Designing for democracy : end-user participation in the construction of political ICTs

Abstract: The Internet and related Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have been proposed as a way to vitalise (western) political democracy, currently marked by a decline in traditional forms of participation. Even if the Internet has established itself as a potential source of power and social change, the lack of clear results for democracy has left the initially mainly optimistic research community disappointed. Recognising the general lack of innovative ideas and successful examples of how to use technology for democratic purposes in the public sector, this thesis frames the notion of a ‘democratic Internet’ as a design endeavour that involves users of technological applications. The purpose of the thesis is two-fold: 1) to explore the possibility of engaging end-users, citizens and others, in the construction of public sector ICTs; 2) to identify a set of design recommendations for such applications, where promoting democratic participation is a central objective. It employs a qualitative methodology, and theories of participatory democracy, republican citizenship, critical theory, and Human-Computer Interaction, applied in a three-part study dealing with the production and usage of public sector ICTs. Three applications are investigated: a decision support system, a municipality’s external web site, and a central government web portal.Results show that there is a high level of awareness and concern for users and their needs among producers, which is for example reflected in the regular application of user tests. However, user-oriented design work is not always prioritised in terms of resources, formal knowledge, and expertise. Initiatives to promote usability and user-centred development are typically driven by civil servants rather than political directives. Motives for involving users in design have more to do with gaining acceptance for and improving existing solutions than innovation or democratic participation.The kinds of applications citizens participating in the study request to enhance political engagement partly coincide with what is offered by the examined public organisations. Still, it is clear that more remains to be done in terms of providing information, and even more so making public institutions open and receptive to the citizenry. Citizens, among other things, ask for accessible information on political institutions and actors, and dialogic uses of technology. Design considerations include the need to account for the fact that citizens-as-users represent diverse needs, recognise that levels of political and technological knowledge vary, enhance opportunities for exchange and mutual learning between citizens and public representatives, and aim for flexible solutions that can incorporate additional and changing needs over time.In general, participants gave proof of a critical distance to technology as well as an ability to contribute as both innovators and evaluators in a design process. A broad contextual approach to shed light on everyday political and technological practices, as applied in this study, is useful for exploring the needs users have regarding ICTs. However, future research has the task of investigating methods to facilitate creativity as well as citizen representation in public sector design work.Civil servants and representatives, using a decision support system in municipal planning and decision-making, are largely satisfied in terms of operation and structure of the application. However, timelier data delivery and other types of contents, for example opinion data on citizens, are requested. Wishes of this kind may not be easy to satisfy because of prevailing institutional and organisational priorities. The same is true when it comes to the employment of statistical data in municipal decision-making, which is not always well received by political actors. Design recommendations include taking closer heed of local municipal needs and non-expert users. It is also recommended that initiators and producers of decision support technology promote a pragmatic view of statistical data to increase its acceptance.