Using ICT to Improve Democratic Processes

Mike Bowern


Electronic democracy is one of a number of terms which Michael Saward refers to as ‘prefix-democracy’, many of which are used in the academic literature. The purpose of the prefix is to define and describe a particular subset of the vast array of democratic theories and ideas.

In this paper I use an interpretation of democracy based on its literal meaning of ‘rule by the people’. In this interpretation, therefore, representative democracy is an oxymoron, and direct democracy a tautology. Industrial or corporate democracy are terms indicating specific areas where some theory of democracy might be applied, for example in the workplace or in a business. Prefixes, such as participatory, deliberative, and discursive, describe specific activities in a democratic system.

The term Electronic (or e-, cyber, digital, etc) democracy falls into its own separate category. The definitions of these terms typically include reference to the use of ICT in democratic processes, sometimes focussing on voting, for example electronic voting. Often there are specific references to the internet, and in these definitions they frequently imply on-line participation by citizens in their democracy.

I believe that electronic democracy has a tendency to focus on the ‘electronic’, rather than on ‘democracy’. For example, there is on-going debate about the problems of electronic voting machines, but there is little focus on the problems that electronic voting is trying to solve. We should be identifying ways to use ICT to improve democratic processes, that is to enable ‘rule by the people’ to be fulfilled. This paper proposes such an improvement, using an example from Australia.

Australia operates under a Constitution which defines the powers of the federal Parliament. The Constitution was voted for by Australian citizens, and it can only be changed by the people, through a national referendum. The Australian Constitution gives the Parliament the power to make and amend laws in specified areas. Some of these laws provide the rules for the administration and operation of the Australian democratic system, for example who is allowed to vote, and how elections are to be conducted. However, there are no democratic processes to enable citizens to comment on these electoral laws, or to give their consent to them.

This means that the elected members of parliament set the rules about how they are to be elected, and it is quite possible for this power to be abused. For example, as happened in Australia in 2006, the electoral act could be amended to close the electoral roll on the day an election is called, rather than waiting at least a week before closing it. This would result in a substantial number of citizens, particularly young people, being disenfranchised, because they could not get on the roll. The outcome of this could be to reduce the votes for one political party, thus benefiting another.

The objective of this paper is to describe a method, which includes the use of ICT, to curtail abuse of power by elected representatives, through the participation of citizens in setting the rules for running their democracy. This will be a democratic way to enable citizens to have more control over their representatives, and more participation in the decision procedures of their society.

In his paper Enacting Democracy, Saward argues that a different view of democratic theory is required, one which takes advantage of some of the ideas behind the wide range of models and theories of democracy. He proposes an approach, which draws on much of the previous work on democratic theory, to develop ‘binding collective decision-making procedures’. A collective decision-making process would comprise certain stages, namely: agenda setting; debate and discussion; the moment of decision itself; and the moment of implementation.

Each of these stages draw on what Saward calls devices, which are inherent in the various models and theories of democracy. A ‘device is a mechanism that plays a part in constituting a more or less formal procedure by which binding collective decisions are reached for a political community’. Saward gives a number of examples of devices, related to systems of representation and methods of voting; deliberation and other ways for participation; and methods of implementation and review of the decision. Some of these devices are well known and established, such as elections for representatives, and voting. Other devices, such as protected public spaces of civil freedom, and the need for pause or delay in the procedure, are less familiar.

Multiple devices are sequenced in a decision procedure, using the stages identified above, ‘so as to evoke and enact democratic principles’. Saward nominates four principles which are often invoked as being fundamental to democracy, namely: political equality; inclusion; expressive freedom; and transparency.

Saward’s approach provides a framework within which a specific decision procedure can be developed, to address a specific problem, such as government abuse of power; or an innovation, such as a citizens’ initiative for greater political equality.

In Saward’s paper there is no mention of technology, which is not to imply that ict does not have a role to play in new decision procedures. His focus is on the procedure itself, and the need to include democratic principles. When these are understood and defined for a particular issue, then the role of ict can be defined.

This paper applies saward’s method to the specification of a decision procedure to enable citizens to have a say in the legislation which defines their democracy. It identifies the issues to be addressed, the devices used in the various stages to implement this decision procedure, and the role that ICT might have in these devices, particularly to ensure that the four democratic principles are followed.