Democracy goes digital
- The internet should be used for holding discussions on proposed legislations, including the draft constitution
Jul 11, 2015-
My trip to Amsterdam in 2012 was quite an eye opener. There were coffee shops selling marijuana and prostitutes advertising their services through glass windows, all of which is legal in the red-light district of the city. However, the thing that struck me the most about Amsterdam was the way it is using the internet to promote participatory democracy. After spending almost four weeks in one of the most liberal countries in the world, I realised that it was not just a transcontinental trip, but time travel to the future—from the 18th to the 21st century world.
Nepal has been suffering from bad governance, overpopulation, unemployment, environmental degradation and mass exodus for decades, but after my trip to the Netherlands, I realised that our country is still stuck in the 18th century’s way of doing things. I also realised that Nepal is a backward-looking country that does not have a clue that the world has already entered the digital age. More importantly, I understood that the Nepalis are being served a half-baked democracy.
Potential to participate
Potential to participate
In a true democracy, citizens are not only involved in the electoral process once every four years (like In Nepal), but they also get to participate in the governance process after the elections as well.While the idea of engaging the citizenry is definitely a noble one, honestly speaking, it would not have been possible to accommodate everyone wishing to participate in lawmaking before the advent of the internet. In theory, it is now possible for governments to involve every citizen in the policy-making process by creating internet-based e-participation tools like forums, wikis and chats to crowd-source expertise as well as gauge citizens’ opinions on proposed policies, laws, plans and programmes.The potential of using digital technologies to strengthen democracy is only limited to the government’s imagination.
Indeed, e-participation has become the new normal of the 21st century democracy. E-participation is the practice of using the internet and related technologies to enable and strengthen citizen participation in democratic decision-making processes. In democratic countries, it is no longer acceptable for elected officials to be guided only by personal opinions and political parties’ selfish interests without consulting their respective constituencies. Countries like South Korea, France, Japan, the US, the UK and Australia have been effectively experimenting with e-participation for quite some time.
Compared to the rest of the world, it seems that the Netherlands has been successfully putting pieces of the e-participation puzzle together. The main reason behind the Netherlands’ success in e-participation could be the country’s long-standing history of participatory democracy. The government has been consulting external stakeholders while developing policies and laws for quite some time. Now with e-participation, apart from improving citizen access to information and public services, the Dutch are promoting citizen participation in the decision-making process.The Netherlands first rank in the 2014 United Nations E-government Survey‘s ‘E-Participation Index’ is further proof that the Dutch are redefining democracy in the digital age.
The UN’s e-participation index focuses on three main areas: the use of online services to facilitate the provision of information by government to citizen, interaction with stakeholders, and citizen engagement in decision-making processes. In practice, there are five phases of e-participation: agenda setting, policy preparation, decision making, policy execution, and policy evaluation. In a mature democracy, citizens are involved in all five phases.
Dutch e-participation initiatives like Track Your Council, We Evaluate, and Citizens Blogs have earned worldwide recognition. Track Your Council compares programmes of different political parties and competing candidates on the basis of 30 main issues, making it easier for voters to evaluate programmes and select a political party with the most progressive agendas or the ones that alignwith their likings. Similarly, with Vote Tracker, citizens are able to access the history of the candidates and review their positions on issues together with their past performances. In the same vein, Citizens Blog aims to introduce a new, more structured way of blogging.Experts are invited to compose and forward opinions on improving the government and governance. Both experts and citizens are encouraged to comment on each other’s ideas. The key points of the moderated discussions and debates are summarised as a proposal and then presented to the responsible elected officials for further processing.
The future is now
The future is now
By keenly observing environmental degradation, the scale of corruption, unemployment and mass exodus, one can easily fathom that good governance has never been a priority in Nepal. However, if democracy is to be sustained in the digital age, there are no alternatives to e-participation. And it is high time the government start utilising digital technologies to build a mechanism that provides equal opportunities for citizens to get involved in parliamentary affairs in a fair and transparent manner. Till now, only lobbyists, special interest groupsand extremists have been bulldozing the policy mechanism, totally ignoring the citizen’s point of view.
After the failure of mainstream politics, the ongoing economic crisis and the government’s inability to effectively respond to the aftermath of the horrible earthquakes, citizens’ trust in the political parties are at an all-time low. When we think about it, the ideologies of the political parties in Nepal are already extinct in more developed countries. Therefore, it is necessary to stop prescribing a counterfeit democracy to the Nepali people. Developing online platforms that involve Nepali citizens from all around the world in governance processes is a good place to start. Digital tools should be used immediately to facilitate online discussions on proposed legislations. It could be an excellent way to gather public opinion on the draft constitution.
Senior political leaders should give up their old 18th century mindset to embrace the wonders of the digital age. I know this is a tall order, but I hope things change soon. If not, we need to let youth politicians take charge of the nation.
Shah is the co-author of ‘Strategic IT Planning for Public Organisations: A Toolkit’ published by the United Nations in 2009
Published: 12-07-2015 08:10