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Digital Democracy in the 21st Century City

By Timothy Sisk

From Athens to Asuncion, from Singapore to Sydney, cities around the world today are at the forefront of harnessing information technologies to transform the way the governments relate to citizens. Cities of the emerging 21st century have proven particularly adept at designing opportunities for digital democracy, in which citizens are offered a new interface with government - over the Internet. Every sophisticated city today is expected to have a great web site, offering services and information directly to its people with easy access and without government red tape. But delivering information services is only part of the picture.

Local governments and civil society groups around the world are innovating to improve citizen involvement in decision-making, to enhance transparency and good governance, and to organize social groups more effectively. The upshot is that the Internet allows local authorities to reach their constituents with services, information and opportunities to have a say in policy making.

"There are exciting new digital democracy experiments that point to the ICT's ability to enhance local democracy."

At the leading edge of such innovation are moves to use the Internet in electoral processes, in particular 'I-voting' (Internet Voting). Can the powers of the Internet reinvigorate local democracy by promoting effective communication with citizens?

While the jury is still out, there are exciting new digital democracy experiments that point to the Information and Communication Technology's (ICT) ability to enhance local democracy. Powerful ICTs offer practical possibilities for conducting meaningful digital democracy. Innovative methods for consultation have already seen success; I-voting seems inevitable in the near future as an alternative to casting ballots in person or via traditional mail. Clearly, technological change is having a dramatic and significant effect in opening new avenues for deepening democracy in today's cities.

Pilot Projects

One of the most innovative of the digital democracy initiatives is the Kalix Rådslag, an online consultative process to design a new city square for this far-northern Swedish town. To glean citizen input on various options, the city government worked with an information technologies company ( to undertake a systematic survey of public opinion through an Internet-based survey and public discussion. More than 1, 200 citizens participated in the 'virtual' dialogue. The online dialogue, together with more traditional methods of citizen engagement, led to the adoption of a widely popular design for the municipality's new city centre.

Contrary to popular opinion the developing world is not inevitably stuck on the 'have-not' side of the so-called 'digital divide'. According to Internet-innovator Vikas Nath, the potential of the Internet in developing countries lies in its ability to transform societies through the rapid and efficient dissemination of knowledge. Drawing on a variety of illustrative case studies of Internet and broader ICT (particularly mobile phone) use in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cameroon, and other countries, Nath and others show how ICTs have radically transformed opportunities for direct citizen involvement in governance issues directly related to the process of socio-economic development.

Linking Cities Together

In other parts of the world, municipal associations have been the creative designers of digital democracy projects at the local level. The International Union of Local Authorities (IULA) is a global association of elected officials, whose mission is to represent the interests of those responsible for municipal governance. IULA's secretariat has accumulated a wide range of experience on the challenges and opportunities local officials face in introducing ICTs into their primary roles in local democracy development.

Among the most promising experiments in digital democracy currently are: providing more efficient delivery of information-related government services; linking municipalities in regions, nationally, and across international borders; building trust through more transparent decision-making, for example by broadcasting local council meetings online; providing opportunities for direct citizen communication with elected officials; and providing a one-stop 'portal' or entry point with easy navigation to the full range of government information from myriad city departments and offices.

Similarly, Internet innovator Steven Clift is the designer of a fascinating new project, Using Internet-based communication technologies for public dialogue outside of official channels, but involving officials with the citizenry, Clift has helped build public trust in and commitment to governance - often known as social capital' - in Minnesota and other local settings in the United States. The emphasis of this approach is on democracy as a deliberative process, in which issues are fully aired, opinions gathered, and policy options are explored.

Online Voting

Nothing has the ability to transform local democracy more than the potential use of the Internet for voting. Can information technology revive direct democracy by the people? If it is to begin anywhere, municipalities in Switzerland will be in the lead.

In 2002 the canton of Geneva is slated to experiment with the world's first binding vote - a referendum - in which the electorate has the option of casting its vote online. The projected experiment has raised a number of practical issues, such as security and fraud prevention. Survey data shows that the opportunity to vote online may increase participation in elections by as much as 9%. I-voting also raises a number of normative issues, such as whether direct democracy (decision making by popular majorities) will become more predictable if citizens can easily vote on issues before the community. The vote will decide more than just a referendum question. It will help resolve whether I-voting is just a new convenience, or whether it might fundamentally alter the nature of electoral participation and thus democracy itself.


From these and other experiences, recommendations are beginning to emerge to help cities think through the implications of digital democracy for improving governance.

  • Dedicated leadership is critically important. For the local authority considering a consultative process using new information technologies - such as a municipal 'discussion board' or online 'threaded discussion' (allows users to post comments and to reply to others' remarks) - dedicated leadership is essential. In other words, civic groups and citizens asked to participate in such processes must clearly believe that they will make a difference.

  • The people's agenda should drive the consultation. Another clear lesson learned is that citizens are more likely to participate and voice their interests and concerns when the topics they are addressing are directly related to their lives. For example, in conducting dialogues about community budgeting processes, it should constantly be stressed exactly how the numbers related directly to the practical interests of the citizens.

  • Citizens must be shown that the views they express really matter. When the perception exists that the consultative process is not genuine, or that the views shared do not matter to public decision-making, the effort will run aground. An innovative practice in some cities is the dedication of a portion of city council meetings to providing direct and quick responses to queries or opinions submitted over the Internet; some cities have begun webcasts (Internet broadcasting) of 'virtual town hall' meetings.

  • Civil society can sometimes reach out to marginalized groups. Where trust in local authorities is low, civil society organizations can reach out to marginalized groups in the community. Examples include efforts to use minority-language Internet sites to improve relations between city officials and minority groups. Cities in the Netherlands - particularly Amsterdam and The Hague - have seen very successful efforts by community organizations to reach out to immigrant and other minority populations.

  • The most important obstacle to harnessing ICTs for local democracy building is uneven access. Access is a prerequisite, demanding more widespread service and information literacy. In most countries, and particularly in the developing world, access to online services is limited to the wealthy few. Experience from Andra Pradesh in India shows that concentrated efforts to invest in the community skills base can lead to important payoffs in basic information-age literacy and skills development.

  • Citizen apathy is a problem to be confronted. The best efforts at using information technologies to stimulate community dialogue will fail if citizens simply do not care about the issues that confront them. In particular, citizens will find online dialogue useless, even annoying, if there is the perception that the conversation is idle chat, that the views expressed will not make a difference in the long run, or if 'politics as usual' prevails.

A Look Ahead

"Cities are where democracy began in the first place."

The 21st century will continue to witness urbanization at a rapid pace, especially in the developing world. As access to information technologies becomes more widespread, as it has in Costa Rica for example, the ability of cities around the world to more effectively, and positively, touch the lives of their citizens grows enormously. Developing digital democracy in today's growing cities is a promising avenue of democratic development, offering the real potential to reinvigorate citizen awareness and participation in municipal decision-making. After all, cities are where democracy began in the first place.

Modern, urban life can be alienating, leading to popular apathy and unwillingness to become involved in community affairs. The answer to apathy is a demonstrated commitment by local authorities and civic leaders to reach out and practice 'deliberative democracy', in which the views of all are heard and efforts are made to reach community decisions that are mutually beneficial to all segments of the population. Digital democracy, through online communication, may not be a panacea for strengthening democracy; but we already have seen the leading edge of new trends and techniques that portend the critical role that digital democracy will play in governing cities in the 21st century

Timothy Sisk

Timothy Sisk is the principal author of Democracy at the Local Level: The International IDEA Handbook on Participation, Representation, Conflict Management and Governance (Stockholm: International IDEA 2001). He is associate professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver (USA).




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