Canny flag-waver for desktop democracy

January 10, 2003

How do we get people interested in democracy again? That's the question exercising the world's first professor of e-governance, Ann Macintosh, director of Napier University's International Teledemocracy Centre (ITC).

The Scottish Parliament is quietly pioneering the use of information technology to encourage participation in politics - too quietly, for Professor Macintosh. "I don't feel the Scottish Executive or Scottish Parliament speak up enough for themselves in this area," she said.

"I think they're missing an opportunity to show they're at the forefront of things."

Much coverage of Westminster's e-democracy strategy has focused on electronic voting, but Professor Macintosh warns that this is not in itself a panacea for apathy.

"It's not about increasing the turnout at elections and addressing political apathy. I'm personally much more interested in the other strand of the e-democracy strategy, what's called e-participation," she said.

The three-year-old Scottish Parliament is a leader among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development member states in using the internet for participation, consultation and information. There are webcasts not only of the parliament but also of committee meetings. There are e-consultations and discussion forums. And, uniquely, there is an electronic petition system designed and supported by the ITC. Any institution, group or individual can create an e-petition to lobby the parliament through a user-friendly ITC toolkit.

Hubert Grealish, who as Napier's student president organised an e-petition demanding the full implementation of the Cubie proposals on student support, said: "The beauty of this online facility is that it can bring democracy to people's desktops and let them play their part in the debate, rather than (them) having to root out a paper-based petition."

The parliament's initiatives are themselves crucial in taking research forward, Professor Macintosh believes, arguing that theory and practice must go together.

"The terms teledemocracy, digital democracy, e-democracy have been bandied about and researched in the theoretical context since the early 1990s. But when I started to look at the area, it was clear there was very little empirical work. It was mostly social scientists evaluating what could be done by the technology," she said.

"I wanted a two-way approach. I wanted the theoretical research to help the design of the system but I wanted the deployment of the system to help direct the research. I think that is what's unique at Napier."

Professor Macintosh was appointed to a chair in September in recognition of the ITC's success in developing e-democracy in Europe and the Commonwealth and her expertise is much in demand. During the winter term, she visited France, the Netherlands, Canada, the US, Belgium, Greece, Denmark, Sweden and Mauritius.

Funding for much of the centre's research comes from the European Commission's Fifth Framework programme and she is disappointed that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council is not a sponsor.

"The Economic and Social Research Council has its whole e-society agenda, and social scientists have the opportunity to gain considerable funding to look at e-participation and e-democracy. It's a shame the EPSRC can't match that so that we could go down this route together," she said.

But e-democracy must only ever be one option, according to Professor Macintosh. During an e-consultation, she ensured that policy-makers were able to read contributions at any point, checking, for example, particular postcode areas. But the ITC also produced a paper report on the pros and cons of the process.

The technology used for e-consultations was developed for bulletin boards and news groups and needs a rethink in her opinion. "It's basically just a threaded discussion, so finding your way through can be quite complex. We need visual techniques to highlight the ideas and arguments."

New ways of e-promotion have to be found, to tell people a consultation is going on or a petition is there to sign. "People think the internet is great. In fact, it's a very passive medium. It doesn't go to anybody, it just sits there."

The ITC has been experimenting with, for example, putting clickable banner advertisements on sites such as neighbours.com as part of a consultation with young people. "I'm particularly concerned with young people because although they have the technology skills, the way they use them is very much what I would call a push-button reaction. They sit in front of Big Brother and, depending on how they're feeling at the time, they vote somebody off. It's an attitude rather than an informed decision," she said.

The ITC organised e-elections for the Highland Youth Parliament, which brings together secondary pupils from Scotland's most scattered population. It then worked with the teenagers to design an online debating forum.

"It's not just about a system, it's trying to let young people experience debate. Let them experience putting forward their point of view, having somebody come back and say: 'I don't agree, here's my point of view,' so that they agree a compromise. Or, if a compromise can't be reached, they understand why it went against them," Professor Macintosh said.

The ITC is also developing the content and moderating the discussions in the Ur'Say channel launched by Young Scot, an information, rights and discount organisation. It aims to encourage young people to get to grips with issues and help them get involved in constructive discussions.

"What we're trying to do is provide young people with content that engages them, so it's speaking their language, but it does have a serious intent behind it. In some respects, we've lost the skills to debate and consider options."

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