E-Democracy – Opportunities and Challenges

e-democracy - Gaby Umbach

By Giancarlo Vilella (EP Fellow 2018-19) and Gaby Umbach (RSC part-time Professor)

The opportunities and challenges of e-democracy form central reference points for any reflection on modern participatory democracy and on the future of democracy itself. The workshop ‘E-democracy’ we organised on 25 January 2019 at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies contributed to this debate and analysed the impact of technology on governance, participation, citizenship and statehood.

Giancarlo Vilella framed the overall debate by elaborating on how technology can support democracy to become more responsive and responsible. As central elements, digitalisation, the right to access documents and data and privacy protection can help to increase transparency of and knowledge about political activities. These fundamental building blocks can also help to increase the quality of participation and the level of responsibility in modern democracy. Giancarlo further asked how the role of representative institutions is changing within this context: e-democracy and e-participation have a direct impact on the relationship between citizens and elected representatives/politics in general that is no longer interlinked merely through elections, rare direct contacts or sporadic assemblies. Through the participatory tools of e-democracy, the electorate can connect to the political process and the activities of their elected representative throughout the policy cycle. Representatives can re-connect to their electoral basis more directly and at any given time to deliberate directly on their preferences and to evaluate their interests for political choices to be made. While affecting the relationship between elected and electorate, such forms of e-participation do yet not substitute the representative by the represented as a manager of public affairs. As general alternatives for political deliberation, e-democracy and e-participation tools yet require a general “technology literacy” of all citizens in order not only to represent citizens’ preferences, but also to be representative for their interests. Access to technology and knowledge on technology use (both supported by the policy-making level) are hence essential elements of every effort to enhance e-democracy and e-participation. Consequently, public investment in ICT infrastructure and literacy is a condition sine qua non of modern e-democracy.

Following this introduction, four presentations focused on practical implications and benefits for political parties and policy-making (Vice-President of the European Parliament Fabio Massimo Castaldo); on transparency, openness and citizens’ participation (Professor Diana-Urania Galetta, University of Milan); on an assessment of e-participation tools (Dr. Theo Karapiperis, European Parliamentary Research Service); and on global citizenship and ‘cloud communities’ (Professor Liav Orgad, CitTech, RSC and WZB). During the roundtable chaired by Professor Gaby Umbach, Vice-President Castaldo underlined the impact of new technologies on the political work and on political decision-making in general. He hightlighed that the European Parliament (EP) accepted the challenges deriving from the changes in participation patterns and wished to play a central role in the development of future opportunities, also by supporting technological capabilities of citizens. E-democracy, in his perception, was a gradual process towards more and better tools and methods to increase e-participation. Related to the use of technologies he yet issued a word of caution: technological solutions for e-participation were inherently neutral. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ use of such technologies was the outcome of actors’ objectives and strategies and should hence be analysed with great care. Professor Diana Urania Galetta added that transparency, access to documents, data protection and participation were key instruments to foster openness of the political process and as such formed the foundations of good governance. In her assessment, she yet differentiated critically between the overall abstract concepts and their concrete implementations. While desirable in their abstract form, their concrete implementation carried huge material and immaterial costs for societies: not only was the right to access a huge burden for the public hand; also the amount, type and form of documents and documentation resulted in a huge complexity, that – at worst – confused rather than informed citizens. Instead of fostering transparency, good governance and accountability, waste of public resources and frustration of citizens were the results. Focussing on a 2018 EPRS study on e-participation, Dr Theo Karapiperis illustrated how STOA, the European Parliament’s Panel for the Future of Science and Technology, is analysing existing practice in e-participation across countries and political levels. A qualitative comparative analysis of 22 case studies, accompanied by 45 interviews with organisers and researchers focused on the impact of e-participation tools on the political or policy agenda or on the final decisions. The study’s results of the study revealed criticism on their capacity to act as policy instruments (lack of direct or indirect political or policy impact), while their impact as civic instruments (added personal value for participants; support for community building) were underlined. Based on its results, the study also extrapolated how such digital tools could be transferred to EU level. Professor Liav Orgad presented insights from his new CitTech project focusing on the potential impact of new digital technologies on global citizenship and on the development of alternative forms of state-based political communities, so-called ‘cloud communities’. Taking up the SDG target 16.9 on legal identity, he elaborated on the opportunities of e- and virtual democracy to contribute to the aim of providing legal identity for all, including birth registration. Digital identities could not only provide solutions for statelessness and refugee situations; they could also for the basis for a global e-citizenship that would add to existing multilevel identity patterns. Elaborating on the detachment of territory and (certain) state functions, virtual (rather than e-) democracy could provide additional layers to differentiate and extent citizenship patterns. As the overall workshop, also the discussion chaired by Professor Brigid Laffan was strongly characterised by a productive exchange between the political and the academic levels. It took up important arguments of the presentations and focused on questions of virtual scrutiny, enforcement and security; neutrality of technology and populism; neurological limits of information processing; representation, representativeness and the tyranny of minorities; the role of the private sector; and questions of i-democracy (i.e. electronic voting).

The workshop has shown that the concept of e-democracy indeed embraces multiple elements that materialise several of its development stages: e-governance, right and access to information, e-participation, e-voting, development of virtual democracy. While the jury is still out to decide on the real impact and the best possible usages of e-democracy, the potential of the approach to enhance self-sovereign digital citizens and to advance citizenship in general seems little contested.

Recording of presentations

Photo Gallery