Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Dr. Helen Margetts, Reader in Political Science, School of Public Policy, University College London


  This note explores the possibilities of innovations in citizen participation provided by one particular technological development: the increasing use of the Internet by citizens and by government.

  The rate of Internet penetration in Britain (as in other societies) is rising dramatically. In mid-1998 around 7.3 million people in the UK had access to the Internet and the World Wide Web either at work or via home PCs. A year later this number had grown to over 10 million. Other countries indicate the possibilities for future growth: in the US and Australia, where local telephone costs are low, rates of penetration are around 40 per cent, and rising. As citizens increasingly use the Internet to shop, to bank and to communicate with enterprises and other citizens, they increasingly expect to interact electronically with government also.

  Thus the Internet is a key forum for political participation of the future. Policy-makers are already turning to electronic methods as a tool for communicating with citizens and delivering services. But increased citizen participation in government is not an automatic by-product of the increasing digitalisation of government processes. Early evidence from governments across the world suggests various alternative outcomes for the advent of the "Digital States":

An Open State: Increased Citizen Participation

  One scenario is where government organisations "become" their Web sites, forming an on-line state with new 24 hour citizen-government interactions. Such a state would be characterised by:

    —  new types of citizen participation, such as electronic consultation and forums, electronic voting, planning consultations and policy "chat" rooms;

    —  self-financing electronic service delivery, where simple administrative transactions are replaced by "zero-touch" processes at marginal costs—leaving public officials free to deal with more sophisticated forms of interaction with citizens;

    —  responsive policy-making, where (automatically generated) information about citizens' electronic communications with government are fed back into the policy process;

    —  "holistic" government, where the Internet provides citizens with a "joined-up" view of government organisations; and

    —  a new kind of "open-book" governance, where a combination of web sites and intranets are used to make transactions more transparent.

An Invisible State: Decreased Citizen Participation

  A contrasting scenario is one where government organisations fail to develop innovative ways of using the Internet to communicate with citizens and deliver services, and the Digital State becomes more impenetrable to citizen participation, characterised by the following:

    —  a confusing, fragmented view of government for citizens, as the Web sites maintained by government organisations proliferate and citizens struggle to find public information;

    —  government organisations lose control of their Internet presence through confusion of site ownership between internal and external providers;

    —  government has a lower Web presence than other organisations in society (with a consequent loss of nodality) and citizens turn increasingly to other organisations (such as pressure groups, political parties and business enterprises) with whom to interact; and

    —  new forms of government impenetrability, as government's internal intranets reach spiralling heights of complexity, making government processes more closed and opaque.

  Both these scenarios have important implications for the future of democratic participation. There is nothing pre-determined about which scenario will develop. Public organisations across countries and policy sectors already exhibit different elements of each "state". It will be up to individual policy-makers and government organisations to shape technological developments so that they maximise the potential of the Internet for increased participation and avoid the pitfalls of the second scenario. The "Digital state" is likely to be central to the future attention of the Public Administration Committee.

  Dr Helen Margetts is a Reader in Political Science at the School of Public Policy, University College London and Director of the School's Msc in Public Policy. Previously, she worked as a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College (1994-99), as a research officer at the London School of Economics (1991-94) and as a computer programmer and systems analyst in the private sector (1984-89). She has a Bsc in Mathematics (University of Bristol, 1983), Msc in Politics (LSE, 1990) and PhD in Government (LSE, 1996). She is on the National Executive of the Political Studies Association, the Advisory Board of the Democratic Audit of the UK (University of Essex) and is an Associate Editor of the journal Political Studies. She has acted as a consultant to the National Audit Office (since 1992) and the OECD (since 1997).

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