Literature Review of new Coleman / Blumler book: The Internet and Democratic Citizenship

I’ve just finished reading “The Internet and Democratic Citizenship; Theory, Practice and Policy (by Stephen Coleman and Jay Blumler) so this my research note for my literature review so there are some observations and then a wrap up from me….this is a long one so you may just want the highlights:

  • The analysis of the problem of democratic deficit and political disengagement is excellent

  • The authors are proposing a civic commons which is run by an arms length government organisation – something I am profoundly uncomfortable with

  • There is a lack of sophisticated interpretation of the social web and the implications of the social connections between individuals – they are still talking about websites as destinations rather than feeds and individual control

  • The idea of co-creation is not explored to the extent which I think it warrants.

For those of you with more interest in this here are the notes – or you can just jump to my conclusions. 

Overview and notes

In describing the necessary conditions for democracy the authors reference a useful typology of public participation which is from a 1999 work by Sue Goss which has 5 stages:

  • Giving information

  • Consultation

  • Exploring / Innovating / Visioning

  • Judging / Deciding together

  • Delegating / supporting / decision making

Which is interesting as it relates strongly the Arnstein work on the ladder of participation is echoes the model of participation which I want to describe for online spaces. They also reference Habermas’ 4 conditions for democratic deliberation but both of these things are really discussed in terms of how difficult it is to meet these conditions or in the modern world rather than in terms of how you can bring this conditions about.

Taking a network society view of the world they discuss the diminution of barriers of time and space but put forward the fact that problems of scale have grown – and with this grows the need for representative democracy as a practical response particularly when you take into account the limits of public competence to participate (p.22). The book then moves into a discussion of ways of using managed deliberation tools to support representative decision making and cites examples such as Citizen Juries (p.30) and then moves to talk about ways in which these tools may be used in a more dynamic and self-perpetuating way as opposed to specific contacts on isolated issues.

The second chapter develops the idea of the active citizen – but in my view associates this closely with media awareness rather than the formal engagement that you might see at the local level. The chapter is titled “the crisis of political communication” and I think highlights both the weakening the vigorous political journalism with the increased dependence on the media as the connector between citizens and politicians. Interestingly the authors also cite the professionalism of political advocacy as being a key trend effecting the citizen / representative relationship. I have not previously thought much about these new intermediaries in the democratic relationship but this is where the drive to a an “orchestration of communication activities and messages” (p.50) comes form and this is perhaps the strongest differentiator from native social web behaviour.

There is an interesting section about the presentation of politics as a ‘game’ which is slightly tangential to my interest but a good read! And a striking quote: “the average speaking time of the media’s own journalists was nearly twice as great as the average speaking time of politicians during the 2001 (US presidential) campaign” (p.56).

I also like the Hanna Pitkin (1967) analysis of political representation:

representing…means acting in the interest of the represented, in a manner responsive to them. The representative must act independently; his action must involve discretion and judgement; he must be one who acts. The represented must also be (conceived as) capable of independent action and judgement, not merely taken care of. And, despite the resulting potential for conflict between representative and represented about what is to be done, the conflict must not normally take place. The representative must act in such a way that there is no conflict, or if it occurs an explanation is called for. He must not be found persistently at odds with the wishes of the represented without good reason in terms of their interest, without a good explanation of why their wishes are not in accord with their interest.” (p.68)

In the ensuing discussion of representation the authors talk about the relationship between feeling connected and actually voting which effectively links the two states of connection and action which is very much what I am interested in. the supporting YouGov research is something I will look more at (p.73). There is also a useful analysis of the feelings of disconnection from politics felt by many people in the UK which feeds into the discussion around democratic deficit.

Chapter 4 has some useful stuff on the dangers of imposing democracy from above and the perils of pretending to consult when you are actually communicating. One specific quote encapsulates this: “from this perspective e-democracy from above can be read as a strategy for discipling civic energy within the constraining techno-political sphere of managed cyberspace” (p.115)

The next chapter discuss e-democracy from below and discusses the ‘Stop the War Coalition’ as well as BBC iCan and Netmums. Specific points that I noted where:

  • Whilst email and the web site have been crucial in forging a mass campaign with finite resources, we could not have sustained it without the organised support of local groups who meet regularly and hold frequent public meetings”. The capacity of civic and political networks to switch between online and offline modes of communication contrasts with political parties, which in almost all cases expect their online operations to be little more than marketing vehicles for organisations that can only ever possess legitimacy in a physical environment. (p134). [We shall have to see if this is still true after the next general election campaign!]

  • The analysis of the iCan failure I think shows that one of the elements of this failure was the separation of the civic and political spheres – more on this when we come to more Habermas.

  • The authors highlight a weakness of civic networks as being their lack of connection to institutional politics (p.135) but they also point out that this could also be a strength. This is an interesting point which I want to develop.

  • There authors seem to believe in specific locations for online engagement – i.e. that you have to seek it out (p.136). I believe that this ignores the idea of networked public’s and commons spaces.

Chapter 6 talks about ‘shaping e democracy’ and there is a useful piece about personal motivations and the need to understand traditional offline participation (p.154). This also needs to be developed elsewhere. There is also some interesting material around the conception of democratic spaces and references to Bauman and Silverstone (p.164).

The final chapter is really discussing how we can realise the full democratic potential of the internet. One of the most astute comments is “too often e-democracy has been promised in the name of convenience”. This really answers the people who try and make the eDemocracy debate one of process and channel and not one which looks at more fundamental issues around the relationship between citizens and politics. However, the chapter focus on the update of the idea of a civic commons in cyberspace – “an enduring structure which could realise more fully the democratic potential of the new interactive media”. The authors propose that this space be managed and run by a new kind of government agency which would be responsible for “eliciting, gathering and coordinating citizen’s deliberations upon and reactions to problems faced and proposals issued by public bodies (ranging from local councils to parliaments and government departments), which would then be expected to react formally to whatever emerges from public discussion.”. There are some further ideas within the description of the civic commons which should also be noted:

  • the public sphere is talked of in terms of being a connector rather than an integrator (p.179)
  • there is a distinction drawn between governance and government with the former having a far greater need for co-production (p.180)

  • There is a belief from the authors that the only way for the civic commons to be respected is for it to be independent from yet connected to government (p.195)

  • Cyberspace may well be the most promising domain in which the complex communicative arrangement of cosmopolitan citizenship can be nurtured

However even as they describe it the authors have concerns; “Thinking of a civic commons as a space of intersecting networks, pulled together through the agency of a democratically connecting institution, raises questions about the scale of such a project” (p.182)

But the final message is rather gloomy:

If the civic commons is a feasible and sustainable project, it is because thus far no better way has been found to gather the public together, not as spectators, followers or atomised egos, but as a demos capable of self-articulation” (p.197)

Conclusion / Comments

The analysis is excellent and the articulation of the problem of democratic deficit is one which I would subscribe to. However there are a few areas of thought where I would disagree with the authors:

  • The idea that a new government agency – however arms length from government – is going to be able to engage citizens with politics is in my mind deeply flawed for two main reasons:

    • There is no track record of government ever being able to instigate self-sustaining online engagement. The only sustainable models are from campaigning or hyperlocal examples and this must be taken into account when planning any approach in this area.

    • Distrust of government will translate into distrust of the space and its creation by an agency makes this inherent

  • Another major concern with the book is the author’s perceptions of the internet and how they are describing it. They still seem to be stuck in a destination website view while the nature of web 2.0 / social web means that the idea of destinations for debate are much reduced. Much of the online conversation is being managed through status updates and feeds rather than destination sites. In order to tap into most people’s lives there is a need to engage with people where they are rather than asking them to come to a new space.

But my final concern is that this model still looks at democracy as something which is done to people, and more than that, is done from Westminster and central government. Now, I am not naïve about the difficulties of engaging with people and I am very aware of the problems of lack of capacity within the citizen body. However – if we do not hope to involve people more and equip them to be involved then I think we are giving in to a major problem in our society and not truly addressing the underlying issue which is the tension between the need to both involve people and equip them to be involved. As can be seen from the rest of my work I strongly believe in the importance of online civic spaces but these need to be co-produced with citizens and not run by external agencies.

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