Monday, January 25, 2010

Political Participation Online in Canada

On the weekend, my wife, daughter and I joined thousands of Canadians protesting Stephen Harper proroguing parliament. The protests were particularly remarkable as they grew from a Facebook group "Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament". The group organized only a few weeks ago has over 200,000 Canadians - the group and the protests helped show that despite Harper's assertions Canadians do care about working democracy in this country!

Harper's dismissiveness of open, participatory government and the efficacy of Internet media for facilitating involvement are timely & relevant to my recent research. Governments are increasingly engaging people online and committing to open and collaborative efforts. Canada, however, under Harper's leadership, is missing the boat.

December 2009 saw the United Kingdom, United States, and Australian governments committing to more open and collaborative government, with the Internet central to achieving this. On December 8, the Obama administration in the US released their Open Government Initiative with three core goals of transparency, participation and collaboration. This effort builds on Obama's earlier commitment to more open, accessible government and the use of online technologies in delivering these goals. Brown, prime minister of the UK, released a plan addressing government reform on December 7. This report, Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government, included online means to make government more responsive and engaging to citizens. Australia followed on December 22 with their report, entitled Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0. New Zealand was ahead of the pack, releasing a similar report, When Government Engages: Online participation - An introduction, in 2007.

Prior to these announcements, these countries were already making innovative forays into online participation. Earlier this year, the United States offerred citizens the opportunity to submit questions to Obama and he responded via online videos to those with the most citizen votes. The prime minister’s office of the UK instituted an e-petition process wherein the government guarantees a reply to any petition that obtains over 500 e-signatures. New Zealand’s Family Commission launched “The Coach,” a self-selected panel of citizens that answer polls and questionnaires to guide policy. Various municipalities in Australia have used online technologies to facilitate citizen discussion, information gathering, and polling on particular issues.

Given the many initiatives of these other countries, one might ask where is Canada on this issue?

For five years, from 2001 to 2005, Canada’s national government earned the distinction from Accenture of having the world’s best e-government. The survey has been discontinued, but Canada has continued to earn praise for its efforts to transfer administrative functions online. Administratively, Canada has made use of Internet technologies to launch innovations such as the world’s first online census and one of the first online tax filing systems.

In looking at Canada’s current state of e-government offerings promoting transparency, participation or collaboration, however, there are few examples and none particularly inspiring. Some examples are rather disheartening, as per an invitation to “join the conversation” on the website of Canada’s governing party, the Conservatives. The multimedia “conversation” begins with Mike Duffy greeting website visitors by name, but then launches into a monologue concluding in an appeal to donate to the party. Even the Green Party of Canada, a proponent of greater direct democracy and an early adopter of digital media, is largely using new media for old, traditional broadcasts.

As with other countries, Canada has enabled citizens to comment on policy electronically. Two examples drawn from last month, December 2009, include British Columbia’s proposed changes to their fresh water act or a national campaign for copyright reform.

Last November, the City of Toronto facilitated citizens to launch a website, Open Toronto, which allowed city data to be openly displayed online and used freely. Toronto appears an anomaly as the other Canadian cases of online participation I found were entirely consultative or communicative.

I was also unable to find any online Canadian government programs that entailed binding or formalized outcomes of citizen participation. Online political discussions, whether organized by the government or citizen-lead, may help influence policy, but their efficacy is severely doubted as there is no commitment from the government to listen or respond to these discussions.

The Internet is certainly being used in Canada to organize and mobilize protest (per the prorogue protest), to produce and disseminate information, as well as hacktivist and DIY projects.

Other countries are using the Internet to directly involve citizens and opening up governments - just not Canada it seems. In looking at the current government, it seems unlikely we'll see any improvements. Some researchers speculate that this is due to the Conservative's minority government status. I, however, wonder if there is not a more overt disdain on behalf of the Tories for the digital revolution and citizen involvement.

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