Working group to study e-democracy efforts

E-Participation

An international panel plans to study the use of online meetings as a way to boost citizen participation in government decisions.

The International Working Group on Online Consultation and Public Policy Making aims to advance e-democracy research. It includes members from Australia, France, Israel, Italy, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The group is the first to launch under the Center for Technology in Government’s digital government initiative. The center’s funding for the online consultation group stems from a $1 million National Science Foundation grant.

Online consultations aim to supplement face-to-face deliberations such as public hearings. The goal is to reach citizens who might not be able to attend meetings in person because of work schedules, disabilities or transportation issues.

Peter Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University, is co-chairman of the working group with Stephen Coleman, a professor of political communication at the University of Leeds’ Institute of Communications Studies.

Among the group’s objectives: to shed light on what constitutes a successful online consultation.

“If there’s going to be a future for online consultation, it’s only going to happen if people become persuaded that their efforts will pay off in terms of real impact on government decision-making,” Shane said, noting that Coleman shares that conviction.

Shane said governments pursuing online consultation must justify the investment in hardware, software and staffing to citizens and appropriators.

What is the return on investment? Shane asked. For some online-consultation practitioners, it is enough to demonstrate that “more people are well-informed and interested in participating,” he said.

Shane said an e-democracy effort might generate an impressive number of Web site hits. But to change the substance of the decision-making, online consultation projects must show that the process is bringing a decisive piece of information or perspective that would otherwise fail to surface in the policy discussion, he added.

Shane said the working group’s members will sort through the factors that shape a good online consultation.

In doing so, the group will produce a book that identifies and measures successful online consultations, according to the group's research proposal. In addition, a conference and workshop is slated for March 2008 at Ohio State University, Shane said. The school will fund the international participants’ travel costs.

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