Editorial: Experiments in e-democracy

E-democracy remains the same tantalizing concept it was five or six years ago when government agencies began experimenting with ways to use the Internet to give people more of a voice in government. It is tantalizing, but nothing more.

In the latest example, the New York City Council held public hearings online to give residents a chance to speak their minds about how the city should spend money earmarked for public schools. Nearly 200 New Yorkers took part in online discussions, and another 165 sent comments by e-mail (see Page 50).

Previous e-democracy experiments have taken various forms. Some cities have set up online chats with their mayors, while federal and state governments have developed Web-based systems that allow people to read and comment on proposed regulations.

Each case is interesting on its own terms, but few have had an impact outside the responsible agency. If e-democracy is ever to fulfill its promise — and if we are ever to learn the extent of that promise — a new approach is needed.

One idea is to have an existing organization coordinate a series of experiments across multiple jurisdictions (on a volunteer basis, of course). Three cities might agree to hold public hearings online, for example, or run online chats with public officials. Here are a few thoughts on how the approach might work:

Before the experiments began, officials at the participating agencies would agree on the structure of the tests and the metrics used to gauge success or failure.

They would also develop the format for a report that captures the lessons learned from the experiments.

A second set of tests could then be staged to refine those lessons or try new variables.

A final report, based on both sets of tests, could be distributed to jurisdictions nationwide.

One problem with this scheme jumps to mind: Why should a small group of agencies bear the costs of developing a project meant to benefit others? That is a fair question, especially at a time when budgets are so tight. And managers at the participating agencies would likely uncover

other problems.

But everyone stands to benefit if government agencies can find a way to advance the state of e-democracy, or even decide it is not worth the investment. The idea is so tantalizing it is worth the effort of finding out.

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