When local organizer Beth Greenhorn received an e-mail notice about a Global Day of Action, she was able to pass on the details to 200 activists — with the click of a mouse. One of the Ottawa links in a larger Canadian network — which is connected to an even larger network of American groups such
as No War and Win Without War — Greenhorn helped organize a Code Pink Alert anti-war demonstration in Ottawa in March. On the appointed day, 3,000 protesters showed up in front of the American Embassy — many of them clad in pink. In the U.S., advocacy hub MoveOn says its e-mail list has grown from 350,000 to 700,000 since August, when it began urging the Bush administration to exercise restraint in its conflict with Iraq.
Such is the potential of e-democracy: to transform government and bring together elected officials, political parties, media, interest groups and citizens. Though still in its infancy, e-democracy will evolve as e-government — and the technology itself — evolves. The potential is for more responsive government, greater accountability of public servants and a greater sense of citizen engagement. But it will involve redefining the role of citizens, as their awareness of political events and the political process evolves. And some people are wondering if there’s enough political will to open up decision-making to outside players — especially on big issues, like whether or not Canada should go to war.
Donald Lenihan, director of the Centre for Collaborative Government in Ottawa, says there’s a huge opportunity to change the practice of democracy on a number of levels. “”Government Web sites are largely passive tools right now, but the next generation is already beginning,”” he says. But he doesn’t expect citizens to suddenly start logging onto their computers and engaging in lively debate with local politicians. Instead, he believes e-democracy will appeal to people whose jobs revolve around influencing or changing government. What remains to be seen, Lenihan says, is how governments will use e-democracy on issues of public importance. He says the federal government could use technology for democracy purposes in three ways: to create a space where citizens can express their views; to consult with Canadians when making decisions; and to let Canadians be part of that decision-making process. E-democracy tools are already being used to test public opinion on particular issues, as well as to influence policy-making. The Government of Canada, for its part, says it’s committed to finding new and innovative ways to consult with Canadians. It launched a pilot site called Consulting Canadians, which was live until April 30, to provide single-window access to consultations from selected government departments and agencies. This included a dialogue on foreign policy. Citizens were able to review background material from international experts and make comments via e-mail. The site says all contributions will be carefully considered: “”They become the reference material for the final dialogue report to be presented to Canadians by Minister Graham in June. All contributions are also carefully considered for a weekly Dialogue Report, posted on this site and circulated to the Minister and other policy makers.””
James Molnar, a partner with BMB Consulting Services in Ottawa, says to make e-democracy work, citizens need to understand how the process works, what the rules of engagement are and who the intermediaries are (and what their role is). “”An interesting question will be the extent to which aggregators of opinion and influence develop on the Internet as stakeholders in our e-government but outside of the federal government sphere,”” he says. This includes groups such as public opinion research organizations and public affairs consulting firms, as well as advocacy groups representing certain constituencies organized around specific issues.
Molnar says elements of e-democracy have been applied at each level of government. The Canada West Foundation has published a report on Electronically Enhanced Democracy in Canada, which suggests that “”local government may prove to be the cradle of electronically enhanced democracy in Canada,”” with online politics at the federal and provincial levels continuing to fall short of expectations. It expects this will change once a single portal is launched, where citizens will be able to interact seamlessly with all levels of government.