The digital citizen as partner in eGovernance : ambitions and institutional realities

University dissertation from Örebro : Örebro University

Abstract: This cover paper summarizes the research conducted in the period from June 2011 to January 2013 as part of PhD work. It belongs to the field of eParticipation, often considered to be a sub-domain of the eGovernment field. More generally, eParticipation stands for citizens’ participation in the processes of public service provision at its various stages. It is not limited to activities involving government but also includes bottom-up citizen participation like social networking, blogging, video sharing etc. The focus of this thesis is government-initiated eParticipation activities. The rationale for focusing on government-owned channels of eParticipation is that they, unlike e.g. opinion formation in social networks, normally have a direct link to the formal process of decision-making. This means that the citizens’ input provided via government-managed eParticipation tools would be expected to be formally processed by the government and integrated in some way into the policy-making activities.The status of government-initiated eParticipation is not impressive by any standards; regardless of numerous trials and gradual progress, governments still use the new media in their interaction with the public in a quite tentative manner. This occurs against the background of the rapidly changing communication landscape, such as the rise of the social Internet, which governments need to embrace in order to catch up with the public and stay relevant to their citizens. Therefore this research asks the question: how do governments handle the challenge of delivering more and better eParticipation? By "more and better eParticipation" is meant including forms of participation which utilise state-of-the-art communication technology as well as enhancing the role and influence of the citizenry in the decision-making process. "Digital citizen as partner" is the conceptual framing of such enhanced presence and leverage of the wider public in the democratic affairs of the state. In sum, this research looks into the development practice of ambitious eParticipation activities with the view of understanding how – with what degree of success and failure, and why – governments implement this change.The research is based on the analysis of a single project using case-study methodology. The selected case is the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which was launched on April 1, 2012. It was bound to become the first trans-European agenda-setting mechanism; 1 million citizens can by signing an initiative propose a new EU law. Of particular interest in this study was the eParticipation element in this project, namely the online collection of statements of support across EU. Hence the research inquired into how this technological component was shaped by the institutional forces, including organisational behaviour, institutional logics, political agendas, regulatory frameworks etc. The research refers to such theories as systems view (dimensions of eDemocracy shaping, dynamic socio-technical eGovernance system); political value perspective (models of eDemocracy, values in participatory policy-making); stakeholder analysis (genre taxonomy to capture perceptions). The research is reported in three research publications, including a literature review of eParticipation (Paper 1), a conceptual study of the case (Paper 2), and an empirical investigation of the start-up phase of the project (Paper 3). The fieldwork included document studies, interviews, and observations carried out in the period of March through August 2012 in EU institutions in Brussels.The main findings of the case study can be summarised as follows: in its initial configuration the ECI created major constraints to effective citizen participation online. This was due to the disproportionate requirements for using the procedure, such as for example expensive system setup and liability for data breaches. The root cause, as the analysis of policy-makers’ rationales showed, lay in the way the tool was designed. This in turn could be traced to the institutions’ failure to handle the socio-technical complexity of the eParticipation procedure, i.e. focusing on the technical solution without properly considering the social environment of its use. The research proposes a number of measures which can be conducive to more effective eParticipation design, such as for instance enabling genuine collaboration with external stakeholders and seizing opportunities for learning and adjustment in the organisational setup of public institutions. In general the conclusion is that the strategic and operational sides of developing eParticipation need better alignment; a visionary eDemocracy idea like the ECI would require a more entrepreneurial attitude and processes within government to implement it effectively.The contributions of this research are relevant both for the practice and theory of eParticipation development. In the practical dimension this research shows how the design – understood broadly as the regulatory framework governing the use of the tool – which is conditional on internal institutional variables, can affect eParticipation. Therefore understanding the attitudes and actions of the ‘insiders’ – politicians, public officials, technologists – can be crucial for developing ICT-supported democratic procedures. Such focus on the collective mental models of decision-makers regarding eParticipation is not quite common in eParticipation research and practice which makes this thesis particularly relevant. In relation to theory this cover paper also has important implications – it addresses a gap in the eParticipation literature concerning the changing role and behaviour of traditional public institutions under the conditions of new media and the transforming relationship with the increasingly more digital citizenry. The research also puts an eParticipation case against the background of eGovernance by applying a model therefrom (a dynamic socio-technical view of eGovernance) onto the development of the ECI as an eParticipation opportunity. By doing so the cover paper tests the model and further elaborates on the interaction between the social and technical dimensions using the case as an illustration.

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