In December 1999 the European Commission launched a major initiative – the e-Europe initiative. Its objective is to stimulate the broad adoption of technological research achievements by European society at large. It has three specific objectives concerned with Internet infrastructure, technical skills and Internet use. The U.K. is committed to making itself the world’s best environment for e-commerce by 2002, and to ensuring that all government services feasible to deliver electronically are available online by 2005.
The Scottish context
In July 1999 the Scottish Parliament was officially opened. This gave devolved power for specific areas of government from the Westminster Parliament in London to a Scottish Parliament based in Edinburgh. One of the main documents setting out how the new Parliament should work was The Consultative Steering Group document.
This document stated that The Scottish Parliament should aspire to use all forms of Internet technology “innovatively and appropriately” to support its three principles of openness, accessibility and participation. The Scottish Parliament’s Web site at www.scottish.parliament.uk is an excellent example of this. All documents and debates relating to the business of the Parliament are available online. The Web site
publishes the Official Report of the Parliament’s meetings by 7 a.m. on the following day, and Committee Reports as soon as possible and generally within three days of the meeting. They also have a world-leading webcasting facility – www.scottishparliamentlive.com – which provides live audio-visual coverage of all proceedings in the Chamber and main Committee rooms.
The Scottish Executive’s Web site is at www.scotland.gov.uk. There is a Scottish Ministerial working group charged with placing 21st century government at the heart of all executive policy. It brings together the key ministers most involved with direct public services: ministers for health, education, enterprise, plus, of course, finance. The ambitious target is to get all government services in Scotland which can feasibly be delivered electronically running by 2005.
The government recognizes that in moving towards these electronic service delivery targets, e-democracy should not be neglected in favour of areas that are considered more traditional or local.
In August 1999 the International Teledemocracy Centre (ITC) was established by Napier University in partnership with BT Scotland. The centre is dedicated to researching how to develop e-democracy systems that can motivate and engage people in debate and to counter public apathy and low turnout at elections.
Its research agenda is focusing on three main areas of interest:
- How can technology make information more accessible and understandable to non-experts?How can technology facilitate more open and accessible government?How can technology enable the public to participate in democratic decision-making?
Across these areas is the overarching issue of the societal effects of technology on the democratic process. Therefore, with a new Parliament, a modernizing executive and a university research centre dedicated to researching e-democracy, the scene was set to push forward with the use of technology to support the democratic decision making process and develop e-democracy systems for Scotland.
The July 2001 OECD report Engaging Citizens in Policy-making: Information, Consultation and Public Participation discusses the government-citizen relationship in policy-making. The OECD document defines three types of interaction: namely, one-way information provision, a two-way relationship where citizens are given the opportunity to give feedback on issues and, lastly, a relationship based on partnership where citizens are actively engaged in the policy-making process. E-democracy work in Scotland addresses both the two-way relationship through consultation and the active participation where citizens are helping to formulate policy.
The design of e-democracy systems needs to address a number of complex issues. These include understanding how to develop technology in order to:
- reach and engage a wider audience to enable broader participation;provide relevant background information in a format that is both more accessible and more understandable to the target audience to enable more informed participation;reach and engage specific target audiences to ensure more in-depth participation; andprovide relevant and appropriate feedback to the target audience to ensure openness and transparency in the decision-making process.
Different forms of technology are appropriate for each of these tasks, but for all tasks, the technology must be designed in such a way as to support trust in the process. Also, the issues of unequal access to technology and the unequal technical and communicative capabilities of citizens demand systems that are simple to use and understand. Working with British Telecom, the ITC has designed a Web-based e-democracy toolkit that starts to address some of these issues. The two Web-based tools, e-consultant and e-petitioner, were used in the e-democracy examples listed below.
E-consultation and the Scottish executive
This first example represents an e-consultation at the pre-policy drafting stage. It was on behalf of the Scottish executive and was based around sustainable development issues facing the country. The aim was to equip ministers with views to help them develop a policy document to be used at the World Summit in South Africa in 2002. The e-consultation ran from June to October, and details can be found at: http://e-consultant.org.uk/sustainability/. It aimed to inform people about the key issues facing a future Scotland and asks them to give their views on a range of issues from efficient use of resources to lifestyle and transport.
The second example concerns young people. The Scottish executive published a strategy document in which the Minister for Children and Education stated he wished to consult widely on an action programme for youth which values young people and reflects their own aspirations and needs. The e-consultation was part of this Action Programme for Youth. From May to June 2000, any young person could go to www.e-consultant.org.uk/ScottishYouth, give their opinion on a range of topics, and vote on which of these key issues they think are the most important facing young people in Scotland today.
The results of this six-week online consultation exercise formed important input to Scottish Youth Summit 2000 – nine separate conferences across Scotland which took place on June 19 and was attended by over 1,000 young people and Scottish Ministers.
Since May 2000 the ITC has been working with the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament to provide an electronic petitioning service. It can be found at www.e-petitioner.org.uk. The system has the functionality to create petitions, to view/sign petitions and, more importantly, allow for comments. The Scottish Parliament agreed to allow groups and individuals to submit petitions using the e-petitioner system for a trial period.
A word of caution
E-democracy has the potential to ensure better policy outcomes by:
- attracting broader citizen input on policy formulation;ensuring provision of timely and relevant information to inform the input;facilitating analysis and feedback; andstrengthening public understanding in the democratic process.
However, at this particular time, we are at the stage where e-mail, online discussion forums and bulletin boards are appearing on a large number of government-related Web sites along with the associated claims that, since government is now much better at reaching out to the public, they better represent their views and opinions.
However, these claims have not, as yet, been substantiated. Links between developing the technology, civic inclusion and participation in the democratic process have not been explored systematically or comprehensively, although it is often assumed in the statements of policymakers. An important part of the ITC’s research is concerned with how to evaluate and quantify the impact of the e-democracy systems on the democratic decision-making processes.
Ann Macintosh is director of the International Teledemocracy Centre (www.teledemocracy.org) at Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland. She may be contacted at [email protected].