Back in 2006, I pitched a paper on online political transparency for the NordiCHI conference with some colleagues from Making Waves. We propsed a service that would promote electorate enlightenment and participation. The paper constituted the need for new mechanisms to turn a trend against alienation and disinterest in common causes. An open online hub to facilitate civic political discourse was envisioned. The paper was not admitted to the conference. In hindsight, I believe our approach was somewhat naïve and put too much emphasis on technology instead of processes and culture. It also failed to discuss the basic principles of democracy and how digital media fits into the equation. Also: we didn’t have a concrete case to discuss. Our aim was to do a concrete project, but it was difficult to know where to start, where to get the resources and how to combine it with busy schedules. We ended up talking about it and trying to talk to other people about it.
Together with Sven Inge Bråten (interaction designer at Making Waves) I did a presentation at the Yggdrasil Conference (Dataforeningen’s annual conference on user experience) on democracy in October 2008. The slides can be viewed on Slideshare. The presentation was a high level theoretical introduction to the subject of democracy and digital media; exploring the fundamental idea of democracy and questioning how it works in modern society. We then introduced the idea about democracy being an operating system for the people. Building on this idea, we aimed to reveal criteria for democratic services. Towards the end, we presented a conceptual framework for a solution to the problems identified earlier in the talk. Instead of envisioning a dictatorial super system for democratic processes in society, our insight was that a public infrastructure where democratic discourse and participation could take place should be rendered available by the authorities. With Eirik Langås (strategy advisor at Making Waves), the presentation was repeated at various other forums and seminars.
Since 2006, quite a lot had happened. Suddenly, Clay Shirky was writing books on the subject, Wikinomics author Don Tapscott was advising governments on digital democracy, students such as Erik Fatland was doing his thesis on democratic interfaces (2007) and documentary films such as Us Now (a documentary film project «about the power of mass collaboration, the government and the Internet», was released. One could argue that the shift has been more cultural than technological. With people’s willingness to participate in online societies such as Facebook, the 2008 Obama campaign and mashups enabled by the liberation of public data, people’s expectations of being involved, being heard and answered has changed. While the most progressive companies in the corporate realm are embracing social media and opening up for discussions, public authorities seem reluctant or hesitant to embrace new opportunities and their efforts were at best superficial and symbolic.
I think it is exciting to observe the emergence of democratic services in both local and central governments around the world, as well as outlines of functional platforms on which democratic discourse can take place. One promising such example is Origo - a Norwegian framework where enthusiasts and interest groups are encouraged to engage in collaboration, conversation and sharing (read more about the thoughts behind Origo in Norwegian). I believe digital media will impact democratic processes in society in a fundamental manner. According to Habermas, a contemporary sociologist and philosopher, democratic public life only thrives where institutions enable citizens to debate matters of public importance and actors are equally endowed with the capacities of discourse. Looking forward, I believe it is important to look into how democratic services can be integrated with the existing institutions and processes. In Norway, public consultations could be an interesting case.
Public consultations and public disclosure are notions that make people yawn. But behind these concepts lie important democratic practices and principles designed to secure openness in democratic processes. The institution for public consultations ensures that assumed affected parties are heard in order for politicians and government institutions to make the right decisions. When Norwegian authorities plan new laws or regulations, these are subject to a process of public inquiry in the form of a consultation document (høringsbrev) for organizations, institutions and other assumed concerned parties (other parties that may be effected). The intention is to better be able to assess the consequences of public initiatives. The concerned parties submit a reply to the hearing in the form of a written submission. As a consequence of the principle of public disclosure, this dialogue should be accessible for the general public and not just a well paid lobby industry. In theory, this access is intended to grant private individuals and organizations influence in e.g. private bills before they are passed in the national assembly.
I envision a service designed to make the institution of public consultations more accessible and relevant for citizens and organizations. The service should offer a set of processes intended to render possible systematic feedback from the public in order to support this important democratic institution. The proposed service should unite and make all public consultations and consultation papers available as well as promote debate and feedback from the general public. An absorbing change management system and an interaction platform for various parties in society will enable correction of information set forth by the government administration. This concept should probably grow out of discussions with administration officials and users of the current solution for public consultations.
The institution of public hearings has a long tradition in Norway. The mechanism is present to ensure public participation in change processes and secure the right for all parties and stakeholders to express their views before decisions are made and implemented. The question is whether or not the process of public consultations remains relevant or if the institution is becoming outdated as an arena for interaction and communication. Relevant consultations are hard to find and are written in an inaccessible language. A wide range of organizations provide answers that are so differently formulated that it is uncertain how valuable this input is for the authorities in the evaluation process.
What impact does the system of public consultation have today? Even though the system is widely used, its value applies to a relatively small number of people. There are only a few organizations represented on the list of consultation bodies. The system of public consultations is supposed to ensure politicians broad information from the public to make the right decisions.