Lots of claims are made about the power of information technologies to make our societies more democratic. From Internet publications like On Line Opinion, to new activism via the Internet, many see the communication powers of the Internet as naturally democratic in character. As governments themselves get into the business of developing new online services for the citizens, there is a common perception that greater online publication of government information and interaction with citizens will have a democratising effect - opening the state to their subjects.
In this vein Professor Darrell M. West of Brown University has rated governments' level of development of electronic government over a number of years. In looking at each country's on-line presence West ranked nations on two dozen different criteria, including the availability of contact information, publications, databases, portals, privacy, security, disability access, and the number of online services His results show Singapore as the leading adopter of new technology followed by the United States, Canada, Australia, and Taiwan.
Comparing these results with research from Freedom House, a group that rates nations on their level of democracy (press freedom, political rights and civil liberties) makes some interesting comparisons. Some of the top ranking e-governments are arguably not very democratic. Of the top ten, three (Singapore, Malaysia, and the Vatican) are labelled by the Freedom House research as relatively undemocratic, ranking low on press freedom and lower than democratic nations regarding political rights and civil liberty. China, which ranked 11th in the e-government rating receives very low political rights and civil liberty rankings and a low level of press freedom.
The comparison raises a key question: are online technologies implicitly democratic? As the survey points out there is little to suggest that technology carries with it democracy. If the adoption of technology implied a better democracy then surely nations such as Singapore, Malaysia and China, some of the world leaders, would be more democratic as a result. As the research comparison highlights, it doesn't appear to.
E-government is about the electronic delivery of government services, and is neutral as to what kind of government or regime. E-democracy involves more qualitative assessments.
West could learn from the Australian experience to see that the introduction of technology, in and of itself, does not necessarily lead to increased democratisation. Two examples may suffice: the Queensland Community Engagement Division, a three-year initiative by the government to increase public participation through the new technology, and communitybuilders.nsw, an initiative aiming to offer a channel of communication between community and government.
The Queensland initiatives operate within the frameworks of our existing representative democracy. In allowing online parliamentary petitions the process mirrors the existing one. The use of technology only offers a new way of submitting partitions and the status given to petitions has not changed, unlike California, for example, where petitions have constitutional power to make ballot propositions or recall elected officials.
In the NSW communitybuilders.nsw initiative, while the website allows for the exchange of ideas, we can see that shifting community discussion online doesn't offer a new way of engaging the community in policy creation. Communication is largely community to community, not community to government. What we need to focus on is not the technology, but the intent in its application.
The question of evolution from electronic government to electronic democracy shows that plastic technologies, like the Internet, are politically neutral. Thus, we can see the technology able to enhance and exemplify authoritarian governments like Singapore and China, as well as democratic governments like Queensland and NSW.
As governments become more confident with electronic service delivery and begin to consider the challenges that electronic governance and democracy will bring, the blurring of the meanings of e-government and e-democracy will hold us back. As is evident from the Australian and international examples, and typified in Professor West's research approach, what constitutes a progressive e-government state does not constitute a progressive e-democracy. Assumptions or perhaps just lack of clarity in the use of these terms has led to a bundling of the two different concepts. If e-government were on one end of a spectrum e-democracy would be on the other and the initiatives being adopted currently are at the start or the e-government end of that spectrum. By shedding the e-government as e-democracy bundling we can move towards better assessing e-democracy and better building of e-democracy techniques.
In order to make more meaningful assessments of e-democracy we need new ways of measuring and looking at the adoption of the new technology. It is not sufficient to argue a government is e-democratic when it is merely adopting technology to perform existing processes, the technology needs to be used in new ways that build new democratic institutions.
The challenge therefore is twofold. To academics such as West the challenge is to evaluate technological adoption in a more effective way that assesses how it actually adds to democracy. To the technologists it is to make new use of the tools in a way that actually builds onto existing democratic processes, rather than just creating a new way of doing the same old thing. E-democracy is not merely new technology applied to old techniques: it should and can be a new kind of politics.