I've just caught up on Lee Bryant's Dan Dixon's thoughtful item at Headshift on The characteristics of e-Democracy in which he starts some rethinking on bottom-up and top-down relationships in a networked society - something I've touched on recently.
Lee Dan reports on a recent e-democracy event, highlighting Professor Stephen Coleman's keynote characterisation of top-down and bottom-up e-Democracy.
Top down, legitimizing the process or appropriating the process?
- The appropriation of democracy - making it work for the ones on top
- Politics as a form of ecommerce. (people are buyers of politics, consumers of political packages, more of a marketing approach)
- The public as audience - broadcast, institutional aspect of it
- The replication of dull and obsolete practices - Inflicting existing processes
Characteristics of bottom up or interactive e-democracy
- Democracy as a public conversation - civilized, moderated, not hateful, meaningful
- Representation as a direct relationship - plebiscitary or ventriloquist model, we don't need to have someone speak for us. We can do it ourselves.
- Connecting grass roots networks - mysociety, action network, netmums
- The politics of everday experience - politics can be carried out in lay language, it is a part of everyday life, not pompous like central politics.
Lee Dan comments on Coleman:
I think that his language and attitude towards top-down were intrinsically negative, and he obviously favored the bottom-up approach. An attitude reflected by many people there.
... and then goes on to an analysis that is worth reading in conjunction with Steven Clift's report on an important pamphlet by Prof Coleman - Direct Representation: Towards a Conversational Democracy (pdf download). Steven says:
(The pamphlet) seems to suggest that our elected representatives could/should use information and communication technologies to more directly connect with their constituents in a more direct, but firmly representative democracy.
If there is one thing I’ve noticed in the UK, right down to the local council level, is the disconnect between the strong party line and elected officials with the ability to say something interesting online. Those elected officials that blog, actively use their e-mail newsletters, or participate in online forums, seem to be the rare breed willing to talk first and ask for permission later.
Back to Lee Dan:
Coleman did mention briefly that top-down is about legitimizing democracy, but then talked entirely about top down approaches appropriating democratic processes for their own agenda or just "not getting it". He characterized the top-down as not buying into pro-active changes to the process. This is a shame; it immediately puts e-Democracy into a conceptual dialectic, pitting "good" e-democracy, versus "bad" media broadcast e-democracy. The language itself evokes this and it ignores two things. First the top down big state stuff does legitimize the process. We don't live in some form of techno-anarchist utopia which relies on fluid, decentralized grassroots organizations deciding policy. Top down approaches help us hear and help minorities and provide a civic space to carry out democratic processes within. Secondly, that this style of broadcast government has, and still can, engage a large body of the population in democracy. (Though obviously there is a lot of debate in here about whether the public/media/government relationship intrinsically simplifies the message or not). Admittedly a lot of this opinion is probably founded on what parts of e-Democracy and e-Government are working now. The bottom up is working very well, grassroots innovators are moving fast and using simple tools to make massive differences. This is where it is all beginning to happen. But that is not the whole picture.
Lee Dan then offers the beginnings of a more helpful way of reframing the issues, which starts to offer a better way of thinking about power relationships, engagement and influence in today's society:
I feel that these characteristics of e-Democracy ought to be reworded and reformulated somewhat. This isn't too well thought out, so I'm not wedded to the terms, but I would suggest using something more like Frameworks and Practices to refer to the two types of phenomena. Forget about bottoms and tops, we've got to get away from the S&M laden, power-relationship language. So reworking these two categories somewhat:
- Politics as a way of joining up people and politicians - Making it work for everyone
- Democracy as a forum and a marketplace - competition to form political products, consumer choice for debate
- Methods for disseminating information - TV, radio, RSS, API's
- A place to experiment with process and practices - design, prototype, trial; use what works, throw away what doesn't
- They should be about standardization and commonality
- Grassroots, local and interest based connections - co-operation and collective action - (using tools like action network, pledge bank, partnership online)
- Everyday politics - The right tools and language for the job. The information you need, in the right amounts. (demos's strategy)
- Appropriate, responsible and transparent representation - simple and direct relationships - (in the style of invlove, they work for you)
- In the hands of the people, not government - Whoa! This is probably the most difficult characteristic to get right.
Frameworks will no doubt be full of emergent complexity, Practices should be simple, understandable and easy to use. Which I'm sure some would say is the opposite of how things currently work. Like any good little disciple of Foucault I have no doubt that power relationships will creep in, but better to keep those local and mixed up rather than providing poles for the entire system to orientate around. Also the terms are probably a result of my computing/internet/project-management background.
The Frameworks for Democracy, with or without the e will be difficult and slow, but worth concentrating on, worth building a vision for. The practices will and should be quick and obviously effective. Which is why people are looking at tools being or already built to support these practices as the success stories of e-Democracy and are more than rightly a little scared of tackling the bigger problems. But the right approach is not to scale-up, institutionalize, or appropriate practices; it is to provide these things with a fertile democratic loam to grow in.
Another point is not to confuse practices with tools. Social networking sites, blogs, messageboards and a whole raft of the like are tools for facilitating the practices of e-democracy, they're not the ultimate implementation of it.
And on a final note it's not about cost effectiveness, automation or replacing real life. As someone said in yesterday's breakout session:
Democracy is not the most efficient way to make a decision, if e-Democracy was there to make things more efficient the first thing to do would be get rid of the democracy bit.