Debate 2

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Date: Class 5. March 6, 2007

Students presenting: (4-6 people)

  • Scott Lesowitz
  • Chris Conley
  • Atsushi Okada
  • Cynthia Robertson
  • Andrew O'Connor

The Question

"Resolved: E-Government is a lot like Al Gore’s ‘reinventing government’ initiative when he was Vice-President: sounds like something that governments should obviously do, but no one much cares and the impact on society, after lots of effort, is negligible. There’s no special magic to governing in a digital age."

Topic: Citizenship and Governance in a Wired World.

Dan Gillmor and Yochai Benkler have each written compelling books that bear on what it means to be a citizen in a digital age. Consider this puzzle from another vantage point. What does is mean to govern in a digital age? Are there any examples that make a compelling case for the imperative that those in power ought to use Internet as a key tool in how they govern (consider what new governor Deval Patrick or new attorney general Martha Coakley are up to locally, in Massachusetts)? Or examples where citizens are using the Internet to improve how those in power govern (like the work of the Sunlight Foundation and those it supports)?

Arguments in Support of the Resolution

Arguments Opposed to the Resolution

A copy of the Power Point presentation that accompanied this debate in class is available in the Collaborative Files Section of this course's MyHLS page. To view the animation in all its glory, go to Slide Show > View Show, then use your arrow keys to move forward and back through the presentation. The animation will be triggered at appropriate points as you move through the slides.

What is E-Government?

The term "e-government" refers to the government's use of information and communications technologies (primarily the internet, but also including other communications technologies such as cellphones and PDAs) to disseminate and/or receive information from citizens, businesses, or other governmental actors. [1] Ideally, e-government would enable government to better inform its citizens, enable citizens to better monitor governmental actions (transparency), and provide a simple, effective means for citizens to express their views to governmental actors and even engage in ongoing deliberation with these governmental actors and other citizens.

One of the threshold questions of e-government is whether it should seek to improve or supplement representative democracy by increasing communications between elected representatives and their constituents, or whether it instead should supplant representation and encourages direct democracy through mechanisms such as electronic polls, collaborative policymaking, and the like. To date, most efforts at e-government have focused on improving the representative system by encouraging greater efficiency and communication within the existing governmental paradigm; however, some forms of direct democracy, such as electronic petitions, have been proposed and may have been more successful to date.

In addition, there are many variations on the mechanisms and restrictions associated with e-government. Initiatives to date have utilized a wide range of communications mechanisms. Some of these mechanisms, such as podcasting or websites, are merely new delivery mechanisms for content generated by the government. Others, such as email, blogs authored by politicians, and forums or message boards, permit a controlled exchange of information between the government and citizens. Instant messaging and chats may permit a less controlled exchange of information. Online polling and surveys can be used to solicit citizen input into government initiatives or processes. Finally, collaborative tools such as wikis can be used to enable cooperation among citizens or between citizens and government. [2]

Ultimately, the effects of communications are more important than their form. The promise of e-government can be fulfilled only if the information shared between government branches and citizens is used to improve the operation of the government in some fashion, either by making it more efficient in delivering services or by increasing political accountability and democratic activity.

Examples of E-Government


Does the Internet help to prevent corruption?

  • Congresspedia
  • Mzalendo: Eye On Kenyan Parliament A citizen blog for parliamentary oversight that has become a portal for revolutionary (by Kenyan standards) citizen interactions w/ government. Through Mzalendo you can access full text Bills, general resources regarding government operations, and even the MPs

Collaborative Policymaking

The Hansard Society: Digital Dialogues

The Hansard Society conducted a series of six case studies of examples of e-government in Britain and issued a report called "Digital Dialogues."[3] The six case studies were:

  • The Department for Education and Skills runs a number of surveys every year.[]
  • Minister of Parliament and Secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs David Miliband runs a blog where he makes posts roughly every other day about political issues (mainly those pertaining to his department)[4]. Users could post comments in response to MP Miliband's posts. Ideally MP Milliband could engage in an ongoing dialogue with his constituents through the comments section.
  • The Department for Work and Pensions created an online forum to enable the agency to engage in a dialogue with citizens about welfare reform in preparation for an upcoming policy paper on welfare reform. Ideally, feedback and ideas from users would affect the content of the policy paper.[5]
  • The Department for Communities and Local Government created an online forum to solicit comments on local government issues that were likely to be addressed in an upcoming policy paper.[6]
  • The Department for Communities and Local Government conducted a webchat with local government officials.[7] This was part of a campaign of summits where employees of the department discussed local government issues with local leaders. The web chat was used as a substitute means of communicating with local leaders in remote towns in order to save time and money.
  • The Food Standards Agency setup an online forum to create a dialogue with small caterers to help the agency in improving the pack designed to help small catering businesses comply with sanitary regulations.[8]

Related Discussions

In our research, we came across some materials that, although not directly on topic for our debate, are worth a look if you are interested in getting a broader perspective on e-government and e-democracy.

  • Does Participatory Culture Lead to Participatory Democracy? - Does the burst of participation in culture on the Net lead to greater participation in politics and democracy? If so, what are the connecting points? Links to webcast of Berkman Center event with guest David Weinberger. An audio-only podcast is available here.