Britain outpaces the United States in e-democracy

Electronic tools stimulate citizen interest, involvement -- and accountability

MINNEAPOLIS — Mary Reid, an elected representative from Great Britain, showed two photos of rooms where public hearings are held in that country. One picture displayed a typical layout where councilors sit at wide desks facing a central desk and another offered a fisheye view from the chairman's position.

"And the question is, 'Where is the public?' " she said. "Well, they're actually sitting up in that gallery behind the green barrier that's really there above the council members. And my question is: What message is this giving to the citizen about public participation?"

In Britain, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is trying to change that. E-democracy is one of the 22 local e-government projects initiated by the office. The Local e-Democracy National Project is providing municipalities, also called local authorities, with technological tools and other information to improve civic participation, activism, networking, collaborative problem-solving and other types of involvement.

Reid, who is also the chairwoman of the project, spoke here July 26 during the two-day International Symposium on Local E-Democracy, billed as the first global conference on local democracy in the Information Age.

The conference, sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the project, featured about 25 speakers, who talked about a wide range of related issues including e-democracy trends, electronic voting, e-government, video blogging and podcasting.

What is e-democracy?

Donald Norris, one of the speakers and a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, said the simplistic definition of e-democracy is the ability to access government electronically round-the-clock.

But a more meaningful definition is participation and voting via electronic means in routine government programs. That "e-participation" could include government Web sites, interactive voice response via telephone, Web kiosks, two-way television and videoconferencing, Norris said.

But despite the enthusiasm surrounding the symposium, e-democracy internationally and in the United States is still in its infancy. "We are in the early days of e-democracy," Norris said. "E-government is only 10 years old. Two-thirds of the e-government sites are 8 years old or less today."

Tools for citizens

But Britain appears to be the exception to this rule, he said. The British government spent about $5.3 billion dollars on the five-year e-government project, of which $1.8 billion went to e-democracy initiatives.

Dylan Jeffrey, the senior policy adviser on e-democracy in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, said the project started with a policy paper written in 2002 that discussed offering e-voting through multiple channels.

He said that although the British government is driving the initiative, the emphasis is on increasing civic participation in local issues through various technologies. If you get people involved with their local governments, the theory is that turnout during elections will increase, he added.

Isobel Harding, leading authority of the project, said the government spent about $7 million to develop several open-source applications, such as online consultation, blogging, Web casting, e-democracy games for children and teenagers, that the 388 local authorities can access for free.

She said some local authorities are testing the applications, but there isn't much demand from the communities. There needs to be more marketing of the products, which is something the British government is planning to do, she added.

Funding for Britain's e-government project ends this year. "And part of our migration strategy is move away from 'e' meaning electronic government to meaning effective government," said Julian Bowrey, who heads the project for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, during the conference. "I think that's going to be the challenge for us today."

Adoption is crucial

Other countries that support e-democracy will also be challenged to obtain funds. Steve Clift, an international e-democracy expert who hosted the Minneapolis conference, has spoken to government officials and others in more than two dozen countries about creating sustainable models and policies for e-democracy.

In South Korea, voters can go to the government's Web site and find information about political candidates running in their election districts. The site provides information about the candidates, who can submit biographies and a six-minute video on their platforms on issues such as taxes and crime. There is also a discussion board and a link to each candidate's official Web site.

It is the "most dramatic example of a government providing an online voter guide effort," Clift said.

In the United States, the city of Winona, Minn., began an e-democracy project five years ago that seeks to give all residents a greater say on issues and decisions affecting their city.

Randy Schenkat, a co-founder of Winona Online Democracy who attended the conference, said the project has been successful, but only about 200 people — out of a population of 27,000 — actively participate in the program.

"I'm here because we've stagnated in many ways," he said.

Reid, the British representative, said elected officials ask her if e-democracy increases, then is their power at risk?

She said the issue has to be viewed in a two-dimensional way with strong citizen participation and strong leadership of elected representatives.

But getting there isn't easy.

"Democratic change is essentially a slow process that is as much about addressing underlying cultural beliefs as it is about altering specific processes," she said.


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Ahead of the curve

Worldwide, governments and candidates for political office are getting better at using the Internet and other technologies for education, voting, elections and campaigning, according to experts.

The United States has been slow in adopting new ways of e-voting. But John Groh, president of Election Systems and Software International, which provides e-voting technologies, said his company has been able to experiment with multichannel voting with local governments in Britain. Channels include the Internet, Web kiosks, telephones and text messaging. He said such voting would also include other methods such as postal voting and early elections.

But challenges exist, he said. One is providing voting technology that can help people with disabilities cast ballots independently, anonymously and with little assistance.

The second challenge is getting more young people involved in voting "because we do find if they being to vote once in their first election ... they will continue to be a voter for the rest of their lives," he said.

To do this, Groh said, voting must be more convenient, whether it's through the Internet or a wireless phone. We want to "allow people to vote the way they live their lives," he said.

Ravi Singh, chief executive officer and founder of ElectionMall Technologies, said candidates are using the Internet, blast e-mail messages and faxes, wireless phones, and other means to target voters and increase campaign contributions.

They are also trying to recruit volunteers through the Internet.

"Did the Internet make a difference in the last election cycle? It did," Singh said. In the last presidential election, President Bush recruited more "e-leaders" online to help him mobilize the vote, but his main opponent, Democrat John Kerry, raised more online contributions than Bush — about $80 million to Bush's $20 million, Singh added.

Technology is also becoming a principal mechanism for learning about campaigns. Last year, the number of people who received information online on where to vote grew by more than 150 percent, to nearly 14 million people, he said. And the number of people who participated in online discussions or chats grew 57 percent, to about 4.5 million, he added.

In Portugal, the political party that controls the government was forced to start an official Web log because the citizens demanded it, Singh said. In India, officials use text messaging to communicate with citizens, especially in remote areas, he added.

— Dibya Sarkar

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