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Some applications of information technology to citizen participation in politics.

Michael Macpherson


In many prevailing systems of government, citizens are allowed to participate only by voting once in several years, politicians are remote from their electors. Incompetence of politicians, corruption and bribery are not seldom and vital decisions are made behind closed doors. In some countries the introduction of citizens' rights to initiate laws, to call referenda and to be consulted on (mainly local and minor) decisions has gone some small way to compensate for these deficits of "representative" democracy.

The ideal that all members of a community or "polis" should be able to participate in reaching common decisions has often been dismissed as impractical (especially where large populations are concerned, but also for other reasons). A "town meeting" for Moscow, even for New York, is dificult to conceive. With modern technology it is theoretically possible to allow all citizens to inform themselves about public issues and to vote on them electronically. This was a dream since the early days of telecommunication and has been proposed in detail (compare Bertold Brecht; Etzioni 1972). For the citizen, modern ICT, especially computer networks such as the Internet, have vastly increased the speed and volume of communication, and the ease of access to information. Internet and Usenet discussion fora and the World Wide Web contain much political information and analysis. There is much talk "on- and off-line" about the chances of ICT to improve citizen participation in political life, which because of the new electronic media may assume new and surprising forms (Pl@net 1996, Macpherson 1997a, Welzel 1998).

For purposes of this article I will concentrate on potential reform of the "rich", western-style democracies.

A remark about assumptions. This author takes the view that, in all contemporary countries and governing systems, improvement in quality of collective decison making, and of policy implementation (how government works) is possible and desirable.


A description and evaluation of citizen participation and the new electronic communication media, must in my opinion be placed in the context of debate about democratic systems in general. (Many of the controversies in this debate are old or very old, some have been re-activated because of developments in ICT.) Firstly, the tension between representative and direct democracy. I prefer to use the term "delegatory democracy": delegates or elected groups may represent their electorate well or badly. It has often been asserted that in social groups which are or become larger than a village or small town that it is impractical, inefficient, not feasible or even impossible to design and operate a system in which every enfranchised person has the right to co-decide on issues of public concern, e.g. policy, laws, implementation of decisions. Before the emergence of ICT these arguments against participative democracy seemed more convincing, especially for very large units such as cities or states. Without wishing to consider the controversy about direct versus delegatory democracy at length here, I offer the following. (Note: No doubt there are "hidden agendas" behind some of the different proponents' cases. For instance, politicians in favour of innovations may judge that electronic voting and easier communication with voters would enable them to more readily raise a majority for their own personal campaign. Others, opposed to innovation, may fear for their autonomy of rule or that their failures may be revealed. Lobby organisations or populist politicians or political movements may believe that it would be easier to convince a broad public to support their cause, were it to be formally empowered in a direct form of democracy, than it would be to persuade parliamentarians or government ministers.)

The delegatory model is by far the most prevalent. It appears that elites and publics, in many countries, quite unthinkingly, support a "representative" system as the only possible democratic form. Why is this? Often representative systems of governance arose in direct or indirect continuity with monopolies of power of one sort or another, which had been originally established (maybe centuries ago but in some cases recently) by violence, war and conquest, corruption, trickery, treachery or heredity (e.g. monarchies and aristocracies, juntas of one sort or another, leaderships of revolutionary parties). It may appear natural, having moved a little away from some type of dictatorship or other, and perhaps having struggled for more freedom and justice, to support a "new" system in which leaders may from time to time be rejected and replaced by popular vote. But many of the old institutions and hierarchy, usually patriarchy as well, have been taken over and accepted. Critically seen, because parliaments are often weak, the party system in modern democracies may be regarded as a form of government in which the people are allowed to choose a ruling regime, effectively consisting of a few dozen, or less, prominent leaders (or, in those countries in which the parliamentary system works well, perhaps a few hundred leaders). Having been elected, this "regime" is often criticised for being mainly responsive to its "entourage" (in modern times the powerful financial, industrial, sometimes religious lobbies) with the voter having almost nothing to say, with no effective contact to government, parliament or executive in the periods (during which all supposedly collective decisions are made) between infrequent elections. (For historical perspective on modern democratic systems see, regarding Britain, Ascherson 1994 and, regarding the United States of America, Costello 1996.)

My above picture has been painted in a "polarised" way for purposes of illustration. For instance, the partial, mediating, balancing role of organisations to which the interests of sectors of the community are delegated (e.g. trade unions), the specialised lobbies (e.g. to protect environment; for guns) and existing elements of direct democracy (e.g. referenda, mentioned elsewhere) have not been brought in. I leave the reader to judge whether the picture reflects her or his experience.


Capacity of parliament to control government, and the degree of independence of MPs from party discipline (in some systems imposed by members known as "whips"!) vary from country to country. Matters of intra-governmental and parliamentary reform, and relations between legislative and executive, will not be treated at all fully here. Suffice it to say that ICT may extensively change the ways in which government works (van de Donk 1995), and may alter the relationship between elected representatives and administrations, as illustrated in a Finnish municipality (Asunmaa 1996). Also, the "informatisation" of government and administration has considerable implications for the citizens who are the "consumers" and "owners" of these organisations. There may be some benefits in terms of ease of citizens' access to delegates, officials and to some forms of public information. There will also be increased difficulty for "outsiders" (most citizens) because of increasing complexity of the information and the ICT systems used to store and manage it. The "corridors of power" (from the title of a well known book by C.P. Snow), already locked to the ears and eyes of most citizens, perhaps "Kafkaesque", become increasingly "virtual". Also, this informatisation of government and public administration (not to mention private and corporate information gathering) makes central control and manipulation of citizens and populations potentially much easier. There is the danger of "the glass human-being" (German: der glaesernde Mensch) and a system of "Orwell in Athens" (van de Donk 1995). This pithy book title implies that ICT can bring benefits but also dangers for freedom and democracy.


Elements of direct democracy are already practised. Only brief comments can be offered here. The rights of citizens to propose laws in parliaments, also to initiate and take part in referenda on local or national issues, and to be consulted about community planning etc. vary widely from country to country. Suffice to say that should the practice of calling referenda already exist then it would be relatively easy to introduce electronic voting and, in my opinion more importantly, also to enrich the processes of information, discussion and deliberation about the issue in question, during the run-up period to the referendum vote.

Note that high barriers to referenda are often set, or they may be allowed only when called by the ruling group. Consultation of constituents has usually only been possible in small units e.g. villages, towns, small districts, and often limited to relatively minor issues (e.g. tax and financial questions may be excluded). Also, referenda and results of consultation may be only advisory, not mandatory on officials or delegates.

It is of interest to note that in Bavaria, Federal Republic of Germany, a movement to introduce the citizens' right to call referenda organised a referendum (already allowed by the Bavarian constitution) on this question at federal state level. A law allowing community (city, town, district) referenda was successfully passed, against the wishes of the ruling political party. Secondly, although there are strong components of direct democracy in Switzerland, the Swiss government recently rejected a proposal to introduce the option to vote electronically in elections and referenda. The proposal was rejected because it was felt that security of voters' identity could not be guaranteed. (Personal communication, H. Burkert, source: NZZ International edition August 21, 1996 p.25)

Many projects which aim to improve democratic systems, including some referred to in this lecture, relate only to representative democracy. There is little to be said against trying to improve existing systems. But ICT appears to offer the chance for citizens to begin to take over more responsibility for collective decisions, so reducing the need for indirect representation and allowing decisions, whether they be delegated or taken directly, to reflect more closely the will of constituents. How exactly the new models of governance will look can only be surmised. Some possibilities may be discerned in the decription of, and discussion about, participation projects and models of citizen participation, which I plan to mention later.


Functions of these applications may be classified as follows
a) Provision by parliaments, governments and public agencies of information for citizens, public and private institutions.
b) Enhanced interaction between parliamentarians and citizens.
c) Initiatives which aim to promote public debate and communication on matters of general concern, including ICT applications to citizen participation in governance and direct democracy.

As an example of a) Provision by parliaments, governments and public agencies of information for citizens, public and private institutions, probably the first major project to be established was THOMAS, the US congressional information system. The functions of this service are illustrated by Figure 1.

United States Congressional information system THOMAS

[ThomasJefferson logo] ]

In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson,
a service of the U.S. Congress through its Library.

* Full Text of Legislation
Full text of all versions of House and Senate bills searchable by
keyword(s) or by bill number.
o 103rd Congress Bills
o 104th Congress Bills

* Full Text of the Congressional Record
Full text of the daily account of proceedings on the House and Senate
Floors searchable by keyword(s).
o Congressional Record for the 103rd Congress
o Congressional Record for the 104th Congress
o Congressional Record Index for the 103rd Congress (1994)
o Congressional Record Index for the 104th Congress

* Bill Summary and Status [New]
Digests and legislative history of bills and amendments, searchable by
keyword, index term, bill/amendment number, sponsor/cosponsor, or
committee/ subcommittee.
o Bill Summary and Status for the 104th Congress

* Hot Legislation
Major bills receiving floor action in the 104th Congress as selected by
legislative analysts in the Congressional Research Service.
o Hot bills by topic
o Hot bills by popular and/or short title
o Hot bills by number/type
o Hot bills enacted into law
o Hot bills under Congressional consideration this week.

* The Constitution of the United States
The full text of the Constitution and its amendments, searchable by

* How Our Laws Are Made Edward F. Willett, Jr., House Law Revision
An explanation of the lawmaking process from the origin of a
legislative proposal through its publication as a law.

* U.S. House of Representatives
House World Wide Web Service, House Gopher, House Constituent E-Mail
Directory, and House of Representatives Audit (Office of the Inspector
General Financial Statements and Performance Reports).

* U.S. Senate
Senate World Wide Web Service, Senate Gopher, and Senate Constituent
E-Mail Addresses.

* C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network)
C-SPAN Gopher provides program schedules, Congressional information,
FEC Reports, Supreme Court information and historical government
documents. C-SPAN Web Server offers program and events schedules,
Campaign '96 info, and other political resources.
Updates: THOMAS receives text of legislation files several times daily
and the text of the Congressional Record once daily when Congress is in
session; files are processed and made available immediately upon
receipt from the Government Printing Office.


Examples of b) Enhanced interaction between parliamentarians and citizens appear to be quite widespread, especially in USA. Many candidates for public office both at the State and Federal levels have Internet presentations and e-mail addresses. Private projects and NGOs offer services to voters, aimed to help select candidates in elections. The California Online Voter Guide (CVF) (URL below), founded circa 1993, is mainly concerned with informing and, as their own description reads, "educating" citizens about matters closely related to the California state and United States federal elections. They write
"In providing this service, CVF sought to increase voter participation in the1994 election, and in future elections, and to give voters greater confidence in their ability to make informed choices", while at the same time develop a prototype of an online voter guide which could be used in other countries, states, and communities. The Guide was also designed to be used as an educational programme for schools. Relatively simple but important matters such as how to register as a voter and how to vote are explained. Information about election candidates, campaign funding, public issues (controversies) in state and federal elections and also in state-referenda, candidates for official positions such as judges of law, are offered. For example, candidates were asked to provide biography and list their qualifications for office, press releases, endorsements (statements of support by other persons or groups), statements of policy, speeches, and finally detail of how to contact the campaign for more information, or how to volunteer for campaign work! In Europe, a Belgian WWW-based site, Cybercrate (URL below), provides:
- background information about the system of government, with presentation of issues which have been debated in parliament, quoting the statements of MPs on the issues in question and showing how they voted on bills. Some issues are presented early, so citizens may add their voices to the debate before a vote.
- links to established citizens' groups concerned with social, environmental and political issues.
- electronic meeting space where users can bring in new topics, often resulting in lively debate.

Examples of c) Initiatives which aim to promote public debate and communication on matters of general concern, including ICT applications to citizen participation in governance and direct democracy. "Ordinary" citizens can start political initiatives from scratch with the aid of ICT. A small group of California activists opposed a 1995 ballot initiative on immigration reform. Within three days of setting up an e-mail list service, the activists had 600 subscribers. Within a week, the list had grown to over 1,000, and within three weeks, there were 40 rallies being organised on college campuses around the country. It has been claimed that a world-wide information and lobby campaign led to delay of an international treaty, the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investement MAI. (Internet news: Michael Gurstein <>, Nova Scotia). Using wide-area computer networks such as Internet and Usenet, citizens can set up theme-centred and/or geographically focussed "agora" (Greek: forum of citizens), linked to relevant information on-line and off-line. Such fora may help participants to clarify political views and to weigh the balance of arguments on issues of public concern. Policy proposals may emerge from the debates. An example of a local agora is Minnesota e-democracy (URL below), which combines e-mail with WWW to create a public forum. The rules of debate, resembling "netiquette", have been quite successful in avoiding conflicts and abuses. Substantial discussions on many topics have taken place and recently resulted in an organised political initiative (about public spending on sport), belying the reputation of political e-fora to be mere "talking shops". Electronic town halls have been organised, and candidates for office and elected representatives have visited on-line to debate with citizens. Based in Germany, an initiative for democratic reform which successfully uses ICT is Mehr Demokratie (URL below). This group aims, with some success, to promote direct democracy such as citizens' law-proposals (for debate and voting in parliaments) and citizen-initiated referenda. They run an informative and educative WWW site, list-server discussion groups (one for members, one open to the public) and an on-line journal. A campaign to protect and nourish local democracy, showing benefits of applying new communication technology, is running successfully in Toronto, Canada. Some basic principles are (quote) 1. Local government belongs to and should be responsible to the local citizens who elected it. Bill 103 imposes amalgamation on the cities in Metro Toronto, and must be opposed. 2. Citizens should have democratic control over education in local schools. Bill 104 imposes amalgamation of school boards in Metro Toronto, puts the control of local education until Year 2000 in the hands of appointed officials, and paves the way for cuts to education. Bill 104 must be opposed. (unquote) E-mail has been used for building and co-ordination of citizens' efforts. Electronic fora have aided exchange of information, debate and decision-making. World Wide Web sites are being used to inform and educate about the issues and about how to organise change democratically. The government is taking this campaign very seriously! Long term, much improved participation of citizens in Toronto's political system could result from this experience and example. Potential future developments of citizen participation in politics are discussed elsewhere (Macpherson 1997a and 1997b, sections 4.6, 4.7 and 5.5; Welzel 1998). See also FURTHER ON-LINE DEMOCRACY PROJECTS, below.


What may be predicted about participation of citizens in governance?

Information and communication technologies can contibute as follows:
- helping to alert and inform about public issues and associated law-making, also facilitating debate (e.g. citizens can be in a better position to intervene by approaching their MP before a bill comes to the vote).
- improving knowledge about candidates for parliaments and other public jobs, e.g. revealing their qualifications for office and political knowledge, their previous performance on election promises, campaign finance, which interest group they support (e.g. business, religion, "worthy causes" such as natural environment or political party).
- allowing the voter to vote in a more informed and critical way.
- enabling the citizen between elections to join in a public debate more easily, to intervene by writing to newspapers etc., even to start campaigns aimed at influencing public opinion and parliamentary decisions and to monitor election promises.
- allowing members of political parties to judge better the performance of their own delegates and candidates for public office
- encouraging and helping to empower citizens to be pro-active. Forms of expression may be: lobbying MPs, public officials and commercial enterprises; informing and educating others, publishing with WWW; moral appeals; protest and social movements, "non-governmental" organising; starting referenda or citizens' law-making; promoting the renewal of democracy itself.

The ease of communication and access to information now and in the near future has led some observers to predict that a new public arena or "agora" will emerge to aid collective decision-making. Some developments during the coming few decades may be:
- closer guidance of MPs and governments by public will, especially in the legislative periods between elections - compare "A political party guided by constituents?" (Macpherson 1997b - see sections 3.4 and 3.5).
- direct decision-making by citizens on at least some issues. Gradual transformation of representative "delegatory" democracy into a process with more deliberation and more involvement of citizens.
- electronic voting (a) to select candidates in elections (b) on laws and public issues, with direct decision-making by constituents on some issues.

Of course, deep changes in established systems of governance should not occur too rapidly and are unlikely to do so. However, many citizens do wish to participate more in matters which greatly affect their lives and the future. Information technology can help, although many other factors are important too.


Ascherson, N. On-line paper. Local government and the myth of sovereignty. Charter88. 1994

Asunmaa P.: e-mail message to Internet forum. Pentti Asunmaa <>/ Subject: IS projects in small municipalities To: Date: Mon, 22 Jan 1996 22:05:12 +0200 (EET)/ Archived at

Costello J. Towards a New Politics. Essay published in the electronic forum 19 Nov 1996. Essay available from (Joe Costello), (Marilyn Davis), (Michael Macpherson)

Etzioni A. Minerva: An Electronic Town Hall. Policy Sciences 3, pp. 457-474, 1972.

Macpherson M.J. Open Forum: Citizens Resolve 1997a. On-line paper
Auf Deutsch/in german

Macpherson M. La participación ciudadana en política y los nuevos sistemas de communicación. Psichologia Política, No.14 (May) 1997b, 77-119. Available in english as: Citizen participation in politics and the new communication media.

Pl@net: das Internet Magazine Virtuelle Politik. (Four articles in German on politics, social action and "cyberspace"/Internet.) Volume 9, pages 24-41, September 1996

van de Donk W.B.H.J., Snellen I.Th.M. and P.W. Tops (Eds) Orwell in Athens. A perspective on informatization and democracy. IOS Press New York/Amsterdam 1995

Welzel, Christian. Repräsentation alleine reicht nicht mehr. Sachabstimmungen in einer Theorie der interaktiven Demokratie. In: Schneider-Wilkes, Rainer (Hrsg.). Demokratien in Gefahr? Zum Zustand der deutschen Republik. Westfälisches Dampfboot 1998 ISBN 3-89691-422-7

URLs (Internet universal resource locations):

California Online Voter Guide
Cybercrate, Belgium
Mehr Demokratie, Federal Republic of Germany
Minnesota e-democracy





Switzerland Contact: Andreas B. Bucher e-mail

INTEGRAL STUDIES: citizen, society, polity

Democr@cy Forum




TAN+N Teledemocracy Action News and Network


Dr. Michael Macpherson, Psycho-Social and Medical Research (PSAMRA)

www address of this document (URL):

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