Does the Internet Really Empower Citizens?

Our friends over at the Kennedy School have added grist to the ongoing debate over the impact of the Internet on democracy and democratic processes at a symposium and launch of an important new book, Information Technology and Governance: From Electronic Government to Information Government. Many contributors to the book along with editors Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and David Lazer participated in the day-long symposium on November 14th, 2007 at the Kennedy School of Government.

With regard to enhancing citizen participation and government accountability through the Internet, some of the most interesting issues discussed in the symposium for the Internet & Democracy Project and our research are in the following areas:

i) Internet-based participation of citizens in government policy-making;
ii) Accountability of government through citizen’s access to relevant information about the government;
iii) The relationship between political mobilization and the evolving flows of publicly relevant information among citizens.

On the first issue, Cary Coglianese stipulates that while “electronic rule-making” has broadened opportunities for citizen participation, it has not really ”revolutionized” participatory decision-making, as many “techno-optimists” (as he termed them) predicted. However, Coglianese does see the possibility of a new information class that does not necessarily require physical proximity to decision-makers to exert influence.

Regarding accountability of government through increased public information, Herbert Burkert warns against the conventional approach of electronic governance in limiting itself mostly to citizen services and thus undermining the importance of providing relevant information to citizens to contribute towards government accountability. He argues in favor of laws and regulations that will require governments to disclose this information. He also emphasizes the need for civil society to be vigilant and use this information to its advantage in order to hold governments more accountable.

On the issue of political mobilization and the flow of information among citizens, Matthew Hindman takes a cautious view by saying that the information flow among citizens has not necessarily broadened the scope for political participation and mobilization significantly. The information flow is still limited within a certain elite information class.

Our hats off to the editors of the book for investigating these important issues that we hope will spawn further research into this important area—it certainly has given us much to think about in our own research agenda.

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One Response to “Does the Internet Really Empower Citizens?”

  1. marycjoyce Says:

    Thanks for writing this up, Mridul. Very useful.