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E-democracy technologies and the problem of public trust

Final Activity Report Summary - eTrust (E-democracy technologies and the problem of public trust)

During my research I focussed on the topic of ‘E-democracy technologies and the problem of public trust’. I examined the relations between trust in e-democracy technology, use of the technologies and the effects on public trust and political participation. Public trust is fundamental for democracy, yet it is widely acknowledged that trust in governments is declining. According to literature, one of the main reasons for this decline in trust is the alienation of citizens from policy processes. Many authors argue that citizen participation would make a government more effective by bringing it closer to the people. One of the dominant governmental strategies to earn and retain public trust is to adopt modern information and communication technologies (ICTs) to strengthen the relationship between government and citizens, the so-called e-democracy.

The aims of e-democracy are to increase peoples’ choices as to how they can participate, have their voices heard and their views considered and to restore their trust in government. The question though is whether this governmental strategy really works. The current search for technological solutions to the problem of distrust in government seems to be paradoxical because, in order to increase public trust and confidence, governments will be relying on information and communication systems that require themselves a high level of trust. Information technology is poorly understood by many people, which may reduce their trust in the technology, as well as in governments that use ICTs.

Based on three case studies, namely the e-voting in the Netherlands, e-counting in London and the Oxford forum, my study showed that trust in government and trust in technology were very vulnerable. Furthermore, trust in technology was not based on facts, but more on perceptions. The fact that the Dutch population used an unverifiable and insecure system for 20 years showed that they trusted government enough to also trust the e-democracy tool that was implemented. It was not until a group of critical experts exposed the problems that trust was quickly lost in both government and the technology itself. The same was observed in the London election case; when new e-democracy tools were critically examined and shown to have issues with regards to, for instance, transparency, people started to lose their trust in the technology and in the institution that had implemented the tool. The Dutch e-voting case study led to new lines of work, focussing, among others, on the role of grassroots activism for political participation. We argued that the use of ICT made it easier for ideological, i.e. weak, supporters to get politically involved and become more practical supporters at little cost.

The results from this in-depth study suggested the general utility of civic writing via email for increasing the feeling of political efficacy among citizens. A campaign ‘info’ email address made it easy for supporters to manifest themselves and articulate their views, which was a very important function. Citizens regarded their emails as concrete symbols of political expression and meaningful participation in the political process. The fact that the mailers received personal replies showed them that what they had written had been read with care by someone and functioned as bottom-up feedback into the political process, adding to the quality of democratic debate and experience. This positive experience of sending emails to a grassroots campaign and getting serious feedback could increase the sense of internal efficacy for supporters. In addition to that, the fact that the campaign achieved its objectives and had such a successful outcome, in the case of the abolishment of non-transparent electronic voting computers in the Netherlands, must have further contributed to the weak supporters’ belief that they could influence local and national government and increased their sense of external efficacy. As a result it could make their commitment to future civic or political activity stronger.