Unless local authorities grasp the potential of 'ground up' approaches to e-democracy the result will be "more subterranean conversations where authorities are increasingly 'spoken about', rather than 'spoken to'."
This is one of the conclusions of an evaluation 'From the Ground Up' commissioned by Bristol City Council on behalf of the Local e-Democracy National Project, available here. The foreword says:
Effective local leadership is at the heart of Government strategy. Leadership involves listening and responding to the views of communities; however, “democracy” is not simply a gift to be handed down from Government to authorities to citizens. This report concerns the role that authorities must also play in facilitating ground-up, community and citizen-led approaches to democracy, if they are to be truly effective leaders.
In facilitating ground-up e-democracy, the report considers how authorities have tried to harness the power offered by communication technologies to create and stimulate new forms of “civic-space”. In this space, communities recognise the value of bringing forward issues, ideas and solutions and local authorities see themselves as central, but not dominating, stakeholders in a public conversation.
The report looks at local online 'issues forums', work with the BBC iCan project (now Action Network), a project to provide online space for the over-50s, as well as blogs for councillors and officials and other initiatives. It was written by Professor Stephen Coleman of the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford with research support from Anne Geniets, Ildiko Kaposi, Giles Moss and John Nicholls. They conducted interviews with a range of people involved in each project.
The report is pretty dense, with a wealth of insights and quotes from nearly 120,000 words of transcription. Unfortunately it is only available - so far as I can see - as a pdf, which makes quoting difficult. Not really in the spirit of encouraging 'ground-up' participation. I hope the National Local E-democracy Project will now 'chunk it up' on their blog or forums so there is more scope for ground-up discussion.
A bit of cut and paste yields these points from the section on Making Sense of What We've Evaluated:
Firstly, we learned that at the centre of most e-democracy projects one usually finds a small group of active enthusiasts. This is not an insignificant finding.
Secondly, we have observed the importance of trusted intermediaries in the online world. Citizens want government to be close enough to hear them, but far enough away to let them speak amongst themselves. This is a value of the BBC iCan model.
In the early days of the internet there was much fashionable talk about what theorists called “disintermediation.” This meant that people would have more non-mediated relationships with banks, health services, news sources and governments. In fact, most people do not want to interact with raw information; they want trusted interpreters to help them understand what things mean. That’s why most of us prefer going to the BBC website, which we trust to make sense of the news, than to an online newswire that distributes every report it receives. Trusted sense-makers are central figures in a world of complexity and risk. In the context of the online public sphere, where we are constantly encountering strangers, we want to be exposed to a range of different ideas, but we also want to know that the people we are encountering are who they say they are and that the expression of their views is moderated in a civilised way. Indeed, moderation is one of the important new skills of digital civilisation. In the twentieth century democracy was mainly about having the freedom to speak. In the twenty-first century, as more people than ever are able to join in the public conversation, there is a need for democratic techniques to support the freedom to listen and be heard.
So, a second outcome of the national project could be to explore the most trusted, effective and humane ways of cultivating intermediaries who can moderate the conversation that is democracy.
Thirdly, there is a need to help elected representatives to understand their role within the online public sphere. Councillors are
already under pressure to change in a range of ways so that ICT can make their jobs easier. In one sense, the online public sphere presents elected representatives with nothing very new. They have always spent a good deal of their time interacting with diverse social networks, such as community associations or faith groups or protest movements. As more civic networks migrate online, elected representatives find themselves interacting with them more conveniently via their computers rather than in drafty meeting halls. But there is more to it than that. As communication between representatives and represented comes to be direct, the old dichotomy between direct democracy (everyone votes on everything) and representative democracy (you elect your representative every four years and leave them to it) starts to break down. Out of this dichotomy is emerging what we might call direct representation, whereby representatives still represent the public, but the public has a much closer and more ongoing communicative relationship with them.
One of the more useful outcomes of this evaluation would be an exploration of what direct representation entails for local democracy, especially in the context of the government’s promotion of new models of devolved, neighbourhood governance
The authors identify a number of potential risks of e-democracy:
Firstly, there is the risk of “technocracy”.
Secondly, tokenism is a risk. Doing things to be seen to be doing them.
Thirdly, there is the risk of e-democracy projects being dominated by the usual suspects who are already well served by opportunities to engage.
Fourthly, there is the risk of e-democracy bypassing democratic institutions.
Four possible anticipated benefits of e-democracy are identified
• devolve more power and responsibility to local citizens and communities;
• show that councils are listening to and representing people;
• encourage more deliberative discussion, where people learn to listen and tolerate one another;
• more effectively reach the least engaged citizens and communities.