EDEM08: E-Democracy Conference 2008

eDemocracy: Future, Prospects and Limits?

The last two days of September 2008 saw experts, specialists from a variety of fields and guests from 17 countries to discuss the different facets of eDemocracy, its visions, possibilites, limitations and implications, as well as the tools and media required for it to work. It also raised a number of questions – and even those which were left unanswered will guide the future work of eDemocracy.

The international speakers addressed theory and practice, and included topics ranging from eVoting, to eGovernment, trust, authenticity, participation, learning and including and involving the population.

The conference brought together academics and practitioners so that they could discuss, share and develop new ideas and projects, but at the Centre for E-Government we wondered about the following:

  1. 5 words to eDemocracy?
  2. The future of eDemocracy in a nutshell?
  3. Your favourite eDemocracy Project?
  4. Opportunities und risks of E-Democracy?
  5. What will the contents of the EDEM2020 conference be?

If you are interested in more keynote speakers’ answers, see www.donau-uni.ac.at/edem, but maybe we can meet up next year to tell us what you think? And then we can also discuss about something that Ann Macintosh pointed out: How will we know when we have success?

The time for eDemocracy is now states Steven Clift, and he sees big political and societal events as encouraging people to participate online at a number of levels – ranging from neighbourhood initiatives to national involvement. Expectations have been raised, and political involvement is no longer something that can be solely controlled by politicians or a select group. The virtual and the real world are coming together, and although the developments look promising, it is important that citizens are not isolated from each other or loose themselves to a single virtual channel.

Everyday sees new developments and ideas, but some of their implications must be questioned: Peter Parycek warns about some the results obtained by combining modern technology with old laws. MeshUps with Google Maps lead to socially questionable websites such as “Criminal Search” and “Rotten Neighbour” – now and in future data protection, privacy, openness and transparency must strike a different balance as they are central tenets both to society as a whole and the individual citizen’s rights and obligations.

Alexander Prosser showed that although there are different types of Internet users, it is the actual use of the electronic options that motivates the users to be involved in participatory processes such as eVoting. Media obviously plays a main role in eDemocracy and eParticiaption developments – online discussion groups, chatrooms, wikis, webplatforms – and requires both IT as well as communicative skills. In addition, Ursula Maier-Rabler suggested considering media usage and skills in terms of other aspects such as different political and social backgrounds, and their cultural understanding of democratic and participatory processes. The younger generation is the one where the users will simply expect these processes to be available and part of their life, they are that are now learning that they are both producers and consumers. Critical thinking is another skill emphasised by Ann Macintoshby raising the question, so how can technology and technologists support the critical thinking necessary for participation, deliberation, democracy?

The majority of these web-based-initiatives tend to be bottom-up – but if the State, government or public administrations do not support participatory and democratic processes, then citizens will develop their own ways to communicate and shape political life, social structures and the civis society. Projects presented show that there are other issues which need to be considered too: how can involvement be increased, what channels reach people, how are these initiatives funded, how can people become “active citizens”?

Then Jeremy Millard raised a number of questions concerning trust, which is necessary for any transaction, political ones particularly, to work. Yet he also pointed out that mistrust can also play a good and important role for democracy to function effectively. Do citizens trust the Government? Does the Government trust its citizens? What are the effects of carefully watching what a person or an institution is doing? When is anonymity necessary – who needs protection? Who decides?

Theory and practice must come together to answer questions and continue the discussion. Present and future projects must be developed on solid foundations, and it is necessary to get all the experts, producers and consumers involved to use the same language and the same definitions – from the beginning. Future work requires language and communication, common definitions and standards, spaces for discussion and for coming together – for two days, the EDem 08 Conference in Krems gave its guests the opportunity to come together and talk.

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