participate (but 68% of companies). So, there’s a need to understand and engage citizens more effectively.

There may be problems of apathy or intentional exclusion here. Certain obstacles and barriers actively discourage engagement, but this has also given rise to a common but incorrect belief that people just don’t care about politics (that they see it as a spectator sport). It is necessary here also to embrace voluntary and incomplete participation, rather than aim for ‘perfect’ outcomes.

Who Engages in e-Policymaking Processes?

The final presenter on this first day at CeDEM 2011 is Rebecca Schild, whose interest is in engaging policy communities online, in Canada. Canada is at an important crossroads in public consultation at this point; there has been substantial consultation in the past using older media technologies, but since the 1990s there was a neoliberal shift towards a more exclusive policy process that became dominated by private sector interests. Can this be redressed using e-participation?

Does the Internet increase participation in policy processes, then, and for whom? Can this draw on the emerging networked public sphere, or does it fall prey to fragmentation and polarisation? How may socio-cybernetic governance be made to work, and how can participatory inequality be addressed?

Activism or Slacktivism? Online Political Engagement in Austria

The next session at CeDEM 2011 starts with Christine Neumayer and Judith Schoßböck. Their interest is in political lurkers, especially in the Austrian context. There are already terms like slacktivism and clicktivism to describe very lightweight means of engaging people in political activism; all of this takes place across a media ecology ranging from the conventional mass media through social media to alternative media.

Political identity is now often shown through Facebook ‘likes’, and this is an online equivalent of wearing pins or t-shirts supporting specific causes; on the other end of the extreme are hackers or offline activists, for example. This can be described through a pyramid model of participation, ranging from mere interest through to forming an opinion, to discussion and distribution of information, to support of existing projects, to self-organisation, and finally through to reaction.

Of Lightweight Crowds and Heavyweight Communities

The second round of keynotes at CeDEM 2011 starts with Caroline Haythornthwaite, whose focus is on making sense of online community structures. She begins from a social network analysis perspective, which understands social networks as constituted of relations between actors. Such social networks transcend online social networks, of course; rather, we now need to take a whole-of-system perspective in which social networking takes place across a range of networks, including online networks.

What’s especially important here, too, is a focus on new forms of collaborating and organising; with the shift towards Web 2.0, but also with many other concurrent shifts, there’s been a transition in attitudes and practices towards collaboration. Indeed, Caroline suggests that we’ve entered a Web 2+ period now. Alongside this are shifts towards user-driven practices, the perpetual beta where things are constantly in flux, and where data and information are mashed up and remixed all the time.

Uses of Political Blogging in the 2010 Swedish Election

The next speaker at CeDEM 2011 is Jakob Svensson, who shifts our attention towards the individual in political participation. He does this against the background of the 2010 Swedish elections, which for the first time used social media in a significant way. Jakob focussed on Nina Larsson, a politician of the conservative Liberal’s Party, who used two blogs during her campaign.

Jakob notes the different forms of rationalities (deliberative, but especially also expressive) which are on display in such uses; beyond this, there is also a more instrumental use of social media to influence election outcomes, of course (at worst, this simply refers to naked political spin). All of this needs to be considered in a wider theoretical context of digital late modernity and networked individualism, of course. The process of individualisation opens up other spheres for participation, too – life politics, for example. Blogs and other social networking sites are sometimes seen as saviours for this, but there are strong critiques of such perspectives, too.

Twitter in e-Participation

The next CeDEM 2011 session starts with a presentation by Peter Mambrey, whose focus is on the potential role of Twitter in e-participation. He begins by noting the expansion of the media ecology and the take-up of new media forms by specific groups in society; this creates new opportunities for political participation and self-empowerment, but also challenges for local administration and government.

There is a rising expectation of service quality, growing demands for local service delivery and expertise, competition between cities for citizens and enterprises, demographic change (with a marked population decline in some areas in Germany, for example), and financial problems in the wake of the global financial crisis. General questions include transparency and input-legitimacy, dialogue and output-legitimacy, collaboration and participation, identity management and public relations, and an erosion of the representative system (also through lobbying).


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