Research and Advances
Computing Applications

A Strategic Perspective of Electronic Democracy

Implementing a true e-democracy requires a careful and comprehensive plan for citizens to learn how to use it.
  1. Introduction
  2. Final Thoughts
  3. References
  4. Authors
  5. Footnotes
  6. Figures
  7. Tables

There is a well-acknowledged precept that democracy requires an informed citizenry. Information creates trust and is the mechanism for ensuring that politicians serve the electorate [2]. Democracy is effective when there is an unimpeded flow of information between citizens and government and there is a high level of authentic citizen participation in the political process. We believe there is a second, and equally important, fundamental principle of democracy—efficiency. Efficient government keeps at bay the populists and demagogues who appeal to those who want the trains to run on time.

The goal of electronic democracy is to deploy information technology to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of democracy [8]. On the efficiency side, the intention is to increase the convenience and timeliness of citizen/government interactions and reduce their cost. Information will be more readily available and transaction costs significantly reduced. Our initial studies of property tax payments indicate that Web-enabled payment reduces processing costs from more than $5 to around 22 cents per transaction. The potential savings of e-democracy could be as much as $110 billion and Euro144 billion a year [6].

We propose a three-phase, dual-pronged strategy for implementing e-democracy (see Figure 1). The three phases are derived from blending the principles of skill development [4], innovation theory [5], and one-to-one marketing [3]. The prongs echo the dual foundations of democratic government—effectiveness and efficiency. Note that we identify e-government and e-politics as elements of e-democracy. E-government informs citizens about their representatives and how they may be contacted. It also improves government efficiency by enabling citizens to pay transactions online. Whereas e-politics is the use of Internet technology to improve the effectiveness of political decision-making by making citizens aware of the how and why of political decision-making and facilitating their participation in this process.

E-democracy is a new phenomenon, which means citizens will have to learn how to use it. A hierarchy of skills development (know what, know how, know why, and care why) [4] provides a framework for guiding this learning process. In our strategy, we map these four phases to initiation (know what), infusion (know how and know why), and customization (care why).

Governments, as organizations, will implement e-democracy. Thus, organizational innovation theory [5], with its two-stage model of initiation and implementation (which we call “infusion”), provides some guidance. During initiation, an organization tests an innovation’s feasibility [5]. The simplest test of e-democracy is to create a portal (for example, or, much as Yahoo! was a pioneering Web application, to provide access to government information. During infusion—the second phase of our strategic framework—an innovation is widely embraced and the organization often restructures to accommodate the innovation [5]. Because information is so malleable, it readily supports mass customization and we extend the innovation model to incorporate a third stage, customization, in which an innovation is precisely tailored to the needs of the customer. Consumers are increasingly experiencing one-to-one marketing [3], and as citizens they will expect their governments to provide the same level of tailoring.

Initiation. Providing citizens with a single point of access to government information and Web-enabling government payments are the critical initial goals. For a minimum level of political involvement, citizens need to know who represents them and what is happening in the political scene. In its 1997 Census of Governments [7], the U.S. Bureau of the Census counted 87,504 governments (Table 1). Consequently, a citizen can have more than a dozen representatives (from school board to U.S. president). Informed citizens need to be aware of what is happening within each of their manifold governments.

Some $3 trillion exchanges hands between citizens and U.S. governments each year. The great majority of this business is done using traditional checks, cash, and money orders. Less than 0.5% of transactions with governments, excluding income taxes, are Web-enabled. Furthermore, many of these transactions require visits to government offices and lengthy wait times. Enabling Web-based payments reduces the cost of governing, is more convenient for citizens, and can have a positive impact on the environment, for instance, by reducing travel.

Because there are so many government bodies, many citizens have difficulty finding the myriad of agencies with which they need to interact. The initiation phase of e-democracy requires the establishment of a portal that conveniently links citizens to all levels of government. One such portal (see Figure 2) is based on zip code access to relevant information. Because citizens need to remember only the portal’s URL and their zip code, searching costs are considerably reduced, and thus the likelihood of increased citizen access is raised.

Power will never be equally distributed within a democracy, but citizens are accustomed to a long trend of reforming acts that redress power imbalances.

Infusion. During this second stage, nearly all governments adopt the principles of e-government. Online review and payment applications are widely installed. Citizens can make most government payments via the Web and electronic bill presentment is the standard. Government becomes more efficient via two major approaches. Small governments opt for an application service provider (ASP) solution, while large governments implement in-house systems.

On the effectiveness side, political decision-making becomes increasingly transparent. Citizens can drill into the process and discover how a particular piece of legislation is being molded. They can determine which political action groups, industry associations, lobbyists, and legislators are shaping future laws or regulations. Furthermore, they can learn why particular groups are trying to create political advantage [9]. In many democracies, this will require a move beyond open government1 (for example, Freedom of Information and Open Meeting laws) to open politics, which means exposing the process by which laws are created. One can envisage a Web-published audit trail that reveals all forces, and their associated communications that create a particular legislative action. Learning how and why a particular political decision is forming, citizens will be more capable of monitoring and influencing politicians. Internet technology has the power to give citizens the insider’s perspective of those who stalk the corridors of power.

Customization. During customization, e-democracy implements a one-to-one relationship between citizen and government. To further improve their personal efficiency, all citizens have an electronically maintained, personal profile of their financial interactions with government. An address change, for example, is a single transaction that automatically notifies all government systems. In addition, citizens can get a detailed breakdown of their particular government payments so they are more directly connected with how their taxes and fees are spent (for example, amount contributed to education).

Effective and efficient government increases citizen goodwill and sustains a healthy and robust democracy.

Democracy requires that citizens care that the system works and actively participate in the process. However, when faced with multiple levels of government and a mass of information, participation is problematic and time-consuming. Furthermore, citizens’ concerns differ in their priority. Customization will enable citizens to finely focus on personally critical issues. A citizen wishing to track trends in national park governance, for example, could use an electronic lobbyist agent (or lobbybot) to monitor this domain and influence the political process.

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Final Thoughts

We propose the preceding three-stage strategy for several reasons. First, an initiation stage is required to create the infrastructure (that is, software firms, methodologies, consulting skills), acquaint governments and citizens with the concept of e-government, and learn how to scale from a handful to tens of thousands of online government services. Once the foundation of skills and knowledge has been built and the idea has gained currency, large-scale adoption is feasible—the infusion phase. Mirroring marketing trends, we expect that citizens will not be satisfied with a one-size-fits-all solution, and customization will be demanded.

Regarding the effectiveness stream, citizens’ e-democracy skills need to follow the logical development path (that is, know what, know how, know why, and care why) described by Quinn, Anderson, and Finkelstein [4]. This path will be more tortuous than the efficiency track. Fashioning an open political process is not a simple act because it perturbs the existing power structure. Nevertheless, we believe this strategic direction is consistent with the long-term trajectory of democracy and resonates with the Internet culture of openness and free information flow.

E-commerce levels the playing field and equalizes voice [1]. These effects are possibly more important for electronic democracy as they embody a centuries long movement (for example, Magna Carta in 1215, votes for women in New Zealand2 in 1893) of reducing the influence of the powerful and broadening the base of political participation. Realistically, power will never be equally distributed within a democracy, but citizens are accustomed to a long trend of reforming acts that redress power imbalances. Indubitably, they will expect Internet technology to sustain, and maybe accelerate, this course.

We believe that governments adopting a three-stage, two-pronged e-democracy strategy will significantly increase their citizens’ well-being. Effective and efficient government increases citizen goodwill and sustains a healthy and robust democracy. Good government leads to better government.

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F1 Figure 1. Strategic phase.

F2 Figure 2. The EzGov implementation of a dual strategy.

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T1 Table 1. Governments in the U.S.

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    1. Berthon, P.R., Pitt, L.F. and Watson, R.T. The World Wide Web as an advertising medium: towards an understanding of conversion efficiency. J. Advertising Research 36, 1. (1996), 43–54.

    2. Jefferson, T., Personal communication to R. Price, Jan 8, 1789.

    3. Peppers, D. and Rogers, M. The One to One Future: Building Relationships One Customer at a Time. Currency Doubleday, New York, NY, 1993.

    4. Quinn, J.B., Anderson, P. and Finkelstein, S. Leveraging intellect. Academy of Manage. Exec. 10, 3. (1996), 7–27.

    5. Rogers, E.M. Diffusion of Innovations. The Free Press, New York, NY, 1983.

    6. Symonds, M. The next revolution: After e-commerce, get ready for e-government. Economist (June 24, 2000);

    7. U.S. Census Bureau. Government organization: 1997 census of governments, Washington, D.C., 1999; gc97org.html.

    8. Watson, R.T., Akselsen, S., Evjemo, B. and Aarsæther, N. Teledemocracy in local government. Commun. ACM 42, 12. (Dec. 1999), 58–63.

    9. Yoffie, D.B. and Bergenstein, S. Creating political advantage: the rise of the corporate political entrepreneur. Calif. Manage. Rev. 28, 1. (1985), 124–139.

    1 See for an example.

    2 The first country to give women the vote.

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