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E-Governance and E-Democracy: Questioning Technology-Centered Categories

Abstract and Keywords

This article comments on the assumption that e-governance and e-democracy are essentially policy decisions made by governments to improve governance practices and revitalize democracy, and that these projects materialize by implementing new information and communication technology (ICT). It investigates the social and political context within which these projects emerge, and evaluates the role of technology discourse in the legitimation of a given political culture and a given constellation of power. The article proposes an alternative model which sees e-governance and e-democracy as contradictory trends, and explains that a project of e-governance might actually exacerbate the democratic deficit which e-democracy is set to solve.

Keywords: e-governance, e-democracy, policy decisions, governance practices, ICT, political culture, democratic deficit

E-governance is commonly conceived as the first and necessary step in revitalizing democracy. It promises to make government practices not only more efficient but also more open and interactive, to make information more accessible, and to shift power from government to individuals. E-governance is therefore seen as leading to e-democracy (described here as the evolutionary model) or at the very least as compatible with it (the complementary model). This chapter offers a critique of these prevailing theses by questioning two of their fundamental assumptions: that e-governance and e-democracy are essentially policy decisions made by governments to improve governance practices and revitalize democracy, and that these projects materialize by implementing new information and communication technology. Instead, I propose to take into account both the social and political context within which these projects emerge, and the role of technology discourse in the legitimation of a given political culture and a given constellation of power. Rather than follow policy-defined conceptualizations, I argue that we should identify and criticize the problematic assumptions behind those concepts and offer alternative, more theoretically based, concepts by uncovering the broader social transformations of which these policies are part. In light of this critique, the chapter concludes by offering an alternative model (the contradictory model), according to which e-governance is not necessarily compatible with e-democracy, and a project of e-governance might actually exacerbate the democratic deficit that e-democracy is set to solve.

(p. 570) Electrifying the political: the rise of e-governance and e-democracy

The development of information and communication technology (ICT) has led to a growing interest in e-governance. E-governance, the management of government and governance practices through the use of ICT, is assumed to make government more accessible to citizens and strengthen communication amongst citizens, civil society and market players, and government agencies. Due to its networked nature, ICT also holds the promise to reinvigorate the democratic process by providing the material infrastructure required to make democracy more direct, or representative democracy more participatory, by engaging citizens in consultation and deliberation (Chadwick 2003; Ron, Chapter 33, this volume). E-governance, with its ability to foster participation may lead to e-democracy (Fischer, Chapter 32, this volume).

The integration of communication networks and the Internet into virtually every sphere of life has rendered ICT an ecology to be reckoned with by all its inhabitants (Poster 1997). The question has shifted from being one of adoption (how one might use ICT) to one of adaptation (how one is transformed by ICT and reacts to it) (Bryant 2007), and discussions on e-governance and e-democracy emerge in this context. According to Nugent (2001), e-governance entails a few distinct, but interrelated facets: computerization of intra- and intergovernmental agencies’ systems, online publication of government documents and information, interactive delivery of services online, and creation of communication channels between government and citizens and amongst citizens (Nugent 2001). Bryant (2007) outlines four aspects of e-governance: government computer systems, Web-based service delivery, transaction handling, and e-democracy. And UNESCO sets out the goals of e-governance as improving the internal organizational processes of governments, providing better information and service delivery, increasing government transparency, reinforcing political credibility and accountability, and promoting democratic practices through public participation and consultation. In accordance, three fields of implementation of e-governance are identified: e-administration, e-services, and e-democracy (Budd and Harris 2009).

Such conceptions of e-governance see technological systems as the enablers of a new type of governance. These new technological tools are presumed to make government not only more efficient but also more democratic. They include first and foremost the Internet, which increasingly serves as the virtual arena within which digital applications are implemented, as well as more specific applications such as online forums, e-mails, websites, and open source initiatives. This represents a prominent outlook, which sees e-governance as contributing to the revitalization of democracy, or even to the creation of a new form of e-democracy. A weaker version of this outlook sees a tight link between e-governance and e-democracy, that is, that the two are compatible (the complementary model). A somewhat stronger version sees e-governance as a (p. 571) preliminary step, leading toward e-democracy (the evolutionary model). In the following, I will synthesize key tenets of these models, analyze their problematic assumptions, and offer an alternative model.

While acknowledging the diverse “economic and political reasons underpinning” the integration of ICT into government systems, Gunter (2006) nevertheless argues that they are compatible with one another: ICT makes public service delivery more efficient but may also help in re-engaging “politically alienated electorates in civic processes.” According to him, democratization by technological means takes place at two levels: governing practices themselves become more democratic (i.e. open and transparent), and these in turn contribute to a process of democratization of politics in general. E-governance makes government more consumer-oriented, facilitating more individual empowerment, participation, and interactivity. By conflating consumerism and citizenship Gunter is able to think of e-governance and e-democracy as complementary. “E-government,” he says, “would therefore open up government administrations and render their internal processes more transparent and accountable … Government organisations’ web sites are required to be citizen-focused … sites must contain devices designed to make it as easy as possible for users to find the information or services they seek” (Gunter 2006: 366). In other words, the mechanisms of e-governance, produced by pressures to be more consumer-oriented and follow market logic, also lead toward greater democratization.

An even more direct link between e-governance and democracy is suggested by the evolutionary model, according to which e-governance develops through stages that are defined almost exclusively in technological terms. As government websites become more interactive, allowing citizens more active engagement, the level of e-governance is conceived to be more “advanced.” The most developed stage of e-governance also becomes a starting point for e-democracy: “At the final stage all departments and government organizations in the country are brought together in a unified government portal, which offers a complex of different services for the population. The portal gives citizens an opportunity to take part in online discussions, comment on policy and legislation proposals and vote online. Ideally at this stage e-government may be used to further the means of democracy” (Netchaeva 2002: 468).

Commonly, e-governance and e-democracy are described as comprised of a sequence of three steps. The first two steps are the presence of government agencies on the Web, followed by the ability of citizens and businesses to conduct transactions with government. The third step—making government interactive—is assumed to be a springboard for e-democracy, that is, for revitalizing civil society and the public sphere (Kampen and Snijkers 2003). In this model, then, e-democracy is seen as an evolution of e-governance, which in turn is founded on ICT. Indeed, two classic works in the literature see e-governance and e-democracy as outcomes of the adoption of technology: Nolan and Gibson (1974) describe a process through which organizations learn to utilize computers, and McFarlan, McKenny, and Pyburn (1982) describe a process by which organizations assimilate technology. In both cases, technology is conceived as an environment to which systems have to adapt (Bryant 2007).

(p. 572) The ultimate stage of e-governance, then, combines efficiency with democracy, allowing cheaper, more efficient channels of transactions between government and citizens/businesses, and enhancing democratic participation. Netchaeva (2002: 469) summarizes this position thus: “in the final stage e-government portals perform two main functions: to help the population in their everyday life (online services) and provide citizen participation in the democratic process.” However, Netchaeva points out that these are in fact distinct issues: “On the one hand, e-government is an instrument for better governance … On the other hand … IT use in governance may intrinsically change relationships in society, help to achieve real democratic means and even transform people's social and political consciousness” (Netchaeva 2002: 469). What, then, is the nature of the link between e-governance and e-democracy that allows these dominant models to conceptualize them as complementary or even evolutionary? Two interrelated “media” are assumed to make e-governance conducive to e-democracy: information and communication.

Information, communication, and democracy

Underlying these models is an assumption that information is a vital component for better communication, which in turn enhances democracy. Hence, the digitization of information (which makes information more accessible) is assumed to better democracy. The most oft-quoted theorist in this context is Jürgen Habermas. His abstract formulation of the public sphere (1991) seems to come alive and materialize with ICT. Froomkin (2004: 3) emphasizes the role of information in Habermas's theory of democracy, and sees in the digitization of information a vehicle to fulfill the Habermasian promise. According to Froomkin, “an informed and engaged citizenry enriches the political process in at least two ways”: stimulating better decisions by the political echelon, and legitimating the process of decision-making by the very act of mass participation.

Habermas suggests that the forces for such democratic revitalization are likely to come from “a reenergized, activist, engaged citizenry, working together to create new small-scale communicative associative institutions that over time merge into larger ones, or at least join forces.” Habermas recommends decentralization “in order to allow pluralistic decision making” and to “counteract the ‘generation of mass loyalty’” sought and increasingly achieved by political parties and states. The Internet, which facilitates information flows, decentralization, openness, and interactivity, seems to fulfill the abstract demands put forth by Habermas for a vibrant public sphere. The Internet—particularly tools such as social networks and online forums—is seen as a technological response to the democratic deficit which has been infecting Western societies (Froomkin 2004: 4).

Froomkin sees the Internet as a technology for democracy, since it facilitates discourse and enables communicative action. He points to the democratizing effects of technology forms such as hardware, blogs, and wikis. Arguably, the most popular claim about Internet hardware is that its distributive architecture makes it inherently (p. 573) democratic (Benkler 2006). It is precisely this position that brings up the specter of a digital divide since inequality in Internet access and digital literacy hampers inclusion and participation and hence diminishes legitimation (Norris 2001). In the most technologically advanced democratic nations, however, the digital divide is becoming less of a problem (Froomkin 2004). Blogs are another democratizing tool since they allow everyone to express themselves. Moreover, the networked nature of the Internet facilitates conversations because bloggers link to each other. By interlinking diverse voices, blogging—“a medium that is architecturally one-to-many”—is thus rendered “effectively a hybrid, a peer-to-peer conversation with many eavesdroppers.” Froomkin predicts that the blogosphere may “evolve into a miniature public sphere of its own.” Lastly, Froomkin hails wiki and other collaborative drafting tools as enhancing democracy, arguing that the very act of collaboration requires democratic deliberation (Froomkin 2004: 10).

But it is not simply the ease of communication that encourages Froomkin to conceive of the Internet as a technology for democracy, but also the availability of information. Froomkin (2004) argues that open government initiatives (such as government websites) that improve information flows between government and citizens also improve discourse—hence contributing to democracy—since they allow more access to information, which is a key ingredient for a full-fledged public discourse. The trouble with the digitalization of government, according to Froomkin, is that it is not participatory enough, that not enough has been done “for the direct integration of the popular will into political decision-making processes” (Froomkin 2004: 15). This requires the construction of new tools and structures “that enhance democracy, supplement debate, and encourage citizen involvement in what ultimately will be more like, and feel more like, self-governance” (Froomkin 2004: 16). Practices involved in e-governance, then, which are essentially about the presentation and delivery of information, turn, according to this account, into self-governance or e-democracy, by serving as a basis for better, more informed communication, or better discourse.

Noveck (2004: 21) follows suit on the notion that Internet architecture is inherently democratizing. She notes that deliberation involves “a special form of speech structured according to democratic principles and designed to transform private prejudice into considered public opinion and to produce more legitimate solutions,” a definition reminiscent of Habermas's notion of communication in the public sphere. According to her, the Internet could enhance democracy not simply because it allows people to express themselves, “but because software can impose that structure that transforms communication into deliberation.” The very structure of technology can transform social practices: “Democratic rules of conversation can be ‘coded’ into the software itself to ensure, for example, that each participant speaks once before anyone else speaks again”; the normative components of an ideal deliberative procedure are inscribed into technological procedures.

Information flows, both between citizens and government and amongst citizens regarding government, are the crux of e-governance, according to Mayer-Schönberger and Lazer (2007). They identify three distinct meanings to e-governance in the literature. At the very minimum e-governance means that government services become available online. This “transactional approach” focuses on the ease with which transactions are made between citizens and government; for example, paying bills online. A second approach sees e-governance as a further rationalization of the bureaucratic machine, making the public sector more efficient. In this case as well, the Internet is seen as a tool to “achieve better government,” and to improve the internal functioning of government agencies. A third approach to e-governance points to the potential of incorporating democratic processes into e-governance. Mayer-Schönberger and Lazer (2007: 5) approach this multiplicity by offering the notion of information government as a “conceptual lens that offers a complementary perspective to understand the changing nature of government and its relationship to the citizenry.” They focus on information flows because, at heart, governing concerns acquiring, possessing, storing, and deciding upon information. Information is a source of power; more so the more a society becomes informational. In that approach as well, e-governance and e-democracy are seen as complementary, as interrelated outcomes of improving information flows. If information as such—“independent of the medium,” as Mayer-Schönberger and Lazer (2007: 6) are careful to point out—is at the heart of governing and democracy, how do ICTs nevertheless transform governance and democratic practices? According to them, “[ICTs] allow for much greater malleability of how information might flow.” The greater malleability makes governance more flexible, “moving from pyramidal, silo-based structures, to more decentralized, networked (in terms of information flows) systems” (Mayer-Schönberger and Lazer 2007: 7). It also transforms information flows between government and citizens, making them more intense, two-directional, and hence democratic.

Chadwick (2003) articulates one of the most developed positions of the complementary/evolutionary model, upholding the close link between e-governance and e-democracy. The claims made on e-governance and e-democracy, he argues, are “steadily diverging,” as “public administration scholars, public policy analysts, and public management specialists focus on e-government, whereas political communication specialists, social movement scholars, and democratic theorists sharpen their analytical tools on e-democracy.” This divergence plasters over the link between the two processes: “contemporary digital ICTs facilitate new forms of e-government-enabled public sector policy making that enshrine some of the important norms and practices of e-democracy.” New developments, he argues, create a reality in which “the practices and norms of e-government and those of e-democracy become intertwined” (Chadwick 2003: 444). Chadwick finds even the most instrumental aspects of e-governance—such as the marketization and consumerization of government—democratizing, proposing that “public services exposed to the same kinds of stringent tests as private sector firms operating within the realm of e-commerce will in the long term become more responsive to the demands of their users or customers … ” Chadwick, then, sees in the integration of market mechanisms into the operation of government via ICT, a move toward democratization: “e-government brings government ‘closer to the people’ by meeting (p. 575) the expectations of service users regarding convenience, accessibility, and timeliness” (Chadwick 2003: 445).

But Chadwick indicates that e-governance includes more radical aspirations, which “seek to use ICTs to incorporate citizens’ deliberation into the initial stages of policy development or the very process of ‘reengineering’ public services … this form of e-government would entail a radical overhaul of the modern administrative state as regular electronic consultations involving elected politicians, civil servants, pressure groups, and other affected interests become standard practice in all stages of the policy process” (Chadwick 2003: 445). Here, then, lies a promise that e-governance will transform into e-democracy, the more its procedures become open to citizens’ involvement (Chadwick 2003). Chadwick outlines four points of convergence between e-governance and e-democracy. The first is “the integration of e-democratic activities in civil society with policy-making processes.” Such activities transform how government operates: “E-government potentially blurs the distinctions between executive and legislative functions by creating opportunities for citizens to have direct political influence on public bureaucracies in ways that have not existed before” (Chadwick 2003: 450). The second point of convergence concerns the role that e-governance and e-democracy play in the internal democratization of the public sector: “Flatter hierarchies of more creative and cooperative officials permanently plugged in to wider informational networks that organically include the online presence of citizen groups and affected interests is thus one way of injecting e-democratic practices into e-government.” The third point of convergence concerns what Chadwick calls the “politics of convenience”: “In seeking to emulate the private sector by capitalizing on shifts in consumption patterns … e-government reformists forecast the demise of monolithic and cumbersome state provision. In its stead will emerge a newly flexible and dynamic model of the public sector that will give users, in all their post-Fordist diversity, what they want … The effects of these developments … are not the erosion of citizenship values but their metamorphosis into forms more suited to postindustrial politics.” The convergence of e-governance and e-democracy transcends the purely consumerist benefits, “as customers not only have a greater choice but come to play a role in the design and delivery of public service themselves” (Chadwick 2003: 451–452).

The fourth and last point of convergence between e-governance and e-democracy is “the context for the design and maintenance of the hardware and software that allows e-government systems to run.” For example, the adoption of open source software is “predicated on the argument that cooperative and collaborative sharing of expertise results not only in technically better software but also socially and politically progressive technologies that are more flexible, transparent, and cost-effective to maintain.” Chadwick upholds the architecture of ICT as inherently liberating and democratizing; if e-governance adopts these technologies, the argument goes, the democratizing benefits will percolate toward e-democracy as well: “the intrinsically democratic values of open source … would align the public sector with an already existing culture of voluntarism that exists in cyberspace … ” (Chadwick 2003: 452).

(p. 576) Questioning e-governance and e-democracy

Notwithstanding these dominant views, which see e-governance as complementing or even evolving toward e-democracy, I wish to outline an alternative model, which sees e-governance and e-democracy as contradictory trends, by questioning these concepts as analytically and theoretically viable. This questioning revolves on two critical objections: the fact that e-governance and e-democracy are analyzed as government policies, and the technologically centered outlook dominating the analysis. My argument is that rather than accepting and following these policy-defined conceptualizations, we should identify and criticize the problematic assumptions behind them and offer alternative, more theoretically based concepts by uncovering the broader social transformations of which these policies are part.

Two origins of the concepts of e-governance and e-democracy are an important starting point for such discussion. One is the popular discourse on ICT that emerged during the 1980s and 1990s, which heralded the ushering in of a new society, where old practices and institutions are reinvigorated, improved, or completely revolutionized by ICT (Fisher 2010). One of the symbolic emblems of such an approach is the prefix “e-,” added to virtually any existing institution to pronounce the transcendence of the pitfalls and limitations of old practices by their “electrification”: e-commerce, e-learning, e-publishing, and so forth. E-governance and e-democracy are part of that lineage. Another important source for the emergence of these concepts was governments themselves, which were trying to catch up with the technological revolution, and became the main purveyors and proponents of e-governance and e-democracy (Gunter 2006).

These two historical coordinates of e-governance and e-democracy—as government projects and as technological fixes—should also serve as leverages for some critical reflections, presented here along two arguments: (1) that e-governance and e-democracy are not merely technical and technological issues but are part of a political project that involves a reconfiguration of power relations; and (2) that ICT is not merely a material expression of instrumental rationality but also a discursive category that legitimates this new political constellation. To set the stage for these arguments we first need to consider the relations between politics and technology.

Technology discourse and political legitimation

Uncritically employing the notions of e-governance and e-democracy, one can easily slide toward a “technologistic” view, which gives precedence to technology over other sociological coordinates (Robins and Webster 1999). Such analysis tends to be deterministic and oblivious of the social power structures within which technology is developed and implemented. Such a viewpoint is clearly evident in an analysis that forecasts that (p. 577) “the Internet will revolutionise democratic systems” (Wright 2006: 236). Even more careful and nuanced analyses tend to put the “e” of e-governance at the center, thus inevitably ending up reifying technology. Actually, to account for e-governance one should “forget” technology, and depict the web of social power relations and institutions within which technologies are caught up. An effective route to do that is by shifting attention from technology as a material tool, to technology as discourse. This approach suggests that technology discourse—the common truths, models, and frameworks about technology and about the meaning of living in a technological society—is not simply a reflection of the centrality of technology in the operation of modern societies, but plays a constitutive role in their operation, and enables that centrality. Technology discourse is a projection of social realities through which transformations of political, economic, and social nature are filtered (Heffernan 2000).

With modernity and the harnessing of technology to capitalism and the state, technology discourse has come to play a central role in the legitimation of a techno-political order, that is, a political order legitimated by technology and techniques. In this political context technology becomes an unquestionable “good,” a “religion” (Noble 1999), and a “myth” (Robins and Webster 1999: 151; Mosco 2004), which suggests that virtually any social problem is subject to a technical and technological fix. Furthermore, technology functions as an “ideological tool that mystif[ies] mechanisms of power and domination” (Best and Kellner 2000: 376). In this vein, Habermas (1970) points to the substitution of technical and technological discussions with their emphasis on instrumental rationality, for political debate based on communicative action and aimed at arriving at substantive rationality. The role of politics is reduced to finding the technical means to achieve goals that in themselves are understood to lie outside the realm of politics (Habermas 1970).

In the context of contemporary political culture, then, rather than theorizing the transformations entailed by the rise of e-governance solely within a technologistic framework (i.e. as a consequence of the introduction of ICT into government practices), they should be understood as social and political transformations brought about with the aid of—and legitimated by—ICT. Viewed in this light, e-governance could be examined as a new technology discourse, which emerges concurrently with shifts in the nature of governance itself. E-governance emerges at an intersection of momentous transformations: the decline of the welfare state and a crisis in the legitimacy of welfarism as such; the shift from the Keynesian, interventionist state, which regulates and manages large parts of the economy, to the neoliberal state, which deregulates, privatizes, and generally takes a step back from the market; a revenue crisis of the state; the opening up of national, protected economies to a global market; the marketization of social relations, including the privatization of public goods and the rise of consumerism; the rise of postindustrial politics, based on image, persona, and personal connection between voter and politician; and an exacerbation of the democratic deficit characterized by low rates of participation in democratic politics and a deepening legitimation crisis (Budd and Harris 2009).

All these entail new relations between three arenas of action, key to the political scene of Western capitalist democracies: the state, the market, and the public sphere. In this (p. 578) intricate triangle, there has been a growing dominance of the market vis-à-vis the other two arenas: not only did the market gain more power, but the state and the public sphere were partially refashioned in accordance with market principles. The decline of social democracy and the rise of neoliberal democracy in the last few decades have been accompanied by the rise of the practices and discourse of governance. The literature on governance makes this broader political context clear. Bevir (2011) points to the correlation of governance with markets and networks and explains governance as a result of the withdrawal of the state and the rise of market mechanisms and market players (or otherwise non-governmental agencies) in the provision of social services and in processes of policy decision-making. Governance signifies a new way of ruling and ordering, which essentially displaces the old way of governing by governments (Rhodes, Chapter 3, this volume). It signals the transfer of governing practices from government to non-governmental actors such as citizens, groups in civil society, and businesses (Lobel, Chapter 5, this volume).

Rhodes (Chapter 3, this volume) succinctly posits that governance entails “the changing boundaries between public, private and voluntary sectors,” that is, “the changing role of the state.” ICT plays a central role as a facilitator and enabler of this shift, as it is presumed to allow a more distributed and collaborative form of governance. In this context the discourse on networks that displaces the discourse on states emerges (Rhodes, Chapter 3, this volume; Bevir 2011). And in this context, the Internet emerges as the material manifestation of networks.

The policy and discourse of e-governance and e-democracy have arisen at a historical moment when the scope of the political is shrinking, and when the public sphere is undergoing a process of increased colonization by private interests (Bevir and Rhodes 2006). The Internet and the notions of e-governance and e-democracy are constructed as deus ex machina, presumed to amend the democratic deficit and solve the legitimation crisis (Budd and Harris 2009). The decline in state provision of public programs and the corollary shrinkage and failures of the public realm were accompanied by a new ideology that justified this shrinkage, by portraying the public sector as incapable and inefficient: “In a seemingly dynamic and consumer-oriented culture, the delivery of public services is seen to be hidebound by a lack of innovation, creativity, and flexibility. In this view public organizations are bureaucratic, impotent and increasingly sterile” (Budd and Harris 2009: 2). As Lobel (Chapter 5, this volume) argues, one of the central reasons for the shift toward new governance is the ineffectiveness of government regulation in an environment of a more flexible, competitive, globalized market; “the nation state is significantly less capable in today's economy to govern and regulate markets” (Lobel, Chapter 5, this volume, p. 72). In that context, ICT occupied a central place: “the idea of digital means to overcome these incapacities has gained currency to deliver optimal outcomes for public policy and service delivery” (Budd and Harris 2009). The new political culture of neoliberal democracy was legitimated by the technological capabilities of ICT, seen as well adept to respond to the new challenges of neoliberal democracy. Thus, a crisis of governance was accompanied by an emerging space of e-governance.

(p. 579) One of the major transformations epitomized and facilitated by e-governance is the privatization of the public realm. The implementation of e-governance is in fact an exemplar of government–business partnership, and involves outsourcing the very political mechanisms of democratic politics. Due to the complexity of ICT systems, the building and maintenance of e-governance hardware and software are increasingly outsourced, and managed by large, global corporations such as Electronic Data Systems, IBM-Accenture, Cap Gemini-Ernst and Young, and Lockheed Martin, which “monopolize … the necessary expertise and organizational capacities to service and develop the very large-scaled government systems of big nation states” (Dunleavy et al. 2006: 5). Dunleavy and colleagues (2006) therefore speak of “digital era governance” as more fully dependent on technology and on market players who are able to provide the necessary technological services. This trend will intensify as many government agencies “become their websites—where the electronic form of the organization increasingly defines the fundamentals of what it is and does” (Dunleavy et al. 2006: 3).

Concurrent with the decline and critique of the provisionist, interventionist state, and with the rise of a neoliberal ethos championing marketization, a new culture of consumerism, which has affected politics in general and governance in particular, arose. In this new ethos, citizens are increasingly conceptualized as consumers, and the relations between them and government is refashioned as a market-like transaction. In that context, e-governance plays a vital discursive role, since ICT is assumed to facilitate a shift in power from the old, silo-based governance of social democracy to neoliberal democracy, which empowers citizens-cum-consumers (Chadwick 2003; Mayer-Schönberger and Lazer 2007).

E-governance versus e-democracy: the contradictory model

These reflections demand that we investigate e-governance not only as a governmental policy but also as a legitimation discourse that employs a technologistic framework to account for what is, in essence, a new constellation of power between states and markets, and a new definition of governing. It should also encourage us to critically rethink the relations between e-governance and e-democracy. As a final exercise, then, it might be fruitful to highlight the contradictory nature of e-governance and e-democracy. The literature on e-governance and e-democracy tends to limit itself to Habermas's discussion of the public sphere, thus highlighting the communicative aspect of his theory. Habermas's more developed theory (Habermas 1985) highlights the contradictory and tenuous relations within the social structure between system and the lifeworld, and between two forms of rationality. Accordingly, we might conceptualize e-governance as the transfer of government activities into online forms with the aim of improving efficiency, and e-democracy as the transfer of democratic practices into online forms with the aim of improving deliberation. At the heart of these projects is a process of rationalization by technological means, but a very different kind of rationality: e-governance is concerned with further instrumentalization of governmental practices, that is, with (p. 580) further rationalizing systems, while e-democracy is concerned with improving democratic practices, that is, with further rationalizing communication or the lifeworld. These distinctions suggest that e-governance and e-democracy might actually be contradictory, rather than complementary, trends.

In this vein, McCullagh (2003) asserts that e-governance and e-democracy are different issues: one does not emanate from the other, and thus far governments have been concerned much more with the “administrative or business-like role of government” than with “the issue of engaging citizens in the democratic process” (McCullagh 2003: 155). My argument is that this divergence might not be a coincidence, or a failure, but symptomatic: that e-governance and e-democracy might in fact be antithetical, that their underlying rationales as well as their social effects are divergent, and that “electrifying” governance is not the same as electrifying democracy. E-governance and e-democracy are aiming toward, and in effect constructing, two contradictory subjects: the consumers and the citizens. For the customer of government services e-governance should offer as little work as possible. The ideal of e-governance would be the putting together of electronic processes so streamlined that they become virtually transparent. The ideal customer is passive, asked to do the least possible to get errands done. The success of e-governance is measured in terms of instrumental rationality.

The citizen—that which e-democracy promises to reconstruct and reinvigorate through ICT—is a completely different subject. The citizen is asked to be active and engaged. She is required to “work”: obtain information about issues of the day, learn about alternative positions, follow political and social events, forge her opinions, express them, and take an active part in discussions and deliberations. As McCullagh asserts, “[c]itizenship requires individual Internet users to play an active role in the democratic process, by engaging in online discussion forums, participating in debates and offering their expertise, so that issues may be explored and addressed in a consensual manner” (McCullagh 2003: 156).

E-governance and e-democracy are also structurally contradictory. E-governance requires a top-down management by the state with an active participation of market players; it is necessarily a governmental project. A project of e-democracy in the spirit of the Habermasian public sphere requires autonomy from the state and the market; it should spring from the bottom up and preserve its critical distance from both state and market (Dahlberg 2001). E-governance, then, is a project of systems (improving instrumental reason); e-democracy is a project of the lifeworld (improving communicative reason).

Hence, the integration of ICT into government activities does not necessarily enhance democracy. According to Johnson (2006), the technological infrastructure of e-democracy in fact makes it unsuitable, and even contradictory, to liberal democracy, “because of the underlying technological culture of e-democracy.” Johnson presents us with his version of “soft” technological determinism (see Winner 1978), according to which, the adoption of complex technological systems requires society to adhere to the implicit political and ideological coordinates embedded in it. “Electronic liberal democracy cannot be constructed by simply adapting Internet-based technologies as is because the (p. 581) underlying culture of those technologies, when implemented in specifically political practices, runs counter to the principles of liberal democracy.” Johnson refers specifically to the Internet as a commodity and as “an individualized public forum” that “shape[s] the culture of e-democracy in ways that undermine key practices of liberal democracy” (Johnson 2006).

Likewise, Kampen and Snijkers (2003) argue that the main problems of democracy cannot be solved by the Internet. In this realm of truly reforming democracy, they argue, lies “the ultimate e-dream: that ICT can solve the problems that are inherent to modern representative democracies” (Kampen and Snijkers 2003). The dream of e-democracy postulates that “accelerated communication of citizens and politicians through the means of ICT will lead to increased participation of citizens in the making of policy in democratic nations.” However, according to Kampen and Snijkers (2003), key problems of representative democracy are not necessarily solvable by ICT, such as the tendency of representatives to act in the interest of preserving their power, or that of “the politically active few to obtain influence disproportionate to their number.”

The very framing of the project of revitalizing democracy with the notion of “e-democracy” is problematic: “The mere fact that ICT helps us bridge some practical problems of a direct democracy (e.g. the problem of scale) is no justification to actually install a direct democracy. There still is a large difference between technical possibility and a democratic feasibility” (Kampen and Snijkers 2003). They recommend a complete separation between these projects: “of all possible reasons to use the Internet, e-democracy is the least impressive. The Internet seems to be a source for information and routine transactions and not for political actions.” Contrary to the complementary/evolutionary model, they see no direct link between the availability of online information and democracy (Kampen and Snijkers 2003).


Academic and popular discourse about the intersection of contemporary democratic politics with ICT largely asserts that e-governance—the integration of ICT into governing practices—also enhances democracy and may lead to a form of e-democracy. Such discourse also assumes that e-governance is essentially a government-led initiative, fueled by the need to adapt to the digital revolution and aimed at improving governance practices. Rather than viewing e-governance as a purely technical matter, I suggest an alternative framework according to which e-governance emerges at the nexus of political transformations toward neoliberal democracy. The networked, distributed, emergent, and flexible nature of the Internet serves as both the material infrastructure and the legitimizing metaphor for shifts in the balance of power between states and markets, and the ushering in of a new model of governance. Rather than seeing e-governance simply as a governmental policy aimed at increasing efficiency and (p. 582) improving democracy, it should be seen as a discursive and practical configuration that accompanies the structural transformations toward neoliberal democracy.

Adopting a non-technologistic framework, the chapter also questions the prevailing assumption that the electrification of governance will also lead to e-democracy. Rather, it postulates that e-governance and e-democracy are in fact contradictory trends. The problem with the notions of e-democracy and e-governance is the very conflation of technology and politics, the idea that the problems of democratic institutions are ultimately technical problems ready to be solved by technology. As Netchaeva (2002) puts it, the very term e-democracy is “wrong by definition” because, unlike government, democracy is not an object but an abstract idea. One can literally “electrify” governance by incorporating ICT into its practices in a way that cannot be achieved with democracy. The equation of e-democracy with other “electrification” projects, such as e-governance or e-commerce, then, is wrongheaded and misleading. While governance is a systemic activity, aimed at achieving instrumental goals, democracy is a utopian horizon that combines the components of system (such as parliament and elections) with those of the lifeworld (such as values and norms), and cannot be “electrified” in the same manner.


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