When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

Two Thumbs Up from Parks and Recreation

Two Thumbs Up from Parks and Recreation

I’ve been thinking and writing about these two terms a bit recently as I work through my preliminary PhD research. The term e-government is largely used in an organisational context. That is, it describes the strategies used to arrange governments to respond to the possibilities and perceived challenges that digital communications tools pose. Meanwhile, e-democracy lays claim more directly to power rising from the people – the demos – than even the political arrangements of modern democracies. These two terms, in other words, are in some tension and conflict with each other. On the one hand, e-government is about the governing, while e-democracy is about the governed, at least in the literature.

Part of the tension comes from the understanding of communication embedded in both terms. E-government sees communication in twentieth century terms of governments pushing information out and seeking comment on proposals, while e-democracy leans more toward deliberative dialogue that can be initiated by either citizens or governments.

Hernon & Cullen (2006a p.360)1 write of five principles of e-democracy:

1. inclusion: a voice for all;
2. openness: electronic provision of information;
3. security and privacy: a safe place;
4. responsiveness: listening and responding to people;
5. deliberation: making the most of people’s ideas.
Despite many government vision statements supporting and advocating greater citizen participation in government through e-government, this is one area where there has been little measurement, and possibly less progress than in many others.

Superficially, scholars such as Darrell West (2004 p.17)2 seem to suggest that e-democracy is part of, an perhaps the goal of, e-government:

There are four general stages of e-government development that distinguish where different government
agencies are on the road to transformation: (1) the bill- board stage; (2) the partial-service-delivery
stage; (3) the portal stage, with fully executable and integrated service
delivery; and (4) interactive democracy with public out-reach and accountability enhancing features.

However, West’s “interactive democracy” merely consists of “public outreach and democracy enhancement, such as comment boards, Web site personlization, automatic e-mail updates, search features and broadcast information.” (2004 p.18)2 This is hardly the “multimodal, non-hierarchical, collaborative and deliberative networks” of e-democracy imagined by Xu & Asencio (2012, p.116)1.

Hernon & Cullen (2006b p.11)1 argue (bizarrely!) that “The four stages confuse e-government with e-democracy; e-government focuses on the function on government, which can be (but does not have to be) unrelated to the exercise of citizens’ rights and responsibilities online (e-democracy) [my emphasis].” I cannot see how, in a truly democratic system, the “exercise of citizens’ rights and responsibilities” could be at all unrelated to the function of government, even if day-to-day or minute-to-minute involvement is minimal. In this framework, e-government becomes almost a bulwark against the digital world, meant to preserve existing structures of power but within the new operational paradigm of a digital world.

Finally, a neat quote from McLennan and Bergeron (2012 p.100):3

If the willingness to involve the public in government processes does not exist, then technology cannot create it.

This sums up the contradiction and conflict between e-democracy and e-government. All the ‘e’ in the world cannot put democracy back into e-government if there is no will for it to be there.

The role of the citizen in all of this is also to be debated. What is civic engagement? Civic intervention? Civic? Who is a citizen? These are all important questions, perhaps best left for another time.

  1. in Hernon, P., Cullin, R. & Relyea, H.C. eds., 2006. Comparative Perspectives on E-government: serving today and building for tomorrow, Oxford: Scarecrow Press [] [] []
  2. West, D.M., 2004. E-Government and the Transformation of Service Delivery and Citizen Attitudes. Public Administration Review, 64(1), pp.15–27. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3542623 [] []
  3. in Kloby, K. & D’Agostino, M.J. eds., 2012. Citizen 2.0: Public and Government Interaction Through Web 2.0 Technologies, Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference []