Change Management
May 7, 2012

E-government to digital democracy

CGE Vol.13 No.9 November 2007

Not long ago, an energetic web technology site called Read/WriteWeb listed 10 emerging trends that it expects will be big in Cyberia over the next decade or so. Unsurprisingly, and appropriately, it was all about technology – artificial intelligence, the Semantic Web, virtual worlds and such.

The list (worth a look at: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/2007/09/) drew mostly predictable comment from the technorati who follow these issues. What stood out in the feedback, however, was a decidedly non-technical remark from one James Blevins: “One small comment about e-government is a predictor about the revolution that is inevitable. People are realizing that representatives distort the will of the people. They were necessary before communications were instant and nationwide, but today they are the source of major distortion of the will of the people. As soon as the people get a taste of real direct democracy, the world as we have known it will disappear.”

Awkwardly turned, perhaps, but as clear a call as you might find for digital democracy, which is the mostly missing kid brother of what’s known as e-government.

For reasons both plain and puzzling, e-government as it stands now is largely a thing of information, with a soupcon of service and a few tidbits of transaction. It’s escaped from bricks and mortar, in other words, but hasn’t got too far yet.

For some, however, the world of real e-government means, for example, voting from your PC or Mac, for anything from a dogcatcher to an MP to, in some formulations, a judge. Those visionaries are mostly a disappointed lot; notwithstanding the odd experiment, including some good Canadian examples, the planets have obviously failed to align for those purposes.

But they could, given a push by the right people in the right places.

Which just might mean political people, in political places.

Here’s the thing: e-government as it stands is the result of a staggering amount of work by bureaucrats – CIOs, their lieutenants and foot soldiers, who have identified the concepts, bought the hardware and software, written the programs and generally done a lot of heavy lifting.

The political side of government (where digital democracy would live) has been mostly outside all that activity. Most, if not all, legislators have websites, and some have even become bloggers, with often brilliant results. But for reasons ranging from old-fashioned uncertainty to new-fashioned fear of cyberspace, there hasn’t been much of a pickup.

And what might change that? Social computing, maybe.

Those politically authored blogs are a case in point. However tentative they’ve been so far, they may yet turn out to have been the thin edge of the wedge that took e-government to another level. And if they’re not quite Web 2.0 – the baseline for social computing – they’re more than 1.0; call it 1.5.

Plus: there’s circumstance. That’s what happened in Columbus, Kentucky, which Wired magazine reports is about to return to the national political stage in the US for the first time since Thomas Jefferson proposed moving the capital there after Washington was razed.

According to Wired, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards included Columbus on his list of campaign stops as a consequence of an experiment in social computing. He placed his itinerary in the hands of Eventful, a web-based event planning outfit used by performers of all types to determine venues, and promised to speak in October in the city that most wanted him – as gauged through a poll on Eventful’s website. Columbus came out ahead of the likes of Denver, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Why did Columbus get the nod? Because supporters went beyond e-mail to use tools like Facebook and MySpace – instant classics of social networking. It amounted to a small victory for the potential of social computing. And, for better or worse, it had its roots on the political side of the governance table.

Mind you, this is hardly a slam dunk for proponents of either social computing or digital democracy. Social computing has ushered in a whole new set of security threats, for one thing, and government – super-sensitive to such concerns – is hardly the place to go experimenting with access.

The journey has at least a thousand steps, though. This may have been one of them.

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