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Can technology make us more democratic?

What does it mean to be a good citizen? Ask a hundred people, get a hundred different answers.

In the context of next week’s Remembrance Day activities, good citizenship can be defined as those willing to sacrifice everything for the protection of the country and other citizens. That’s not a bad start, but a pair of world wars are an anomaly, not the typical yardstick by which to measure citizenship.

Some people will argue the internet and social media have ushered in a new era of citizen engagement.

It’s certainly helped, as is clearly the case with the Arab Spring.

Electronic devices allowed decentralized groups and individuals to communicate, organize, react in a timely fashion and stay one step ahead of authorities. We’ve seen dictators topple from power. Great. But the real test will be what kind of governments emerge from the ruins of the fallen despots. Will new power-mongers emerge, as in revolutions elsewhere? Will some nominally democratic movements peter off into new authoritarian regimes? Even if those countries emulate governments in the West, you certainly can’t argue that we’re the end-all and be-all of democracy, let alone empowered.

Most of us can’t be bothered to get involved. Hell, half of us can’t even muster enough energy to spend five minutes every four years casting a ballot.

Social media does make it easier, though it would mean using our near-constant tether to cyberspace to do more than cyber-stalk your favourite celebrity.

The good news is that our electronic devices might be a gateway to greater involvement. In fact, a recent public engagement survey conducted by the Fleishman-Hillard marketing agency revealed that Canadians would be more engaged in conversations on government policy if there were ways to participate online. The same study also revealed that a third of Canadians have an improved view of elected officials who use social media to engage with constituents.

The survey found that 54 per cent of those surveyed agreed to the statement, “I would be more engaged in conversations of government policy if there were ways to participate online.” Agreement was strongest at 57 per cent among those aged 18-35, followed by those 35-54 (53 per cent) and 55+ (52 per cent). Youth were also more likely to access a government service if they heard about it online: 46 per cent compared to 37 per cent of those surveyed overall.

Not surprisingly, a younger demographic is most influenced by social media in terms of their perception of elected officials. For instance those aged 18-35 were most likely at 49 per cent as compared to 33 per cent of general population to favourably perceive elected officials using social media.

When asked “When you see that an elected official is using social media, to communicate with constituents, does this improve or worsen your perception of them?” of those surveyed, 33 per cent overall said it did improve their perception. 53 per cent said that it had no impact, while only 14 per cent said it worsened their perception.

Politicians have taken in that message, though to date social media has been another tool for getting out the message, not for fostering generally participative democracy.

Here in Ontario, the McGuinty government says it’s committed to what it calls e-Government. It envisions an electronic citizen engagement of forms, including internet consultations on proposed law and/or policy; “town hall” meetings via the web; open on-going dialogues; online remote voting; and digital voting.

Closer to home, we have the likes of Woolwich Mayor Todd Cowan, who never strays from his Blackberry. He’s cited email and online feedback as the rationale for a number of decisions around both the township and regional council tables.

A fine thing, but is it more than another public relations tool? Something evolving into a true democracy, the kind envisioned by the Occupy Wall Street movement that would make government responsible to the many instead of the privileged few?

Where, for instance, does it fall on the “Ladder of Citizen Participation,” a measure devised by Sherry Arnstein in 1969, well before today’s electronic innovations? Her eight-rung ladder starts with “manipulation” on the bottom and ascends to “citizen control” at the top. The middle rungs are “informing,” “consultation” and “placation” – grouped together as tokenism, which appears to be where we’re at. We’re certainly a long way from the top three levels, “partnership” and “delegated power” on the way to citizen control.

In her paper from more than four decades ago, she cites a placard from a 1968 student-worker rebellion in France. It translates as “I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, you participate … they profit.” That’s tokenism: governments pay lip service to consultations and other forms of public participation, but then maintains the status quo that benefits only a few.

Sounds like we haven’t come very far in 40 years, despite all the shiny new toys.

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