Presented at the conference on Women and Information Technology, sponsored by the group Women in further Education, Canberra, March 2000

Getting the Democratic Dividend from Information Technology

By Karin Geiselhart

While electronic commerce is a very hot topic, there seems to be much less excitement about the prospect of electronic democracy. What is it, anyway? It is about much more than voting online.

Actually, there are many parallels between electronic commerce and electronic democracy. Both depend on an exchange of information and open communications, before the decision point is reached, whether this is a financial transaction or casting a vote.

The challenge is to apply the same efficiencies and cost-effectiveness that drive electronic commerce to processes of governance. This need not involve great expense, as many of the techniques have already been developed or can be adapted from the commercial sector. However, it does involve commitment. All applications of technology are ultimately underpinned by political assumptions and decisions, and this is magnified in the case of information technology.

Applying the Internet and interactive technologies to how we govern ourselves delivers a double dividend. First, it just helps to run everyday government activities better. Information flows, services and transactions can become smoother, faster, more functional. Imagine a seamless interface where initial electronic information leads to a key phone number (or direct voice connection) and a knowledgeable, helpful person at the other end, and then back to a clear and simple web site to complete the task. Such approaches, which are being developed as the Internet matures, ideally incorporate the best of both worlds. They use technology for repetitive or simple information tasks, and save precious personal interactions for the tough bits that fall between the slats. This approach has a built-in cost incentive to both fine tune the technology and improve access to it. Over time, this narrows the spaces between the slats. The Commonwealth Information Centre trials in Tasmania are taking this approach.

But the second benefit of applying information technology to governance is probably more important, because it impacts on where we will be in ten years time. These are the less explored areas of agenda setting, dialogue, alternative sources of information, consensus building, openness and transparency. These processes underpin real democracy, and can be accommodated in the design of an information infrastructure at reasonable cost.

Like the word ‘governance’ itself, these processes apply at several different layers. We think immediately about the national level, but democratic process is equally important at the organisational level, and increasingly at the transnational level. The degree of openness on a departmental electronic bulletin board, and the human communications that support (or repress) this, have parallels with access to government documents or international agreements. My research has shown that communication practices within government agencies, whether electronic or interpersonal, can have impact on the ability of that agency to fulfill its public accountabilities and functions. In the private sector too, we learn our democratic rights and its limits in the workplace.

Australian governments have generally been quite progressive in implementing the first kind of applications, the ones that have clear cost-savings. There is a gradual trend towards more openness of information and dialogue, and recognition that this second kind of effectiveness is also necessary for good policy. The National Office for the Information Economy not only accepted electronic submissions on its national strategy, but also made them available to everyone else and then summarised the submissions and modified their strategy in response. The result was surely a stronger document, more likely to achieve its goals because greater consensus had been reached.

The Victorian government ‘Connecting Victoria’ strategy is, to my knowledge, the first Australian government policy on information technology with explicit intentions to develop citizen communications. This is incorporated with other strategies to promote a learning society, electronic commerce, and community skills. An integrated approach such as this is more likely to produce measurable benefits, as it brings together a broader range of interests and multiples the opportunities for involvement. Each of us is, at different times, a learner, a consumer, a tax payer or a community member. These roles overlap, and the information society has something to offer to enhance all of them.

The good news is that existing technology is more than able to support this democratic dividend, and provide broad input to decision making about what to do. The bad news is that most systems are run by people with built in resistance to openness and participation. Bureaucrats sometimes hide behind their anonymity, and mistakes or dodgy deals may never become public if commercial in confidence protection applies.

But even in the best of circumstances, participating in good governance isn’t always straightforward. The same confounding factors exist at the organisational or national level. There is the problem of information overload, of work obligations that leave little time or mental energy for additional electronic engagement, the sheer limit of hours in the day and how much time can be spent blinking and clicking at a machine.

Because of all these complications, planning a truly interactive and fully functional computer communication system is a Sisyphean task, doomed to be swamped by its own volume of success. If small is beautiful, then maybe less is better. Carefully targeted communications, with opt-in features, such as mailing lists and newsgroups, rather than the spam of ‘send it out to everyone’. Even this is easier said then done, because you still need to tell everyone what they can opt in to. Again, the principles of electronic commerce are helpful. Marketing online requires adding value at every step, making information not just available, but ensuring that it is useful and can be acted on.

To go beyond marketing and seek the democratic dividend, people need to have access to the process before the cement of policy starts to set. This means seeing the proposals while they are still open-ended, a privilege usually only granted to a select few. Not an easy thing to accomplish, either within a company or for a government agency. Fostering alternative sources of information is also crucial – so firing an employee for sending union information over the email system, as happened recently, is not an example of electronic democracy!

All of these suggestions require more good will than slick technology. However, the coordination of the intentions and technology is essentially an advanced form of project management, where politics, personalities and resources need to be melded. There is never an easy answer, but perhaps this final mantra can guide your thoughts, as you consider how computerised communication in your own organisation or with government can become more open and accountable:

Good government is expensive, bad government is unaffordable.

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