AbstractThe democratizing technical potential of the Internet has not delivered a parallel democratic political outcome. The Internet makes direct citizen involvement in political decision-making more feasible by lessening temporal and spatial barriers, yet governments have been reluctant to embrace e-participation. As of December 2009, governments in the UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand through policy and practice had demonstrated a commitment to using digital media to enable greater citizen participation. A case study of Canada’s use of direct democratic methods, online and offline, reveals a contrasting lack of opportunities for effective political participation. This paper examines various e-participation methods in terms of their ability to enable Canadians to express their voice and exert their influence with government. Of these methods, it is argued, online deliberation allows for more inclusive, focused, collaborative, and effective participation. Design and system considerations of an online deliberation platform are briefly posed.
Key words: Deliberation, e-participation, online participation, e-politics, participation, participatory democracy
Section 1: IntroductionAs the first decade of the new millennium drew to a close, several nations released plans to transform their governments in the digital era aided by online means. 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 (Orszag, 2009). 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 (HM Government, n.d.). Australia followed on December 22 with their report, entitled Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0 (Government 2.0, 2009). New Zealand was ahead of the pack, releasing a similar report, When Government Engages: Online participation - An introduction, in 2007 (New Zealand, 2007). Prior to these announcements, these countries were already making innovative forays into online participation. Under Obama, various US government departments opened up to citizen involvement. Examples include launching a website to solicit citizens’ input on health reform and the Department of Defense converting traditional top-down field guides to soldier-written wikis (White House, n.d.). 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 (Number10.gov.uk, n.d.). New Zealand’s Family Commission launched “The Coach,” a self-selected panel of citizens that answer polls and questionnaires to guide policy (n.d.). Various municipalities in Australia have used online technologies to facilitate citizen discussion, information gathering, and polling on particular issues (Bang the Table, n.d.).
Given the many initiatives of these other countries, one might ask where Canada stands on this issue? Canada has been criticized for its failure to deliver similar commitments (Bell, 2009; Geist, 2009). In March 2009, Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, stirred significant media attention, if not citizen attention, by holding an interactive citizen Q&A session online via YouTube. This was Harper’s first foray into e-participation. Rather than revealing a commitment to more open and online government, it was widely felt that this move showed Harper as merely following Obama, who had conducted a similar session almost exactly a year earlier.
For five years, from 2001 to 2005, Canada’s national government earned the distinction from Accenture of having the world’s best e-government (Accenture, 2005). 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 (Accenture, 2005).
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. A 2005 study of Canadian parliamentarians’ use of the Internet found that although citizens had increased the volume of contact with their elected representative through the use of e-mail, there had been no increase in citizen participation or reciprocal dialogue (Francoli). In examining more recent examples of the government’s use of the Internet, it appears to have not changed since Francoli’s study. One rather disheartening example is 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. As with other countries, Canada has enabled citizens to comment on policy electronically. Two examples drawn from December 2009, include British Columbia’s proposed changes to their fresh water act (Penner, 2009) or a national campaign for copyright reform (Government of Canada, n.d.). I was unable to find any Canadian examples with formalized outcomes of citizen e-participation.
Although formats for online political participation have been studied, there appears to be little academic research examining the Canadian context. In the absence of official Canadian policy or significant scholarship on Canadian political participation online, this paper attempts to lay the groundwork for consideration of online deliberation. I will argue that this method can aid in a more innovative, effective, and democratic use of e-government. First, I will briefly discuss critiques leveled against contemporary politics in Canada and developed nations. Greater citizen participation is posed as a means to redress growing citizen apathy and democratic inertia. I will then briefly outline various existing methods of citizen online political participation. This forms a basis upon which to position my argument for online deliberation. The benefits and design considerations of online deliberative democracy benefits will then be examined.
Section 2: The Political Landscape
The Democratic Deficit
In Canada, as with other developed states, over 50 years of progressively declining voter turnout and trust for politicians, have led to what can be called the democratic deficit. Addressing this deficit is essential to maintaining a healthy democracy (McNut, 2008). A definitive course of action remains elusive, due to the complex, multi-faceted nature of the problem. One proposed change to address the democratic deficit is to increase citizen participation in governance. Proponents of participatory democracy believe that giving citizens more political influence will not only increases civic engagement but will also increase the perceived legitimacy of governments (McNutt, 2008). Participation is empowering; it allows citizens to contribute to their country based on their relevant knowledge (Fuchs, 2008). The notion of citizen apathy is questioned by scholars who suggest citizens have not been invited to participate before or requests were not suitably framed: “no one is apathetic. Everyone cares deeply about something. People will get involved to the extent that we can tap into their passion” (Diers, 2008, p. 12). Although not a panacea, greater citizen participation may be a step toward reducing apathy and increasing citizen engagement with government.
Why Online Participation?
Online methods of political participation (henceforth e-participation) alone will not address the democratic deficit, but they do offer unique opportunities to improve it. The Internet is often praised for its ability to address temporal and spatial barriers to participation. In large countries such as Canada and with today’s hectic lifestyle, the ability to participate at a time and location of one’s choice extends the reach of many initiatives (Price, 2009). An additional benefit of e-participation is the potential of cost savings, particularly when compared to staging a series of national town halls. Perhaps the greatest benefit of Internet media, as I will discuss later, is the ability to structure new and effective means of participation.
Although the Internet does open the doors to allow some to participate who would otherwise be unable to physically attend offline sessions, it may close doors to people with economic, disability, language, or other barriers. Specific projects have arranged for participants to receive computers, adaptive technology, or training sessions to facilitate technology usage – any e-government initiatives should consider this a model to follow. Critics of e-participation suggest there are generational barriers. Seniors are a fast growing segment of Internet users, so this criticism will progressively lessen. Indeed, it is the Internet’s appeal to youth that represents another strength of e-participation. Involving youth, a group with low voter turnout, in the political process is fundamental to sustain democratic improvement. In the US, youth are the largest age group participating in online political activities (Smith, 2009). Similarly, an Australian study found Internet projects developed youths’ political identities and increased their civic participation (Collin, 2008).
Section 3: Considering Forms of E-Participation
Methods of e-participation vary in the amount of citizen voice and influence they enable. A method enabling a high degree of citizen voice allows participants to express their own relevant experience and propose their own policy solutions, essential to move beyond token projects. Influence is also crucial. Citizens need to see that their participation contributed to political outcomes or participation becomes little more than a venue for venting. Figure 1 demonstrates my assessment of common e-participation methods on a double continuum of citizen voice and political influence. Some methods that might appear to let citizens have their own say are constrained in that they are reacting against an existing policy.
Figure 1: e-participation methods represented on scales of enabling degrees of citizen voice and political influence
(Note: This figure was inspired by Coleman & Gøtze, 2001)
E-Participation in a Representative Democracy
Within a representative democracy citizens may have the opportunity to participate directly, to varying degrees, in campaigning, elections, agenda setting, policy development, and rulemaking. Campaigning online offers methods not significantly different from the offline counterparts of information distribution and donation solicitation. Increasingly social media is being used to build citizen networks that convince and mobilize voters and promote events. The powerful capability of online citizen involvement to aid a political campaign is often highlighted by Obama’s electoral campaign (Carr, 2008). In Canada, the governing party, undoubtedly mindful of their minority of seats in parliament, offers online campaigning features to encourage citizens to share party information with friends, connect with politicians on social media, and interactively discredit the opposition leader.
Voting online appears to have been used only municipally in Canada. Although citizens can assist in getting representatives elected through online means; once representatives are elected, the ability for citizens to have direct political involvement is curtailed. There is not a direct way for citizens to contribute to a government’s agenda or policy formation online or offline once they are elected beyond offering input if requested or offering unsolicited feedback. There are examples of how citizens could e-participate in agenda setting. A citizen built website, Top Priorities for Parliament, allows citizens to propose items of national significance (Parliament 2, n.d.). Citizens can then vote for and debate the prioritization of that issue. Alternatively, a wiki can be used to collaboratively author and refine policy. Policy wikis offer the greatest amount of voice and influence (if binding) but are rare, likely as they give citizens more control than most governments would be comfortable with. The Green Party of Canada appears to be the only party in Canada to have devised any policy documents through a wiki (Raynes-Golide & Fono, 2009). The Greens experienced difficulties with their policy wiki in that it publicly revealed internal conflicts, provoked unproductive discussion, and stirred party grievances. Most importantly, it did not lead to meaningful dialogue or collaboration, but was largely resulted in isolated, solitary action (Raynes-Golide & Fono, 2009). The policy wiki did have the benefit that it aided transparency, a primary goal of the party, and produced a tangible product opposed to mere talk.
The rulemaking process, where the specific regulations of laws are enacted by applicable government agencies, is largely open to Canadians to submit input. Many agencies, such as the CRTC, now allow citizens to make their submissions via a web-based form. This, however, can still be a reactive process as citizens are often commenting on existing matters rather than proposing their own items. Some scholars suggest e-participation in rulemaking is an area where citizen can have the highest degree of depth and quantity of direct involvement in governance (Carlitz & Gunn, 2002). Agencies may be required to received citizen submissions, however, they are not obliged to consider them. Other e-participation methods in a representative democracy system such as filling in a census or answering online public opinion polls surveys offer little opportunity for citizens to offer their own experiences and may contribute little more than providing profiling data in aggregate for policy research. More innovation in both technology and usage is clearly needed to refine and invent e-participation methods applicable for representative democracy.
E-Participation in a Direct Democracy
Harkening back to Athenian ideals of citizen assembly (however exclusive their notion of citizenship was), direct democracy is the rule of the people. It exists more as an ideal than as an actual practice. Elements of direct democracy exist in many states, such that the concept can be thought of as a continuum. Contemporary direct democracy methods are primarily the initiative, referendum, plebiscite, recall, popular veto, and binding petition. The terms referendum and plebiscite are often used interchangeably, although some political scientists consider referenda to be binding while plebiscites are not. Canada has less experience with direct democracy than the United States where several states allow citizen led recalls and initiatives. Only as recently as 1996, British Columbia became the first federal or provincial jurisdiction in Canada to enact recall and initiative processes (Elections BC, n.d.). Thus, the only forms of direct democracy available to Canadians, other than in BC, are referendum and plebiscite. Canada has had no plebiscites and few referenda; none of which were online. Lacking a binding e-petition process along the lines of the UK (although successful petitions there only require government response not action), Canadians can only make use of non-binding petitions. There are limitations to e-petitions, however. The former Reform Party of Canada pledged to require any petition that received over three percent of voters to be put to a referendum, but they were forced to reconsider when a national e-petition in 2000 greatly surpassed the threshold that would have required then party leader, Stockwell Day, to change his first name to Doris (CBC, 2000). The technical capabilities of the Internet can support direct democratic methods, although the political will to use such methods must be in place first before considerations of their online ramifications can be considered.
Citizens are also able to make their opinions known to government through direct action or protest. Direct action online can take the form of hactivism or do-it-yourself projects. For a DIY example, consider how the citizens in Birmingham, UK launched their own city website using the same data in reaction to the perceived ineptitude of the official government site (Birmingham City, n.d.). Hactivism may include malicious hacking, such as spreading viruses or denial of service attacks on government sites, but can also include less combative methods such as launching parody sites, hijacking online votes, or defacing websites with cyber graffiti. Burwell and Boler (2008) found people may organize to hijack en masse a government-sponsored online effort (for example, an online vote to name a public item) to voice discontent with contemporary politics, highlight the flaws of such methods, or for their own enjoyment. Protesting can make use of the Internet to recruit supporters, mobilize for action, and launch online (or offline) campaigns, such as virtual sit-ins, publicity stunts, email campaigns, e-petitions, et cetera. Citizens have made their own innovative use of Internet technologies to achieve their political aims outside of the system. Unsanctioned efforts such as hactivism or citizen journalism may allow citizens to have their own voice, but do not ensure a formal hearing and may thus be ignored by government.
The most common form of e-participation is the practice of citizens discussing political issues through such online media as forums, newsgroups, blog postings, article comments, and social network sites. Some believe these discussions have the potential to manifest as Habermas’ public sphere (Papacharissi, 2002) and are necessary for citizens to become politically informed and motivated. Others dismiss them as having “no resemblance to civic much less civil discourse” (Ferber, Foltz & Pugliese, 2006, p. 389). Ferber et al. identify a common criticism leveled against online discussions based on their study of privately-hosted online political discussions. They found that
although political commentary was common, it was not the type of public debate that our founding fathers could have desired. We did not try to rank the quality of the content, as it would have been too subjective. We were nonetheless not impressed with the civic quality of much of the dialogue. A large portion degenerated very quickly into name calling. In addition, there was the typical poor grammar, bad spelling, off-the-cuff responses, and lack of reasoning. Many messages were single sentences. Others had no relationship to the preceding messages in the string. In one case, in a string discussing the cost of execution versus life imprisonment, a person “double dog dared” someone to take a gun into a courtroom. The response from a third party was a rant on a new ordinance that banned his dog from the local park. Obviously, this person did not read the entire string or maybe just did not care (p. 395).Such lack of respect, reflexivity, and co-operation leads Dahlberg (2001) to doubt that existing online spaces are suitable for public sphere discussion. He is further skeptical that Internet spaces are sufficiently authentic and autonomous from the state and corporation. The presence of flaming, libelous comments, and accusations was found to dissuade government officials from participating in online discussions (Rheingold, 2000). Politicians’ recent forays into social media in the UK were found to have not resulted in dialogue with citizens (Jackson & Lilliker, 2009). They were using new media in old, broadcast ways.
The volume and diversity of online discussion further confounds its political efficacy. The medium, it is argued, engenders the creation of ever-increasing amounts of content and makes meaningful distillation improbable. Scott criticizes the claimed potential of Internet media to provide a platform for important messages as they enter the miasma of online content where one must compete “in the viral sweepstakes online with drunken celebutantes, passionate sing-a-longs, and virtuoso light-saber demonstrations” (2008, p. 274). This volume of online content not only lessens the likelihood messages will find a receiver but leads some online authors to heighten a message’s shock or novelty value in an attempt to stand out from the crowd. This environment, Dean believes, makes it difficult for citizens to formulate coherent, powerful discourse:
Instead of engaged debates, instead of contestations employing common terms, points of reference, or demarcated frontiers, we confront a multiplication of resistances and assertions so extensive that it hinders the formation of strong counterhegomonies. The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity, far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite… the intense circulation of content in communicative capitalism forecloses the antagonism necessary for politics (2008, p. 102-3).In analyzing online discussions regarding the Iraq war, Dean laments that “despite the terabytes of commentary… the antiwar messages morphed into so much circulating content, just like all the other cultural effluvia wafting through cyberia” (p. 102). Indeed, Dean argued that the meaning of any online message is subsumed by the central importance of the act of creating online content. The danger is that this act becomes an end in itself and citizens are unmotivated to engage in activity that brings about real political change. One of the earliest theorists on Internet culture, Rheingold, came to the same conclusion years earlier, noting that some believe that online media are “inherently democratic in some magical way, without specifying the hard work that must be done in real life to harvest the fruits of that democratizing power” (2000, p. 37).
Interestingly, these same challenges that make it difficult for citizens to make powerful use of online political discussions also limit its use for government. I would argue that even on government-sponsored online discussions the diversity, quantity, and often great length of contributions makes it difficult for the government officials to read, consider, and weigh all content, let alone prioritize pressing issues or discern common sentiment. Online discussions have been found to aid citizens in learning about issues and refining their opinions (Kushin & Kitchener, 2009). Its use for effective political participation, however, is limited.
Section 4: Deliberative Democracy
Various political theorists believe deliberative democracy can lead to more civically engaged citizens and can improve government (Coleman & Gøtze, 2001; Fishkin, 2009; Muhlberger, 2005). Although deliberative democracy is not commonplace in Canada or other developed nations, there are successful cases of its uses and studies have found that citizens will in fact participate in deliberation and find such participation valuable (Fishkin, 2009).
Deliberating political matters is not a new phenomenon as it likely was a precursor to democracy. Within the political realm, deliberation entails connotations beyond “to think about or discuss issues and decisions carefully” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). The term deliberative democracy is justifiably broad as advocates tend to favour not one specific format but rather consider any approach that shares basic goals. This broad usage can be seen in a definition by Pingree: “Deliberation is an ideal form of discussion in which participants share their considerations in order to make decisions of higher quality and democratic legitimacy” (2009, p. 309). Pingree offers few specifics on the nature of deliberative discussions, whereas Davies’ definition focuses on this aspect believing discussions should be “reasoned, purposeful, and interactive” (2009, p.2). On the other hand, Fishkin’s definition does not mention discussion, instead it is “the thoughtful weighing of policy or political alternatives on their merits, in a context that facilitates access to good information” (2009. p. 23). Fishkin’s definition leaves room for the term to include group or solitary activity. I believe group conversation is central to deliberative democracy and will therefore use Cavalier, Miso, and Zaiss’ definition that it is “an inclusive conversation that is informed and well structured” (2009, p. 71).
Online deliberation does not necessarily entail any specific steps beyond a structured and informed discussion. Through technical means and the inherent properties of the medium a greater degree of flexibility can be structured with online deliberation than with in-person sessions. Pingree believes this divergence from traditional forms is where “the true promise of the Internet lies not merely in its ability to bring large numbers of people into ‘one room’ but in its ability to structure that room in ways that no physical room could be structured” (2009, p. 314). Although there are various means to foster deliberation, there are some common elements as itemized by Coleman and Gøtze (2001). Online deliberation is not a hurried method. Depending on the topic and goals, sessions can take an entire day or comprise hours over the course of weeks or months. The general structure would walk participations through considering each component of an issue through background literature or expert presentations. Participants then discuss this facet amongst themselves and bring in additional information or experts as needed before moving on to the next component. They then debate and weigh the issue in totality. The final product of deliberation can be in the form of participant-drafted recommendations or a report or a poll. The process would normally be conducted in private, but the findings would be shared publicly and directly with government officials.
Online deliberation addresses some of the shortcomings of other e-participation methods. It can afford a high degree of citizen voice and influence. Unlike non-deliberative online discussions, it can be goal-oriented, civil, insightful, inclusive, and productive.
Temporal and spatial freedom
As mentioned, the Internet’s opens up participation to people who might otherwise be confined by temporal or spatial restrictions. Canada, as with other states, has a large geographic area and a populace scattered throughout. In-person methods of participation, such as submissions to Parliament or town halls, require citizens to travel to the capital or regional centers. Even regional centers can still entail hours of travel that is often too costly or time-consuming for many citizens. In addition, e-participation allows for people to contribute on their own time, allowing for participation from those with non-mainstream schedules. The freedom from these constraints can lead to greater diversity and increased representation than otherwise possible (Pirce, 2009).
Asynchronous online deliberation can facilitate more contemplative behaviour than traditional, synchronous methods as it does not suffer from “the crude and suffocating constraints of time that often render synchronous discussions futile, facile or over-heated” (Coleman & Gøtze, 2001, p.17). Freedom from the barriers of real-time interaction, participants are more readily able to take time to absorb their peers’ contribution at their own pace, to research and reflect, and to carefully formulate their ideas and contributions.
Open and informed participation
Online deliberation enables more open and expansive consideration of issues than some traditional methods. Traditional methods of participation such as town halls and public opinion polls do not encourage citizens to weigh all evidence, which can result in ill-informed or reactionary contributions. Online deliberation moves citizens beyond “top of the head” opinion to informed decision (Fishkin, 2009, p. 26). To afford open and holistic consideration of an issue, deliberation sessions should be structured for a progressive consideration of the various facets of an issue. The process itself has been found to motivate participants to seek out additional and diverse sources of information (Muhlberger, 2005). The process also leads to a balanced discussion. In Price’s study (2009), he grouped participants into homogenous groups by their political ideology. Rather than producing an echo chamber of similar views or provoking extremity, the outcome was a balance of arguments for and against most issues. Price also found that minority viewpoints were not suppressed or ostracized as some critics suggest.
This is not to suggest that there should not be limits to topics discussed or options considered. Deliberative democracy is not an exercise in planning utopia. Governments organizing deliberations should clearly specify topic and goals and set grounding parameters on options and funding levels. Establishing an agenda also helps proceedings continue smoothly and productively to ensure project goals and timelines are met. Moderators may assist in providing guidance or feasibility checks to keep discussion to attainable outcomes. A balance of flexibility and structure allows online deliberation to consider a diversity of applicable viewpoints, while also avoiding the traps of online discussion that can be circuitous, meandering, or unfruitful. Establishing discursive limits can lead participants to a more realistic consideration and holistic understanding. Peters and Abud (2008) have found it helpful in their sessions to present participants with the same scenarios and difficult choices politicians face results as this leads to a reasonable allocation of available resources and a clear prioritization on desired outcomes. Discursive limits should also be used to limit uncivil discourse that often plagues privately-hosted online discussions (Ferber et al, 2006). An environment free of flaming, slander, racism, or ad hominem attacks is more productive and lessens participant alienation. Rules can also be established to ensure equitable participation, for example by limiting the time or space for individual contributions or ensuring turn-taking.
A structured process or use of rules and moderators, however, should not force rigidity. The first step of a deliberation process can be working with facilitators to collaboratively set the agenda or allow agenda items to be added freely and voted on by participants (Pingree, 2009). This allows citizens to raise relevant issues and draw upon their experience and knowledge.
Rigidity can limit innovative solutions and lead to false conclusions. The importance of being able to frame an issue and pose one’s own options was shown in Anstein’s study of public opinion polls:
Survey after survey (paid for out of anti-poverty funds) has “documented” that poor housewives most want tot-lots in their neighborhood where young children can play safely. But most of the women answered these questionnaires without knowing what their options were. They assumed that if they asked for something small, they might just get something useful in the neighborhood. Had the mothers known that a free prepaid health insurance plan was a possible option, they might not have put tot-lots so high on their wish lists (1969, p. 31).As such surveys often only allow participants to consider the options presented to them, deliberation is thus believed to be more egalitarian and open. This Pingree believes is a “key argument for its superior legitimacy over mere voting. Through discussion a group can discover the appropriate ballot. With mere voting, those who determine the ballot have enormous power” (2009, p. 311). Online deliberation allows for citizen to initiate and prioritize the terms and realm of discussions, but maintains sufficient focus to achieve tangible results.
Collaborative and engaging
As the online deliberative process is structured to focus on specified topics and results in a distillation of sentiment, government officials can receive results that reveal popular opinion and that are immediately relevant to their policy considerations. Online deliberation has been found to lead to consensus (Muhlberger, 2005). Presenting government with a coordinated message on behalf of citizens is likely to be more influential than the comparative anarchy of online discussion. A consensus also enables the formation of counter-hegemonies and mobilization communications. Deliberation fosters greater potential to build consensus than other traditional methods that position citizens groups as advisories striving to capture the limited attention of government and consequently heighten their demands and resist concessions (Lenihan, 2009). With online deliberation, its goal-oriented approach and structured reflexivity of others’ opinions should result in more productive and collaborative outcomes.
Research on online deliberation has found it does affect participants’ political awareness and improve citizen engagement (Price, 2009). In a study, Cavalier et al. tested three sets of participants based on participation in in-person deliberation, online deliberation, and those receiving only information. Participants that deliberated reported higher rates empowerment, confidence, and critical thinking than the control group (2009). In a similar study, Muhlberger found deliberators found the experience more favourable and engaging than non-deliberators
(2005). In contrast to citizen apathy, participants of online deliberation find such participation meaningful and inspiring.
Section 5: Design and System Considerations
To build and deliver an effective, engaging online deliberation system requires consideration of various disciplines from design (interface, modality), technology (software, programming, backend support), sociology (norms and use context), behaviour and culture (use patterns, gender and race issues, cognitive skills) and political economy (class, hegemony, accessibility). Although some research has already been conducted along these lines, little research has been conducted for the optimal way to construct an online experience. To contribute to this undertaking, I have composed the following table (see Table 1) to highlight what I believe are the main system considerations of a design or technological consideration. The design of online deliberation is crucial as the “the success of a deliberative endeavor depends on choices made by its designers” (Lupia, 2009, p. 60).
Table 1: System or design implementation considerations
|System or design elements||Mitigating factors||System decisions and interface implications|
|Accessibility||All citizens should be able to participate regardless of ability.||Follow W3C standards. Provide multi-modal formats.|
|Asynchrony or real-time||Asynchrony removes temporal barriers to participation and gives more individual control on timing of their contributions and research. Real-time participation allows for use of voice or video conferencing.||May determine possible modalities.|
|Anonymity & privacy||Some topics may limit participation if citizens must identify themselves or feel their input can be traced back to them. Also, some believe anonymity allows improved participation by minorities and women.||Allow participants to register without requiring identifying details. Generic usernames can be used instead.|
|Authentication||Prevent access to non-citizens. Require only sincere participation.||Require citizens to enter a postal code or assign random participants codes to enter|
|Forms of expression||Privileging rationality over other discursive forms (e.g. storytelling, testimonials) may alienate or inadequately facilitate participation.||Encourage storytelling, emotional and responses and statements of values along with traditional forms of debate through moderator, preliminary info, or build into structure through phased approach.|
|Hedonic, affective, and social factors||Participation is found to provoke greater interest and increased levels of participation if these elements present.||Consider graphic design carefully. Allow for qualitative responses and give participants latitude or specific space to bring these elements in.|
|Host||Government hosting may lead participants to feel process is biased or is under surveillance. But government hosting can also lend legitimacy that unknown third parties may lack.||Preliminary information can be provided outlining government’s role. An arms-length agency can host website.|
|Moderator||Ensure process runs smoothly (encouraging participation, summarizing, enforcing rules, arranging experts, etc.). But may be seen as invasive or form of control.||Preliminary information can be provided outlining role of moderator. As much as possible, moderation should be invisible. Moderator can be government official, disinterested third party, or rotating roster of participants.|
|Open source||Avoid dependency to costly third-party vendors. But reliability and ease of deployment also important||Weigh available resources with project goals.|
|Presence||Helps participants perceive of humanness fellow participants and builds rapport.||Enable citizens to upload a photograph, which can be appended to their contributions. Offer participants space to share their biography or discuss off-topic items. Consider audio or video sessions.|
|Reliability||System must scale sufficiently and be stable.||Invest in robust system. Establish checks to monitor system performance.|
|Rules||Enforces fairness and civility (e.g. no libel or flaming) and ensures proceedings run smoothly and on time. Can create a more positive, focused environment. But may be perceived as limiting or coercive.||Once rules determined can be programmed into internal logic of system (e.g. limiting characters of contribution, enforcing turn-taking, forbidding certain words, etc.). Rules also guide moderator. Any rules should be stated clearly upfront.|
|Security||Must be resistant to hackers and ensure privacy of participants.||Invest in security components and establish checks. Provide preliminary information on this to participants to build trust.|
|Scale||Number of participants may increases the difficulty in absorbing all contributions and render discussions unwieldy.||Limit participation to feasible number (e.g. 15 to 20) establish separate sessions or instances to accommodate additional participants. Alternatively, greater numbers can be accommodated through more active summarization work by moderator and additional rules.|
|Usability||All citizens must be able to participate regardless of their familiarity with technology. Usage should be easy to prevent participants from not participating or quitting prematurely.||Follow established web design guidelines and conventions. Make use of commonly used technologies. Conduct usability testing prior to launch. Provide readily available technical support.|
Differing approaches to sampling Prior to building an online deliberation platform, one must decide on the desired sampling strategy. This can be contentious as decisions of degrees of openness can affect issues of scale and bias. Random sampling gives everyone an equal likelihood of participation. It can encourage participation from those who might otherwise not self-select (Peters & Abud, 2008). Random sampling allows government to hear from those beyond habitual participants, who Coleman & Gøtze believe are unrepresentative of average citizen in their degree of political motivation and ability to articulate (2001). Random samples can also prevent the process from being hijacked by a highly-organized group who register en masse, dominate proceedings and create a slanted, one-sided outcome (Roger, 2009). A planned random sample also allows organizers to constrain participation to a feasible scale. There are those, however, that feel that any democratic initiative should allow participation from any citizen, not just the selected. Closed participation is undemocratic. Proponents for self-selection note that people who volunteer are more apt to be interested in the topic. Recruiting from this sample leads to more productive results compared to imposing participation through random sampling on those completely uninterested (Coleman & Gøtze). They also add that representativeness of an entire populace is not always needed or even desirable as some issues primarily affect some groups more so than others. A possible compromise might be to host a variety of participation methods or have one method inform another, as an open online discussion could inform and guide the agenda of a closed, random sample deliberation session.
Sincere and Responsive
The most important consideration is that the project sponsors possess sincere motivations and a commitment to responsiveness. Online deliberation in and of itself, however, may not improve the democracy deficit; it could worsen it. Government departments often request citizens’ comments; it is rare that governments demonstrate how this participation was used. Such government inattention can engender more cynicism to perceived token efforts. To demonstrate a sincere commitment to listening, governments should provide citizens with a response to how their participation informed policy or a justification for why it did not (Coleman & Gøtze, 2001). An example of this is Ontario’s Environment Registry. Citizens are able to comment, online or offline, on environmental concerns over any new provincial legislation. The Minister of the Environment is obliged to consider the comments and will respond online (Government of Ontario, n.d). Although this commitment to direct response to citizens concerns is laudable, it is limited in that the Minister must consider only “relevant” comments and is not obliged to reveal why some comments were dismissed. For online deliberation to succeed, it is essential that the entire process is sincere and transparent.
Section 6: ConclusionWhen it comes to facilitating direct citizen participation, Canada has not distinguished itself. Despite its initial lead in e-government, Canada has not continued any innovative use of online media beyond e-administration. The lack of online methods for democratic participation is anathema to the believed democratizing potential of the Internet. It was hoped that the growing ubiquity of the Internet would address problems of citizen access to democratic processes. Yet this technological determinist belief that the Internet can alone provoke changes fails to account for the necessary concomitant societal change. Sassen believes the Internet offers the means for change, “This is not a critique of the technology per se. This is actually a critique that if the technology can deliver X, Y, and Z that we simply rest back, sit back and say ‘oh my god well there it comes’…. we have to invent new political formats if we are going to make the technologies deliver the goods that they in principle could deliver” (2005, time 21:00).
It appears likely that the Canadian government will not embrace such change unbidden. New political formats may be perceived as a challenge to the current power structures and allow for open contestation of the government line. It then behooves citizens to provoke change. Canadians can make effective use of the Internet to improve democracy with or without government co-operation. Not content to wait for the government to open the doors to new online means, citizens in Canada, as elsewhere, have already launched their own online democratic reforms. The Visible Government initiative has launched websites to track parliamentarians’ personal expenses and federal contracts (VisibleGovernment.ca, n.d.). Other citizen-led initiatives include How’d They Vote, a website itemizing all members of parliament’s voting and attendance records (How’d They, 2009). Online protest and mobilization has managed to provoke government response, such as the successful campaign to have Toronto’s Sam the Record Man store signs declared a historic landmark, a campaign instigated entirely online by citizens. Just recently, a Facebook group was set up to encourage parliamentarians to resist the prime minister’s plans to prorogue parliament and within less than four weeks had over 300,000 members (60,000 in just one week). In-person protests across the country were subsequently organized online. Despite early inattention by conventional media to the issue and political pundits dismissing the issues as unimportant, Canadians felt otherwise and had the means to express their concerns. The prime minister was influenced by this action and called off an intended parliamentary vacation that he planned to follow.
Online citizen protest may not directly lead to change, but these actions do indicate citizens’ desire for more participatory government and greater use of e-government. In calling for greater e-participation, however, the goal should not be for more impotent action or distracting pretenses of participation, as some governments offer. Instead, citizens should demand their government representatives make a sincere commitment to involving citizens. Online deliberation offers the most potential of most current participatory methods. If governments are unresponsive, direct citizen action can lead to the founding of independent online deliberative vehicles, the results of which can be presented to government. The consensus-driven insight, inclusivity, and methodological manner that generate such results may carry more cache with governments than existing forms of citizen comment. Online deliberation builds civic engagement not only for the participants who have a say in the political process, but also for society who have visible evidence of a government’s commitment to citizen-focused governance.
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