The New Politics: E-Government

The author sees information technology as a method for government to be more visible and responsive to citizens. A paraphrase of the principle that "media is the watchdog of government" suggests that it's necessary for people to keep an eye on their leaders, and ensure their best interests are being served. There is the suggestion that the media has been compromised by its own commercial interests and the political agenda of those who control media outlets, and the Internet is a way to re-establish a free and objective flow of information.

In addition to a watchdog function, the government is a vast storehouse of information of all kinds to which the public has legal access, but no practical way of tapping into it. Many government services are underutilized because citizens aren't aware of them.

Independent of government is the ability of people to communicate freely and organize themselves, and using communication technology facilitates both.

EN: An axiom the author does not address is that these things assume a democratic form of government is preferable. The free flow of information is a bane to totalitarian forms of government, and even to the power of a representative government. This is taken as self-evident in the west, though there is the detrimental effect of mob rule as well as the bread-and-circus mentality of the voting public.)

Getting What You Want from Government

The author draws a distinction between two levels of government: the local government that provides for tangible needs (roads, schools, police, water, parks, etc.) and the national government that deals with more abstract needs (civil liberty, space exploration, and the like), with some provision of common goods that cannot be effectively handled on the local level (social security, environmental protection, national defense, transportation infrastructure). This varies among nations, with some of the smaller countries (in terms of physical size or population) doing on the national level what is done at a local level in larger ones (the example of the French police being national, or health care in Canada).

There is some argument that networked communications have made it easier for information to be shared, and it is now feasible (and efficient) for the national government to take on tasks that were previously feasible only at the local level. Others argue the opposite: that the ability to communicate a will enable separate, local governments to share best practices and collaborate when it is efficient to do so, in order to retain local control but gain economies of scale. The author does not take a side.

The author then provides examples of the kinds of resources state and local governments are currently offering, and it turns out to be fairly extensive, especially considering the year the book as published (2002). However, it seems to vary greatly according to location: some states, cities, and schools provide only a smattering of information, others provide quite a lot, and the author advocates coordination and sharing of information and resources.

Getting the Government You Want

It is difficult for an individual to get his particular desires fulfilled by government because the nature of democracy is majority rule. Technology cannot overcome this, but it provides useful tools for helping the individual citizen to communicate his position to others in an attempt to build consensus, which will facilitate getting them heard and possibly fulfilled.

The task of building consensus is difficult and time-consuming, but results in the "refinement" of an idea. The next generation of software tools could do much more than e-mail to enable people to communicate and share ideas in order to develop sufficient support for an idea to be hashed out to a point that is agreeable to many, hence worthy of legislative consideration.

An example the author creates, a little farfetched but possible, is that a citizen with a complaint (we need a stop light) is able to access information online to substantiate his claim with research (the number of accidents at that intersection), contact people who live in nearby neighborhoods (who presumably use the roads in the area) to get them to sign a petition in support of his solution, and present the idea to the city council electronically.

Open Deliberation

There is some debate over the usefulness of open deliberation - whether it results in a popular consensus that derives from rational debate, or if it's just gives a sounding board to kooks and loonies who want to bully others into supporting their crazy ideas (EN: a paraphrase, of course, but that's at the heart of it), and organizing discussion was the goal of the parliamentary process.

The concerns/criticisms of open discourse of the Internet is that it circumvents that process, and is chaotic: conversation is disorganized, no-one pays attention to what others are saying, and it tends to be emotionally charged. The author suggests that "design innovation" could address these concerns (EN: I think this is dismissive of the problem - design facilitates the user's intended behavior, but does not control how the user chooses to behave).

He expounds on the asynchronous nature of newsgroups and discussion boards, as opposed to "live chat," which is often chaotic.

There's also a brief nature that the anonymous nature of communication makes people a bit bolder, more reckless, and less well-behaved. But at the same time, this overcomes discrimination against or deference to individuals based on any factors external to their speech.

Another reference to Preece: to "promote sociability" in online communities, you must create a community of users, make the purpose clear, and provide a code of conduct. (EN: even communities who do these things can fail. A lot depends on the participants' willingness to be civil to one another).

There is some debate on access - that Internet access belongs to the social elite (an argument made moot by the expansion of them medium and its ubiquity to anyone who cares to use it), excludes the disabled (which is an accessibility issue that design can, in fact, address), those who speak different languages (translation software can address this), the illiterate (which is valid - but their contribution is seldom valid, anyway).

The chief problem, then, is civility and order in discourse, and the author contends that an "online Robert's Rules" is needed. He alludes to usage/conduct policies, and concedes that better moderation is still needed, though a community focused on purpose is generally less unruly (work groups and industry associations working on genuine issues).

The counterargument is that control for the sake of civility becomes censorship when moderation is controlled by "like-minded individuals who merely enforce their beliefs" and seek to stifle opposing views.

There is also the issue of having an open discussion among millions of citizens, especially since it's difficult enough to control a small group, and since the desire of powerful organizations to use politics to control the public is as subversive (and more damaging) as the individual merely seeking to cause chaos.

In practical terms, political parties and candidates make extensive use of the Internet for campaigning and fund-raising, which at least provides for the average citizen to be better informed and more able to engage their representatives. But at the same time, politicians are just another interest attempting to draw attention and money, and will engage in spamming and push-polling to use the Internet to their advantage.

The author also alludes to a "special case" in which government agencies have used the internet to solicit comments fro individuals, giving them a voice they previously lacked, and the author seems in favor of more extensive use of the Internet to enable agencies to have direct access to the citizens they serve.