Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Christine Bellamy, Professor of Public Administration, The Nottingham Trent University


  1.  The British Government is committed to making 25 per cent of government services available electronically by 2002 and 100 per cent by 2008. It is also committed to promoting the UK as an important global player in the growth of e-commerce. If these aspirations are fulfilled, British citizens will experience major changes in the ways in which they transact business, including business with government. It is therefore worth considering what impact the development of e-commerce and e-government infrastructures could have on other facets of citizens' relationships with government, especially on opportunities for participation in decision making and for holding governments to account. In principle, the development of richer information sources and interactive communications could have major consequences for the quality of democratic engagement between governments and citizens. This short note is intended to describe the context in which that is likely to occur, and to identify some of the issues.


  2.  If e-commerce and e-government are to develop on a significant scale, they will do so by means of close, symbiotic relationships between public agencies and commercial enterprises. The private sector will provide most of the investment, bear much of the financial risk and supply most of the know-how. The drive to build markets for e-commerce will reinforce the growing synergy between computing, telecommunications and entertainment technologies. One implication is that talk of technology-enabled participation ought not to be confined to discussion of computing applications. Digital TV and digital telephony (including mobile phones) will also provide access to the Internet and thereby to a wide range of information and communications services. This may be significant from a social inclusion perspective, in that these technologies are likely to be perceived as more user-friendly than PCs. They will be less dependent on the particular set of skills we now think of as "computer-literacy" and will be even more widely used.

  3.  It is unlikely, however, that sufficient funding will ever be provided to develop a significant infrastructure of civic nets on which public service applications can have a privileged domain, as is the case with the Dutch digital cities or the American Free-nets. This does not mean that governments could not invest heavily in the development of sites and services dedicated to public affairs, but it does mean that they will be obliged to compete directly with a growing range of commercial and entertainment services. Experience consistently suggests that democratic applications can easily become trivialised or marginalised in such company.

  4.  The spread of digital technologies may also reinforce the declining interest—particularly among the young—in "mainstream" electoral and party politics, by providing outlets for other kinds of political and civic interests, especially single issue politics. Many people believe that the Internet is particularly well structured to reflect the wide variety of identities, interests and opinions in a multi-dimensional society, such as ours. They also claim that the Internet is less susceptible to spin doctoring and sound bite politics than conventional media. And we have already begun to see that the Internet can provide a means of bypassing government media control in some of the more oppressive regimes in the world.


  5.  The question, then, is what scope there might be, among this diverse (and increasingly issue-specific) range of channels and voices, for democratic governments to speak and listen to citizens. The Annex to this Memorandum sets out four, increasingly important, ways in which digital technologies might enhance representation, consultation and participation.

  6.  Governments (and Parliaments) have already adopted new technologies to help them carry out their internal processes more efficiently (Level 1) see p 96, and they are now putting information resources (such as Hansard, Command Papers, strategy documents, league tables and press releases) on the Web (Level 2). In the UK, we can also expect that the shift to e-government, and particulary the new emphasis on joined-up, evidence-based policy will encourage knowledge-oriented government, supported by richer data about the preferences and behaviour of public service users. In other words, "information age government" will probably increase the transparency between governments and citizens, albeit in ways that are mainly controlled by governments.

  7.  It is also the case, however, that few institutions are systematically developing new kinds of political communication, such as facilities for online interaction with the public either as consumers or citizens (Levels 3 and 4). Where this is being done, there appears to be an irresistible temptation to control or restrict their use. For example, both British MPs and American congressmen are keen to filter out e-mails that do not originate from their own constituents. This practice may reinforce MPs' sense of themselves as constituency representatives but it may also filter out wider expresssions of legitimate opinion on the issues of the day.


  8.  The Annex details a number of ways in which new technologies could be used to support interactive consultation and participation (Level 4). They include electronic support for citizens' juries or people's panels. Such devices may be useful in providing a statistically-representative sample of opinion, but they do not recognise important facets of political democracy, such as the right of people to join with others to make their voices heard, or to lobby on issues they feel strongly about. The Committee may therefore wish to consider whether citizen juries and focus groups should be complemented by the development of direct, open channels, ones that could enable citizens themselves to initiate communication or choose to respond actively to issues. I would particularly like to see the House of Commons sponsor such channels, and thus reassert its important role as the political forum of the nation. The unrestricted use of email could be useful for this purpose, but of even more value would be the establishment of online discussion forums—these could, for example, be organised around issues coming before select or standing committees. The advantage of such forums is that they would enable citizens, as well as MPs, to be challenged by each others' views, as well as to express their own.


  9.  Such innovations would have to be carefully undertaken and properly supported. There are three sets of issues relating to online participation and consultation that I would particularly like to mention:

    —  public participation cannot simply be bolted onto existing institutions and be expected to make much difference. Indeed, I am struck by the fact that previous evidence to the Committee has made relatively little mention of the implications of public participation for internal administrative practices and decision-making processes. It is no use gathering opinion and inviting representations if the institution is not (re)geared to listen, sift, balance and respond to citizens voices, and to do so in ways that individuals and groups will recognise as placing value on their contributions. This undoubtedly involves substantial changes in the working methods of both politicians and officials, as well as an increase in staffing and information systems support;

    —  a commitment to public participation and accountability implies that more thought be given to enabling citizens themselves to become better informed. Information-age technology probably has an important role. Government at all levels has made huge strides in making official information available over the Internet, and the Information Age Champions Group is doing valuable work to ensure that government websites are easy to use and able to be accessed with relatively cheap technology. Democratic accountability and informed participation also imply, however, that citizens be allowed to ask questions about the provenance of information supplied by government, and to challenge the assumptions on which it is based. They imply, too, that more systematic provision be made for alternative policy options to be set out by organisations, political parties or individuals with differing views; and

    —  a shift to the largescale, routine use of online consultation or participation would mean establishing clear rules for citizen engagement. For example, one question that is particularly pertinent to the use of the Internet—a technology that is blind to geographical boundaries—is who would be eligible to participate and how their identity would be authenticated. Another is whether participation should or could be anonymous. Citizens will also need reassurance that engagement with electronic democracy is not subject to electronic surveillance.

  The practical ramifications of this last issue can almost certainly be sorted out by means of privacy-enhancing technologies and authentication techniques, such as those that will (hopefully) become routine with e-government. In any case, such techniques will have to be applied to the use of electronic voting for parliamentary or local authority elections. But they demand clear thinking about the crucial interrelationships between anonymity, publicity, trust and democracy.

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