Does Democracy Scale? A fractal model for the role of interactive technologies in democratic policy processes

The development of interactive communication technologies, such as email and the Internet, has stimulated much discussion about their potential to assist in the renewal of democracy. Globalisation, intimately connected with technological advance, has likewise led to considerations of ‘governance’ that transcend the nation state. This thesis poses the general question: Can the efficiencies and economies which drive commercial applications of interactive technology be applied to democratic policy processes? What conditions will facilitate this?

The perspective taken here views policy as a communication process between networks of actors who seek to use resources and decisions to promote their value systems (Considine 1994). Democracy is also seen as a communication process, with a set of criteria which ensure equal access to information and agenda setting among participants (Dahl 1989). These definitions and criteria have been chosen for their generality. They apply at all levels of analysis, and thus may be used for comparison across scales. These are aligned with concepts from complexity theory as applied to human nonlinear systems and organisational dynamics, drawing mostly on Kiel (1994) and Stacey (1996). The inherent unpredictability of these systems and their capacity for complex learning and adaptive self-organisation offers an alternative paradigm to linear, hierarchical management models.

A combination of literature analysis and case study evidence leads to three extensions of complexity theory as applied to human systems: Firstly, interactive technology is proposed as a technique for the potential re-pluralisation of democratic processes in complex human systems. The possibility of adding many new non-elite voices, and of making these available to all others, relates to both chaotic forms of self-organisation and the benefits of electronic democracy. Secondly, evidence is presented for the existence of fractal, or self-similar patterns in the ways information technology is applied at different levels of governance. It is shown that instrumental approaches which emphasise efficiency dominate technology use at the global, national and organisational levels, and these are interdependent. Alternative patterns which encourage participation also exist at every level. Thirdly, it is argued that the values of the dominant actors are the main determinants of whether interactive technologies will be structured to favour democratic forms of communication at every level.

Three theory chapters in Part I develop these arguments by extensive reviews of relevant literatures. On the global level, convergent media, telecommunications and technology conglomerates underpin a global ‘nervous system’ which discourages government intervention, promotes a global monoculture, inhibits pluralistic debate by minimising access to alternative forms of information, and emphasises individualism and consumption. Within nations, widespread uniformity of public sector reform is sympathetic and responsive to these globalising pressures. Deregulation, privatisation, retreat from public broadcasting, down-sizing and outsourcing have become standard approaches, and are reflected in Australian information technology policy and programs. Several exceptions demonstrate more participatory approaches. At the organisational level, instrumental approaches to management and computerisation also prevail. In each case, a shift towards globalising values corresponds to applications of information technology which dampen the complex interactivity required for democratic policy processes.

Part II supplements this analysis with case study evidence. The organisational data were collected primarily during a two year qualitative study of interactive technology use in the Australian Department of Finance and Administration. The researcher found technology use was inseparable from other change processes, and these were found to have strong elements inhibiting participation in internal policy. An instrumental approach to interactive technology use reinforced hierarchical decision processes.

Three minor case studies looked at an internal mailing list in a federal agency, a mostly national list on Internet and telecommunications policy, and an experiment in electronic democracy at the local level. These offered additional insights into the ways interactive technologies can contribute to complex but adaptive policy processes, if normative democratic values guide their design.

The researcher proposes a set of communication protocols for the use of interactive technologies in democratic policy processes. These would enable the forms of communication necessary to reinvigorate democracy in an information age. It is also argued that these protocols, if applied at the organisational level, and particularly within the public sector, could become part of a reaffirmation of industrial democracy. This is necessary to ensure the integrity and accountability of the public sector, given the progressive intermingling of these institutions with private enterprise. Additional suggestions are made for research into government uses of information technology as an important focus for policy analysts.