Objectives and Proposals  

To use new technology to encourage public participation in democratic process

3.61 ‘Perhaps the most democratising aspect of the Internet is the ability for people to organize and communicate in groups.It is within the context of electronic free assembly and association that citizens will gain new opportunities for participation and a voice in politics,governance,and society.In the next decade,those active in developing the Internet and building democracy have an opportunity to sow the seeds for ‘democracy online ’ in the next century..Like the founding of any modern nation,the choices made today,the ideals upheld, the rules adopted,and the expectations created will determine the opportunities for democratic engagement for generations to come.’ [Steven Clift,Democracy is Online (http://www.publicus.net/ebook/)]

3.62 The internet is expected have a profound effect on the way democracy functions in the future.There is a need for Government to explore the potential impact of the new information and communications technologies on our democratic processes.To date the emphasis in e-Government in this country has been on Electronic Service Delivery.However,democratic e-government is clearly about much more than service delivery.

3.63 e-Democracy focuses on the processes of democratic control and policy making,rather than on government as a deliverer of services.The benefits and costs of e-Democracy seem almost impossible to quantify.What value do we place on a more participative democracy or on policy development processes that actively involve citizens in decision making?

3.64 It is important to remember that the technology only presents us with new sets of tools.We should identify those areas of democratic practice where technology can offer potentially new opportunities for citizens.The technology already exists to enable live referenda and we need to consider how this form of direct democracy should develop alongside our tradition of representative democracy.

3.65 The Government has just announced a new series of pilot projects to test various technologies in voting.However while e-voting in elections may generate efficiency savings and even promote wider access to the polls,the main business of democracy is carried out between elections,when decisions are taken,taxes raised,and public money is spent.This is the business of debate, dialogue,deliberation and decision making.Some e-democracy enthusiasts argue that we need to find a ‘virtual ’ equivalent for every existing part of our democratic activity,from the informal and voluntary -demonstrations and public meetings;lobby groups,pressure groups and campaigns -to the statutory processes -formal public consultation and dialogue,and holding elected representatives and officials to account.

3.66 Turnouts in national elections are declining.Turnouts in local elections hover around thirty percent,and even with the high profile media coverage and an extensive government advertising campaign,turnout for the election of the first Mayor of London failed to reach forty percent.

3.67 London needs to explore whether and how new interactive communications technology can re-invigorate our democratic processes at local and regional level.What things work and what don ’t?Some suggest that,well used,new communications technology can empower local communities but this must be more than simple self completion surveys and opinion polls.Within the realm of civil society we need better to understand how e-Democracy developments can support local people,voluntary groups and pressure groups,what public authorities should do and what these developments may mean for established political parties and elected politicians.

Where are we now?

3.68 London boroughs are among the leading developers of e-government systems within the country.Innovative trials have taken place or are under way in Brent,Lewisham,Camden,Newham and elsewhere.Boroughs have been successful in winning European and national funding for these projects.Within the voluntary sector in London significant resource has been spent getting people and organisations connected.We also know that nearly fifty percent of Londoners now have access to the internet at home,and that the penetration of mobile ‘phones is the highest of any region in the country.During consultation on the Mayor ’s transport strategy the internet proved the most popular channel for accessing the documents.

Principles for action

3.69 The development of e-democracy is at an early stage.More pilot activity is required but pilots now need to be larger scale.

3.70 Where-ever possible pilot activity should target marginalised or excluded groups -these may be sectors of society known to be un-phased by technology but alienated from the democratic process,such as the young;groups more democratically active but less advanced in their use of technology,such as older people;and sections of society experiencing multiple deprivation,such as refugee communities.

Taking it forward

LondonConnects will:

  • Seek to bring together the lessons being learnt from all the many experiments that are taking place;to develop criteria to identify successful e-democracy projects;and to develop an information base of specific products and applications that are available and work.This work will identify gaps in practice which future projects could seek to address in a more co-ordinated manner.
  • Convene a policy workshop on e-democracy during the consultation period, and will make e-democracy the key theme for the June 2002 London e-Government conference.