Democratic Evolution or Virtual Civil War — Predictions from 2003 sadly come true

Too bad the democracy in the digital age has all gone to hell.

Over the last two decades, I have written, spoken, and connected thousands of democracy builders on all things “e-democracy,” civic tech and open government around the world.

I am sad to report my pre-Facebook/Twitter prediction of a full “virtual civil war” in 2003 has come true today:

Those hoping for an almost accidental democratic transformation fostered by the information technology will watch in shock from the sidelines as their favorite new medium becomes the arsenal of virtual civil war — virtual civil wars among partisans at all levels.

While I did end my speech to the World Summit on Information Society with optimistic ideas for “democratic intent,” the effort required to restore a functioning democratic society will now be far greater than we ever imagined. I’ll imagine new solutions another day.

For now, let’s go back in time and weep over what we have wrought …

Remarks as prepared by Steven Clift for the Promise of E-Democracy WSIS Event, Geneva, Switzerland, December 2003

Join the revolution?

I don’t believe the Internet is inherently democratic. To me, most people and organizations are fundamentally anti-democratic by nature. Many of those in power and those clamoring for power are self-centered actors. They operate within the miracle we call representative democracy. Most accept the idea that democracy is good, but these actors do little to ensure its strength.

After a decade working directly with e-democracy issues, I’ve concluded that “politics as usual” online may be the tipping point that finishes off what television started — the extinction of democracy and democratic spirit.

Those hoping for an almost accidental democratic transformation fostered by the information technology will watch in shock from the sidelines as their favorite new medium becomes the arsenal of virtual civil war — virtual civil wars among partisans at all levels.

When I open e-mail from all sorts of American political parties and activist groups, I see conflict. I see unwillingness to compromise.

Let’s be optimists and suggest that the Net is doubling the activist population from five percent to ten percent. The harsh reality is that we are doubling the virtual soldiers, an expendable slash and burn online force, available to established political interests.

As the excessive and bitter partisanship of the increased activist population leaks into the e-mail boxes of everyday people, I predict abhorrence of Net-era politics among the general citizenry. I fear the extreme erosion of public trust not just in government, but also in most things public and political.

Instead of encouraging networked citizen participation that improves the public results delivered in our democracies, left to its natural path, the Internet will be used to eliminate forms of constructive civic engagement by the other 90 percent of citizens. A 10 percent democracy of warring partisan is no democracy at all.

Compounding the problem, the billions of Euros in e-government focus almost exclusively on one-way services and efficiency. Government makes it easy to pay your taxes online — while doing little to give you a virtual — anytime, anywhere — say in how those taxes are spent. Many elected officials are turning off their e-mail for citizens, leaving it on for lobbyists to reach their staff directly, and building what I call “Digital Berlin Walls” of complicated web forms. One-way “e-governments” based on efficiency to the exclusion of “two-way” democracy are the norm. Unfortunately, most governments are saying e-services first, democracy later.

In summary, online political strife combined with governments that are incapable of accommodating our public will present a dark future for democracy in the information age.

Join the democratic evolution!

Everything I’ve just said contrasts dramatically from the exceptional experiences of citizen groups and governments leading the way with the best e-democracy practices.

Everyday in Minnesota, I experience the power of online discourse among citizens. I am impressed by online innovations in many parliaments and government agencies. And I’ve been inspired by the online activism of many groups.

However, we have an enemy. It is not “politics as usual.” They must compete to survive. Our enemy is our indifference to our generational democratic obligations. We have a duty to make the most honorable use of the unique information age opportunities before us.

We have a choice, we can strategically use ICTs to improve our communities, strengthen society, and address global challenges or we can ride the ICT-accelerated race to the post-democratic bottom.

It is time to give more than lip service to e-democracy experiments, research, and best practices.

It is time to bring the democratic intent and values required to make the demonstrated possibility of the new online medium a universal reality.

Build the democratic evolution!

To make what is possible probable, the time for action has arrived.

The new media, led by the Internet, must be used to help us meet public challenges. It must be used to transform anti-democratic states and break apart hyper-partisan and unresponsive politics at all levels. We must be smarter, faster, and more committed than “politics as usual.”

How? In the next decade, I ask you to join me in three specific campaigns.

1. The Rule of Law — Mandate the democratic evolution!

By making exceptional and essential e-democracy best practices universal through the rule of law.

We know most of what works, the technology exists, and great examples abound. Nothing optional in government will become universal or wide spread if it remains unfunded or a choice.

Laws must be passed to require that:

A. By 2005 all public meeting notices with agendas and legally public meeting documents must be posted online not just on a cork board in some government office. No electronic notice, no meeting.

B. By 2006 all representative and regulatory bodies must make all proposed legislation and amendments available online the second it is distributed as a public document to anyone. Once passed, no law, rule, regulation, and budget details not freely available online should be considered enforceable. No transparency … then no authority and no money.

C. Next, citizens have a right to be notified via e-mail about new government information based on their interests and where they live. Timely notification allows people to act politically when it still matters. Governments must fund and implement such systems. Maintaining garbage dumps of government data is choice against openness and accountability. Any government in a OECD country without an online personalization and notification system by mid-2006 will be added to my list of anti-e-democratic governments.

D. By 2007 citizens need access to complete, always up-to-date, local “MyDemocracy” directories of all their elected officials and government organizations. No contact data, no power. A global network of these standardized and networked databases will be a tool from which we can build 21st century democracy.

Remember, we must develop and pass laws that require these things to happen. I see no short cut without resources and legal mandates from our elected officials.

2. Public Net-Work — Leverage the evolution!

By building the online infrastructure to help citizens and their governments meet public challenges through a new concept I call “public net-work.”

If e-democracy is primarily about input into government decision-making, “Public Net-Work” is about stakeholder and citizen involvement in the implementation of established government priorities. Leading governments are moving from sole providers to facilitators of those who want to roll up their “virtual” sleeves and solve similar problems. Think e-volunteerism instead of e-consultation.

The few Public Net-Work projects, like Community Builders New South Wales and the downtown community policing efforts in Minneapolis, use many of the same online tools we need for e-democracy. E-democracy technology investments are really a two for one opportunity — better input and effective output in the public interest.

3. Online Public Issue Forums — Localize the democratic evolution!

We must establish two-way citizen-based e-democracy forums in every locality and connect them with one another on a national and global basis.

When I travel through a town, I always envision the community bonds among people and think about how the online world might help reconnect neighbors and communities.

In 1994, E-Democracy.Org built the world’s first election-oriented web site. More importantly we built an online forum where Minnesotans -from across the political spectrum- could discuss real public issues. We turned the once a year in-person town hall meeting into a 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year online civic event.

In 1998 we took our model local. In Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Winona we use e-mail, the tool of choice among most people online, to facilitate many-to-many discussions. We build public space online that has agenda-setting power in real community. These forums work. They work well. I cannot imagine my local democracy without one. What about your local democracy?

Citizens cannot wait for governments to build or fund these forums. By volunteering and working to pragmatically recruit the participation of elected officials, community leaders, and journalists they will attract diverse citizens and new voices rarely heard in traditional time and place discriminatory forms of democracy.

On the other hand, governments, media organizations, and civil society groups cannot wait for spontaneous citizen-led e-democracy activity. They need to join together and foster new local democratic institutions “of” the Internet and not just “on” the Internet. Like the creation of public broadcasting by past generations, something new must be created for the public benefit based on the democratic opportunity presented by new technologies.

Whether started by unaffiliated citizens or fostered by those on the inside who see the big e- democracy picture, an option you can take home is the opportunity to establish a local E-Democracy.Org chapter with an effective online forum “of, for and by” your community.

Long Live The Evolution!

What is possible with e-democracy is not probable unless we make it happen. Our opportunity to use these tools to raise the voice of citizens, improve representative democracy, and solve public problems is tremendous. And, what currently appears likely is not democratically desirable, unless we, unless we build online public spaces and democratic opportunities online from the center that bring people together and build the democratic evolution.