From May 6th to May 7th, the international Conference on E-Democracy organised by the Centre of E-Government at Danube University took place in Krems.
Jürgen Willer, Rector of Danube-University Krems welcomed the participants and thanked the Centre for establishing national and international connections in the field of E-Democracy. Having already completed many projects in this area, the Centre startet a new project this year by combining topics like open government, e-society, e-democracy and e-voting.
Peter Parycek, Head of Centre for E-Government, is chairing this years conference together with Alexander Prosser. He presented some projects of the Centre and mentioned the cooperations making this conference possible: BRZ Austria, AIT, zebralog, OCG and the cinema of the campus. Referring to the campaign of Barack Obama Parycek explained the discussions in Austria wheter we see the development as re-democratisation of America. The central question is: Did Obama really change the way we are doing politics. (to Parycek, he did – especially with defining the principles of the Open Government Memorandum. Movements like Open Data, Open Access and Open Government were accelerating globally as a consequence.) We will hopefully find more answers to this topic at the conference and discuss the implications of moving towards an open and democratic e-society in a time when e-democracy and e-government are merging.
Andy Williamson: Distribution and Empowerment: Embedding Citizens at the Heart of Democracy
Let me ask you: What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.
Williamson talked about the challenges of the digital engagement and raised the question why we failed. Taking the world democracy is dangerous enough when we don’t know what democracy is about. Societies have shifted from a culture of community towards one of individualism and governments try to treat the individual as a consumer instead of citizens. One of the major problems with e-democracy is that most people are not active. 5 % (UK population) want active engagement. 24 % want more of a say. If those people are asked whether they are interested in politics or democracy, most of them will say no. They will rather be interested in issues.
Williamson pointed out problems in the context of the technology adoption life circle. He asked how we could reassert an independent public sphere when it remains colonised by powerful corporate interests, media outlets and technocratic agencies with even the independent newspapers being biased. Both ways – citizens and governments – distrust each other. For Williams this is not based on a culture of a country but on a culture within government. But some NGOs, as a side-effect of neoliberalism, have been representing the views of a wider public.
With the internet we now have a chance to bring citizens back to the centre of democracies. Access problems can be mental (lack of interest, motivation or anxiety) or based on skills, material, usage and civil or democratic access. So the internet itself does not change the motivation of citizens. It will hopefully – if done right – lower the threshhold of motivation. However, there is still a gap between new techniques and traditional democratic institutions. Moreover, poeple who have been innovators can now be part of the problem as we’re in a constant cycle of reform and changes. Change agents have to be found on both sides: The government and the people. Therefore, partnerships are fundamental to the effectiveness of eDemocracy. Recognition has to be given both and equally to the folksonoies of civil society and to the taxonomies of experts. (But maybe you just need a good brand for increasing civic awareness? :-))
The talk was followed by an extensive discussion on democratic cultures and civic literacies.
Ismael Pena-López: Goverati: E-Aristocrats or the Delusion of E-Democracy
Pena-López gave an economist’s perspective on E-Democracy. In the pre-internet era, the transaction costs for getting information where very high. With capital in the context of computers being cheaper and knowledge being easier to transmit, knowledge and scarceness of information is not an issue anymore. While accessing information is free, deliberation is not. It is said that not everyone understands the process of democracy. Therefore we don’t really need to make things too difficult, we just need to keep issues simple to enable different discourses for different people. A bunch of e-participation and e-democratic projects that use and integrate social media was presented. The citizen is back again on the playrole and people are participating again. A more direct approach from politics is to be encouraged.
Open Data Initiatives in some places are really difficult in terms of privacy protection. The competences of nowadays are more than just switching on our laptops (technological literacy). For creating e-awareness, informational literacy, digital presence and media literacy are equally important. Giving some examples of digital adoption statistics, Pena-López pointed out that whilst one third of the population uses the internet daily, only 8 % feel really really comfortable with it, the biggest problem still being found in the digital devide (as also stated by Andy Williamson before).
Online influences are now former offline influences. However, the internet is not changing anything, just people going online are. The good thing about having all the information available is the ability to choose. Giving the fact that e-literacy is much about abilities to choose, people are always conquering new spaces according to their literacies.
The discussion focused on the question whether (even with many people lacking sophisticated computer literacy) there could still be a chance of social interaction and of bringing together the competences of different people, creating a new social impetus.