Presented at AUSWEB99, Ballina:

Two Web-based Australian experiments in electronic democracy

Karin Geiselhart, University of Canberra and Steve Colman, Global Learning


A framework is proposed for conceptualising uses of interactive technology across scales. The first part of the paper considers a generic definition of democracy and relates this to the pluralising potential of interactive technology, as an extension of complexity theory. In this view, the added voices of electronic democracy are the ‘butterflies’ of chaos theory, creating widespread but unpredictable effects. Technology use at different level is linked by the values of the dominant actors.

The authors describe two web-based experiments in electronic democracy conducted during 1998. One culminated in the first Australian on-line debate between candidates in the ACT territory elections in February. The other was a national discussion board set up in the period preceding the Federal election in October. The factors affecting the outcomes in both these cases will be considered. A set of information values for the democratic uses of information technology is contrasted with globalising values that minimise participation.


An extensive literature on electronic democracy focuses primarily on the national level, whereas actual projects have tended to be on the regional level. The continued success of the Minnesota e-democracy project may be partly due to the ability of organisers to contain the discussion to state issues. Dahl (1989) has outlined the problems of scale in democratic process, and the role technology might play in transforming democracy in ways appropriate to a globalised world. At the other end of the spectrum, studies of computer mediated communication have considered the democratising potential of interactive technologies at the organisational level. A general theoretical perspective on electronic democracy would embrace all levels of activity, and provide a holistic analysis. This would include recognition that information technology is nowhere local industry, the need for governance to be democratic at every level of authority, and the relationship between industrial democracy and global citizenship. It would also suggest design specifications for democratic application of technology, covering such aspects as accountability, transparency, access, and determination of the information agenda.

A practical research question in relation to emerging communication technologies is: How can the efficiencies and economies of scale that are driving commercial developments be applied to the processes of democratic governance?

Electronic democracy – suggestions for a systemic approach

Dahl defines democracy as: ‘a unique process of making collective and binding decisions’ (1989:5). A necessary assumption is the Strong Principle of Equality: all the members of the association are adequately qualified to participate on an equal footing with the others in the process of governing the association (1989:31). This framework is useful because of its generality and its recognition that scale or size is a challenge in the late 20th century. Dahl’s criteria for democratic process could apply to associations at any level: effective participation, free and fair elections, the right to run for office, voting equality, enlightened understanding, control of the agenda, and freedom of expression, alternative information, and rights of association.

In the twentieth century more formalised concepts of citizenship have emerged, and accompanying information flows have been institutionalised to deal with the scale and complexity of modern government. These all require technical support and the involvement of specialists, but effectiveness is hindered by the inability of nation states to control activities that transcend their borders. This issue of scale in the late twentieth century is closely related to globalisation. The institutions which have supported modern democracy are now becoming obsolete, as the boundaries of decision making can no longer be contained within national boundaries.

Inequalities in knowledge may well pose a greater threat to democracy than inequalities of resources (Dahl 1989:333). The democratisation of the workplace and democratic uses of information technology are complementary elements that can help develop institutions of democracy appropriate for our age. Essentially, democratic process in the workplace has a developmental role, beyond its immediate protective role. Zuboff (1988) highlighted the potential of information technology to ‘informate’ the work stream, and create new pathways for power and participation. The alternative is a purely instrumental approach, which applies the efficiencies of technology to do more of the same, faster, with no challenge to underlying power structures or structures. Similar issues apply on wider levels: technology can expand or curtail the opportunities for participation. At every level, this is essentially a political, rather than a technical task. Views of technology as socially determined are widespread (Feenberg 1991, Lyon 1988, Doheny-Farina 1996, Schaefer 1997).

This leads to considerations of what the criteria for democratic applications of information technology might be. Clearly, such applications would extend beyond election-oriented functions and include formal mechanisms for deliberation, transparency, accountability and citizen access. In principle, these institutions and rights could also apply within organisations. Concepts from complexity theory offer a way to compare the uses of information technology across scales. The inputs from a multitude of individual actors become additional data points on an ‘attractor’ or mapping of behaviour over time. The shape of the attractor reflects the forms of feedback and emerging properties of the system itself. This view of information technology as part of a global system, with fractal patterns on different scales, provides an integrating theory of electronic democracy. Complexity analyses of organisational dynamics are part of a wider scientific paradigm shift towards recognition of the importance of nonlinear systems (Gleick 1988, Stacey 1996). Kiel’s assertion that an organisation’s deepest order is found in management values (1994: 218) is extended here to an understanding of the impact of information technology on more general processes of governance: The uses of interactive technologies for expanding pluralistic participation is decided by the values of the dominant actors at every level. Thus, the information society has also been described as a self-organising, complex and nonlinear system (Birrer 1997, Hearn, Mandeville and Anthony 1998).

The assertion of democratic values in this system will lead to applications which open the policy agenda, give voice to non-elite actors, and improve transparency. It is proposed that these concepts are also relevant and interdependent at the organisational level. While this paper cannot explore this aspect of a global, systemic approach to information technology, the next section discusses the extent to which Australian national information technology policy reflects participatory values.

Australian information technology policy

The analysis of national information technology policy from a social policy or participatory perspective has received little attention from either the information science or public policy disciplines. There has been a shift in orientation from the early days of the Broadband Services Expert Group to the national plan from the Office for the Information Economy. There is now more emphasis on a commodified, private sector orientation, and little consideration for universal access of the sort that characterised the development of Australia’s telephone system. A service delivery perspective minimises opportunity for interactive citizen deliberation and information sharing. The strategy document from the National Office of Information Economy illustrates this trend. The title, Towards an Australian Strategy for the Information Economy, indicates its orientation. It acknowledged social obligations, and included the community as one of the stakeholders. However, the aim was to ‘capture potential gains in new markets, boost employment and small business activity and maximise innovation and creativity.’ Earlier calls for an ‘information society’ were subsumed in this document by the information economy. The first principle for the Commonwealth in shaping the information economy was that:

All Australians—wherever they live and work, and whatever their economic circumstances—need to be able to access the information economy at sufficient bandwidth and affordable cost; and need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to harness the information economy's benefits for employment and living standards.

Thus, a form of universal access was deemed necessary, but the orientation was towards consumption, and ‘harnessing’ benefits for employment and living standards. Concepts of social sustainability through participation were not mentioned. Government was to show the way, but the private sector and in particular the global context in which it operates, comprised the remaining principles for development of Australia’s information economy. There was no sign of integration of these economic goals with other aspects of society. Performance indicators for local content in electronic commerce, or improved outcomes in health, education, employment or equity were missing. However, following public submissions on the draft document, which were also made available on the agency web site, a revised strategy was put forward which placed greater importance on wide access, and social indicators and outcomes.

Information management strategies from New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia showed similar orientations towards service delivery, outsourcing, and maximising opportunities for electronic commerce. Typically, these policy statements covered such issues as privacy, telephone access, industry development, the Year 2000 problem, copyright and acceptable use. None of the three mentioned plans to improve citizen participation in and access to government as part of the policy process, even though a Queensland project, discussed below, was doing just that. Formal policy statements indicate the general direction being pursued, but can not indicate the richness that may lie beneath the surface, given motivated actors with creative approaches to interactive technology.

A similar approach to the state plans was presented in ‘government direct’, a UK document on Electronic Delivery of Government Services, which emphasised passive access rather than participation. At the local level, a draft Community Information Strategy for the Australian Capital Territory listed key information which should be available electronically, but omitted contentious urban planning issues from this inventory. An officer involved with electronic information delivery in the ACT said that mention of discussion groups on policy issues ‘makes them nervous.’

An approach which emphasises discussion across boundaries may be seen in a successful Queensland initiative for online communication with rural women. An ongoing email list, the welink (women’s electronic link) discussion group, has been the most successful aspect of the project. It has involved a diverse set of participants, including rural women in Australian and overseas, industry partners and government officers, and others in key policy and decision-making positions. Outcomes have included increased confidence and experience of participants with online technology and a sense of social solidarity and community building within a partnership model. An additional developmental outcome has been increased trust and understanding between groups that previously had limited opportunity for direct communication (Simpson, Daws, Lennie and Previte 1998, Lennie 1996).

Analyses of the globally convergent computing, telecommunications and media industries (Lyon 1988, Herman and McChesney 1997) reveal similar patterns and values. These processes can be roughly categorised according to the values they promote towards information as a public good. The table below gives the polar extremities of these values.

Information Values



Universal access to information technology, training and resources

Access determined by ability to pay

Alternative sources of information widely available

Centralised sources of information

Diversity of views


Mechanisms for communication across sectors, levels and interests

Broadcast model dominant

Participation in design of system

Trivialisation of participation, input to assist instrumental decisions only

Deliberation possible on any issue

Direct and indirect control of agenda

Openness of information gathering and decision processes

Secrecy about process, methods

Provision for reflection on these principles

System taken as given


Overall, democratic uses of information technology require not just information and services, but mechanisms for citizens to discuss and even question the efficacy or equity of these services. Full interactivity means citizen to citizen communication, not just a channel for service or information provision. Full transparency means access to other submissions and early input into policy agenda setting, before documents reach the draft stage. Australian information policy has reflected a nation building ethos, but has also tended in recent years to become more instrumentally focussed on economically rather than socially measures outcomes of these policies. A number of other initiatives, such as EdNA and Australia’s Cultural Network, indicate successful actors promoting open access to information and participation.

Two Web-Based Australian experiments in electronic democracy

There have not been many projects which deliberately set out to illustrate electronic democracy principles in Australia. The Canberra Commons created Australia’s first on-line debate between candidates in a state or territory election, and had some flow-on effects at the local level, as intended. It was partly responsible for seed funding for a community site as part of the TransAct broadband trial (December 1998-April 1999). The second experiment, a national site that offered discussion boards for a number of marginal electorates in the federal election, illustrates the difficulties of scaling up beyond the local level. This is considered in relation to observations that one of most profound challenges on the web now is scaling technology mediated interactions (Schrage 1998).

The Canberra Commons

This began with collaboration late in 1997 between the authors. Steve Colman of Global Learning was using interactive conferencing software ( as part of his team building and leadership training business. Colman and Geiselhart (the researcher) decided to trial this software for community discussion and information sharing, as part of a public Internet site. After a public trial of several weeks, in February 1998 the Canberra Commons became the site of Australia’s first Internet debate for candidates in a state or territory election.

An important stimulation for this experiment was a visit to Canberra by Steven Clift, founder of the Minnesota e-democracy project, in November 1997. Canberra is a good place for a similar project. The population is small (300,000) and relatively isolated geographically, with high levels of online access. One newspaper, The Canberra Times, services the community.

The software offered several advantages. It was browser-based. It also was less linear than listserver software. That is, topics could be run in parallel, building a discussion data base for each, rather than only being visible sequentially. This was considered an element of both convenience and transparency. There were also more sophisticated features that could be exploited at a later date, such as voting options and links to other sites. The site would be non-profit and non-partisan, and would take advantage of the territory elections at the end of February 1998 for creating heightened interest in local issues and discussion. A number of independent and small party candidates were standing in the election, and there had been complaints in the press that they were not getting adequate coverage for their positions. It was hoped the site would be attractive to candidates as a ‘level playing field’ of access, independent of media filtering.

Action research methodology

The project had an action research component, as it had a goal of influencing the immediate environment. This approach embraces, but extends beyond ethnographic research. It has been described as ‘A type of applied research that focuses on finding a solution to a local problem in a local setting’ (Leedy 1997:111). An essential element here was the ongoing involvement of all those associated with the project, including the political candidates, and the nexus between the experiment and actual policy and implementation outcomes. These elements were important even though some of those involved would not have thought of themselves as part of either an experiment or a conscious attempt to find a solution to a local problem.

It was not clear whether Canberrans would be interested in an interactive information and discussion site for local issues. The project evolved in ways which were not wholly within the authors’ ability to control, and their involvement was both personal and professional. They shared a belief that interactive technologies, such as the software used in the project, could play a positive role in assisting community groups and individuals to share information and views without mainstream media filtering.

Development of the site

The basic requirements were for server space with a local Internet Service Provider, and a desk top computer with a suitable configuration to maintain the software in a stable configuration. A draft proposal was used to approach several suitable small providers. Internet Service Provider Netinfo agreed to host the site. Another company, which chose to remain anonymous, loaned the equipment. Meanwhile, Colman worked out the necessary interface between the software and the Internet, and the researcher developed words to welcome participants to the site and explain its purpose. A legal disclaimer was provided by a lawyer working with Colman, and design for the entry page was donated by a graphic artist specialising in web pages. A loose set of protocols was intended to avoid flooding by a minority of participants and give the coordinators the option of deleting inappropriate contributions. This development phase was intermittent, and spanned the Christmas and New Year break. The territory election was scheduled for February 21. The site was running publicly by February 2, leaving just a few weeks for development and participation. The format was a welcoming page, saying that the Canberra Commons was an ‘a non-profit and non-partisan experiment in community information sharing and discussion’. Visitors were offered a set of topics where they could input information and comments. The default was anonymous, allowing unidentified messages to be posted. However, the facilitators had the ability to trace people through their IP addresses. The topics offered for discussion were: employment, education, environment, ACT economy, health, other, and Canberra Commons feedback. These were based on a survey conducted during the previous territory elections by the ACT Greens. Under each topic was a welcoming invitation to discuss or contribute.


Despite some preliminary publicity via email contacts and lists, the site started off slowly. There was not enough time for word of mouth to help the site develop. Publicity was a critical element, and these activities aimed to increase public awareness of the site:

The researchers and colleagues also approached candidates known personally. Candidates were invited to contribute party policy URLs, discussion, etc. The approach taken was to reach as many community based groups as possible, and to get active contributions from them. The site gave the researcher’s and Colman’s email addresses for queries or feedback, and messages started to come in during the first week of the site going ‘live.’ Some people complained about technical matters, others expressed support. However, there were not many contributions during the first week. The researcher took advantage of the anonymity offered and posted many messages to ‘breathe life’ into the project. Items were taken from The Canberra Times about community events or meetings, and other messages were forwarded from email lists. Friends were strongly encouraged to contribute.

The election debate

Because the site was only developing very slowly, it was decided to try for an online election debate. This was believed to be a first for Australia, and would further energise the site if successful. Because of the short time frame, the debate was staged over one day only. In comparison, the Minnesota e-democracy project offered candidates 5 days to post their responses to a set of questions (Aikens 1997). Approaches were made to several candidates. Almost immediately, the office of the Chief Minister, Kate Carnell, said that she would participate. This was important because it would encourage other candidates to also join in. Over the next few days the ACT Greens, the Democrats, several independents, notably sitting member Michael Moore, and the new Progressive Labor Party all agreed to participate in the debate. Only the Labor party and one independent member did not respond.

Having created a workable quorum for the debate, the details needed to be worked out. In particular, the facilitators wanted to ensure the authenticity of candidates’ postings, while making the debate visible to other citizens. This was done via a password which was faxed out to candidates. Non-candidates had view-only privileges. Meanwhile, the site started to develop momentum. The Chief Minister and several other candidates started posting messages, inviting comments and encouraging a ‘chat’ with citizens. There were also some complaints from users about some aspects of the software, including the short ‘refresh’ time. This caused interruptions while people were keying in comments. On the day, there were additional technical difficulties. The software started to seize up under the load of postings. This problem had started to surface before the debate, as more people added information. It meant that additional comments could not be registered or seen by other participants. Colman made every attempt to deal with this, and closed the debate for several hours over lunchtime while he went to the Internet service provider to make adjustments. There were also problems with passwords, and several candidates called to say their names had been wrongly attributed to a statement. About 6 pm the debate was closed down. The technical problems had not really been solved. There had been, however, a lively discussion between at least 20 candidates participating at various times of the day.

Follow up

Before the debate, the facilitators had agreed that the worst that could happen would be lack of interest. Technical problems were expected, especially since the software had not been trialed ‘live’ on the Internet with more than a few participants. However, the volume of the postings was a factor in causing the software to ‘crash’, thus limiting the scope of the experiment. Overall, the positive approach and good will shown by participants, given the technical difficulties, was impressive. There was even a hint of rivalry between candidates in asserting who had been the first, during the previous election, to make use of the Internet. The Chief Minister was known to be encouraging of Canberra as a ‘smart city’, a view shared by the facilitators and highlighted in the press release. Several candidates or their campaign managers were contacted in the weeks following the election debate. They reiterated the positive comments made during the course of the experiment, and confirmed the technical difficulties as the major problem. They also commented on the potential for such technologies to provide transparent political debate. One staffer noted the advantage of being able to respond immediately to someone else’s statement or position, unlike the print media, which is closed. Sitting member Moore said his interest in this area had increased, and he later became a member of a government committee dealing with these issues. The brief time frame, during the last few days of a hectic campaign, was also reported as a difficulty for some of the candidates. In terms of generating awareness and publicity the project was a qualified success. Although technical problems curtailed the project just as public interest was growing, it attracted the attention of key policy people, as well as the politicians themselves. Meanwhile, ACT government staff involved with the developing the local government electronic infrastructure had noted the project with interest, and had placed links from their sites to the Canberra Commons. The debate had attracted a goodly amount of media interest. Several weeks after the election debate, a policy officer from the Canberra Wired project contacted the researcher. The government was interested in pursuing the possibilities that the project suggested. The researcher was invited to a meeting with the Community Information Committee, which included key people from a number of local electronic information projects: the Community Information Network, a broadband project, the AUSTOUCH kiosk project. While nothing concrete came from these meetings, the researcher did become involved with a community network component of the broadband trial in late 1998.

Learning with the community

The Canberra Commons experiment was primarily a learning exercise for all participants, including the public servants who watched with interest. As an exercise in experiential learning, it communicated the possibilities of interactive technologies directly with key decision makers: bureaucrats and politicians. It attempted to influence the forms of learning by sending out a simple message about the system being offered, which was one of pluralistic participation. Through a fortuitous combination of pre-election fervour, peer pressure and media attention, some of those most intimately involved in developing a local information infrastructure found themselves engaged with immediate citizen feedback and electronic dialogue. Throughout the project, personal connections and contacts were important ingredients. Such personal connections are normal in a city of Canberra’s size, intensified perhaps by being also the seat of both federal and territory government. These connections facilitated the identification of common goals and values. This blending of professional and social life reinforced the ethnographic dimension of the Canberra Commons experiment.

The somewhat hurried and ad hoc nature of the experiment may have worked in its favour. Discussions with government officers revealed their stringent requirements for legal and financial clarity. Issues handled quickly by two people working without funding would have presented problems in a more structured project. The facilitators were able to point towards a potentially powerful means of communication which clearly caught the imagination and enthusiasm of more measured minds. Access to the local media was a big plus in the experiment. The national press gallery is accessible to anyone wishing to post a media release. The Canberra Times has good local coverage, as the only local newspaper for sale. There was a certain irony in the attention given by The Canberra Times, as one of the goals of the project was to bypass media monitoring. It is noteworthy that the radio outlet of the national public broadcaster saw the subject as worthwhile for two interviews, whereas the commercial stations took little interest, except for a brief mention on the news.

The Canberra Commons offered a locally relevant example of a participatory electronic forum. However, resource constraints meant it could not offer an economically sustainable model. There is little precedent to encourage community awareness and support of such projects, and little research on their potential. The limited influence of the project was to highlight these participatory mechanisms as a compliment to electronic government service delivery. Individuals will always find ways to shape technology for their own ends (Feenberg 1991), and advocates of electronic democracy are no exception. The full potential of this experiment would require a larger scale project with substantial support and a formal evaluation procedure, as was undertaken for the Minnesota project (Aikens 1997). Partly and indirectly as a result of the Canberra Commons, the researcher and a colleague were funded to set up a community site to encourage local content and discussion about a trial of broadband technology. This was planned for 6 months starting late 1998. Such projects are united by shared values towards information and participation.

Aikens (1997) in his analysis of the Minnesota project, found the new medium could support normative behaviour, depending on the context. The Canberra Commons, in a small way, demonstrated the use of interactive technology as a pluralising element, the key influence of actors and their values, and the unpredictable but systemic links across scales of use.

Federal election site

This experiment grew out of the first, but differed in several ways. It was based in Sydney, supported by Internet research company www.consult. They supplied the design and back up support, and negotiated with a Queensland company for the use of Web Board and server space. The trial was set up to create separate discussions for a number of marginal electorates in Sydney, and for the ACT overall. There were links to political party sites and other resources. Although some attempt was made to get candidates to contribute statements and join in the discussion, this site did not achieve the degree of success of the Canberra Commons. This might have been partly because background public relations was harder to achieve in the larger terrain of the Sydney media. It was more difficult for the researcher to do this background work from a Canberra base. Also, the site only got established several weeks before the election, with inadequate time to reach a critical mass of participants. Expressing views on a nationally exposed web site, rather than a local site, may intimidate potential participants. There was also no provision for anonymity on the federal site, unlike the Canberra Commons, where anonymity was the default option. The initiators, Karin Geiselhart and Ramin Marzbani, were obliged to communicate long distance via email in developing the project. This might have slowed decisions and diluted consensus. This discussion site was noted in an electronic record of the election at Australia’s Cultural Network site as an electronic democracy experiment. Thus, awareness of the possibilities of electronic deliberation is likely to slowly diffuse to wider circles and communities through interested groups of actors.


Electronic democracy is in its early stages in Australia. Initiatives developed around specific elections may be less viable than longer term efforts which build participation on community issues, and complement other existing communication channels. One successful example seems to be Active Sydney, which brings together activists and social change advocates from a range of areas. Another model which is independent of geography or specific issues is Rattle the Cage. This avoids the pitfalls of direct democracy, which can diminish the necessary information sharing and background debate. Instead, it offers full interactivity, as participants can draft letters to politicians or contribute their comments on issues of interest to them. All of these models fit into the theoretical framework proposed in the first section, as they are united by their intent to broaden the base for information sharing and deliberation and make this transparently available to all participants. These modest experiments also demonstrated the interdependence of levels, as other actors take note of the possibilities. Both initiators and participants, become sources of change, shifting the uses of interactive technologies towards democratising information values.


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