January 2008

Ten Practical Online Steps for Government Support of Democracy

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Steven Clift, Ashoka Fellow, is an online strategist and public speaker focused on  the use of Internet in democracy, governance, and community. For the last decade  he has been working to fundamentally improve democracy and citizen  participation through the use of the Internet. One of world’s leading experts on e-Democracy, he is actively networking people around the world determined to make a difference with this new media.

Does e-Government have anything to do with democracy and citizen participation?
Let’s get straight to the point. Not yet.

Should it?

Yes. Government should be leading the charge into an increasingly and fundamentally interactive web. If you believe in government of, for, and by the people, then government — both representative and administrative—should be leading a charge into the increasingly and fundamentally interactive web.

Access to information, considered the safe starting point for government accountability  online, now mostly presents the public a daunting needle in a huge haystack. Not only are  governments excluding themselves from the increasingly interactive public lives of citizens,  but the fundamental information access system is so complicated that the valuable and  substantive information that government produces is often ignored in our increasingly online  lives. The lack of real and effective online access to governance will substantially increase cynicism about and distrust in government among a public that demands a more  participatory representative democracy.

A bit of context: In the early days of e-Government, I coordinated e-Gov initiatives for the  state of Minnesota. As a citizen, I independently started e-Democracy.Org, which created the  world’s fi rst election information and discussion website in 1994. When ‘services fi rst,  democracy later’ enveloped most e-Government projects, I skedaddled in  late 1997. Since then, I’ve spoken and consulted across 26 countries on e-Democracy. Here are the 10 things I would do in government at every level to help rescue our democracy in the information age.

1. Provide timely, personalised access to information that matters. Government   decision-making information is not really public or relevant if people cannot act on it when it still matters. Give people tools like personalized e-mail alerts based on keywords, location, etc. and eliminate the “nobody told me” backlash government often receives due to poor public outreach.

2. Help elected offi cials receive and sort, then better understand and respond to e-mail. The number one complaint I hear from elected offi cials around the world is about e-mail. Most offi cials want to respond effectively, but simply are not given the tools they  need. If there ever was an opportunity for open source collaboration among governments, this is it. In general, our representatives and representative institutions must start to invest in online infrastructure that allows them to connect directly with the public they represent.

3. Dedicate at least 10 percent of new e-Government developments to democracy. Let’s defi ne democracy starting with public input. In an e-Service initiative, the 10 percent should start with citizen focus groups to guide the design of the service. Tools could include usability testing, studies to generate user input and accountability, and posttransaction user surveys. If the investment is a new content management system for information access, then  use the 10 pecent to add personalisation and survey input features or democratised navigation—those nifty menus that show you the top 10 articles or downloads for that week.

4. Announce all government public meetings on the Internet in a uniform manner.  All public meeting notices, agendas, handouts, and digital recordings must be online. The system should be standards-based and tie state-bystate systems into a national network covering federal, state, and local government public meetings. This is the only way for people to ask to be pro-actively notifi ed of any government public meetings within a certain geographic area that are addressing topics of specifi c interest to them.

5. Allow citizens to look-up all of their elected offi cials,from the very local to the national, in one search, along with the ability to look-up all public meetings. Just before elected and appointed offi cials assume offi ce, every government unit should be   required to enter contact information for those offi cials into a national database.

“Announce all government public meetings on the Internet in a uniform manner.  All public meeting notices, agendas, handouts, and digital recordings must be online. The system should be standards-based and tie state-bystate systems into a national network covering federal, state, and local government public meetings. This is the only way for people to ask to be pro-actively notifi ed of any government public meetings within a certain geographic area that are addressing topics of  specifi c interest to them”

6. Host online public hearings and dialogues (or‘econsultations,’ as they are known outside the U.S.). As in-person public meetings begin to incorporate live online features, governments should consider more deliberate online exchanges to improve the outcomes of the decision making process. If a government agency hosts fi ve public hearings across the country or in a state, it should host the sixth hearing online and improve the format as part of the process. In 20 years, the legislatures, commissions, and city councils that do not hold hearings online will be in the minority.

7. Embrace the rule of law by mandating the most democratically empowering online services and rights across the whole of government. Technology itself is not forcing real institutional democratic change. I estimate that 90% of the democratic innovations online that really share power are based on a political tradition or law that existed before the Internet arrived. If we want all citizens to benefi t universally from a more wired democracy, then now is the time to update our legal requirements and fund core online democracy services.

8. Provide access to raw data from decision-making information systems. Let’s explode decision-making data— like congressional information and rulemaking-related   content—into bits via XML and open standards and make it easy to re-use public government data from many sources to create views and searches that provide insight, understanding, and accountability. Think ‘Web 2.0’ interactivity built on top of government data by those outside of government.

9. Fund open-source sharing internationally across governments. Sharing and supporting open source software takes resources. e-Democracy tools are an ideal starting point, so open-source initiatives that seek to reduce technology costs and build systems for eventual use by multiple governments make the most sense. Efforts to place modules and customizations out for community use will be key. Government and vendors who sell to government must contribute code back for the wheels of reciprocal value to start turning.

10. Local up.
To build e-Participation momentum, citizens need to experience results they can  see and touch. By investing in transferable local models and tools, more people will use the Internet as a tool to strength their communities, protect and enrich their families and neighborhoods, and be heard in a meaningful way. Every community needs an “online town hall,” e-Democracy. Org calls them Issues Forums, for agenda-setting discussion of public issues. Comparative evaluation of access and participation related online service and content indicators will introduce efforts for an online ‘Democracy Tune-up.’ This same tune-up  concept should be applied at the state and federal level as well..

Conclusion
In the early days, folks thought the Internet was inherently democratic. Parts of   it are, but that mistaken sense of technological determinism has not carried over to make constitutional and legally-based representative processes more open and responsive. Today, online “politics as usual” may actually make things worse. Civically conceived e-Participation efforts may fi rst need to counter such negative trends and also dispel the notion that “online politics” is just an extra option. Preservation of democratic rights is an important outcome. e-Democracy has the great potential to support, fulfi ll, and enhance this function. Stephen Clift leads the Online Consultation and e-Participation online community of practice at DoWire.org.

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