E-government and Citizen Engagement

Technology has been a fundamental aspect of public administration since before public administration became a field of study (Shark, 2015). Electronic government, or e-government, has extended this technological tradition into the 21st century. Just as technology is a rapidly changing concept, the definition of e-government has expanded over time. Shark (2015) calls e-government “the business or administrative processes between government to government as well as government to business and all the relationships that transpire among each other” (p. 54) Shark’s discussion, regardless of his addition of electronic communication technology to this definition, is inadequate.

Searching for a more precise definition of e-government helps us focus on information and communication technologies (ICTs). Brown (2005) offers a much better definition:

[Originally] online delivery of public services… [and later] the entire range of government roles and activities, shaped by and making use of information and communication technologies (p. 242).

Exact definitions of e-government elude us because the “entire range of government roles and activities” encompasses many different types of services provided to constituents and various ways that governments interact with employees and each other. E-government has allowed governments to use the internet and other modern, digital technologies to perform their duties.

With a good definition of e-government in hand, we can begin to discuss the areas researchers are focusing on within the e-government space. Bolívar et al. (2012) found several research areas in their analysis of journal articles related to e-government. They included legal aspects, budgeting and fiscal management and information, government transparency, the implementation of e-government, intergovernmental relations, program evaluation and planning, trust in government and citizen satisfaction, e-participation, and e-democracy (Bolívar et al., 2012). The authors also discussed the importance of e-government in developing engaged, actively participating citizens, which leads to the research question addressed here:

Q1:      How are governments using e-government to increase citizen engagement?

The question is significant because citizen engagement increases trust in government and citizen satisfaction (Bolívar et al., 2012). It is essential that the government not waste the limited resources provided by taxpayers. Citizens should be aware of what their government is doing and how government actions impact their lives. An informed public is necessary for a “government by the people, for the people” (Lincoln, 1863). Citizen engagement is critical to the public policy process. The development of information and communication technologies has allowed citizens to engage in the process electronically, which forms the following hypothesis:

H1:      E-government improves citizen engagement through e-participation and e-democracy.

This report will examine how citizen engagement and political participation have changed with the evolution of technology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. First, e-participation and e-democracy will be defined. Second, it explores the rulemaking provisions of the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 as an example of how e-government has been used to increase citizen engagement with the executive branch of the United States government. Following this example, it looks at the potential of e-voting through a comparative analysis. Finally, the paper will conclude with a discussion of whether the governments have successfully implemented e-government and where future research should be focused.

E-participation and E-democracy

Information and communication technologies affect citizen engagement in three different ways. First, government websites provide information about its functions, finances, and services. For example, a New York City resident can visit the city Comptroller’s web page to see how the city is performing in meeting its budget goals for the year. Second, information and communication technologies provide enhanced consultation opportunities in the public policy process. Many governments accept electronic comments on proposed legislation and rules, including the federal government (as will be discussed in a later section). Finally, ICT’s allow the public to actively participate in democracy by making their proposals to the government. Some governments, for example, have participatory budgeting schemes that allow citizens to make direct decisions on how they will spend tax revenues (OECD, 2001; OECD, 2003).

Citizen engagement depends on citizens being not only active but informed. Fishkin (cited in OECD, 2003) “argue[d] the need for ‘mass’ deliberation by citizens instead of ‘elite’ deliberation by elected representatives” (p. 28). Failure to properly take the time to deliberate issues results in poor decision-making because citizens may not have all of the information they need to make good decisions. Furthermore, if elected representatives are making all of the decisions, they may be perceived as being “out of touch” with their constituents.

In 2003, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development opined that technology did not exist to allow for mass deliberation by citizens. OECD felt that citizens should play a more significant role in producing policy instead of merely consuming it (2003). Of course, with the advent of Web 2.0 and social media sites like Facebook, citizens are much more actively debating issues and coming to a better understanding of the details involved in policymaking. Furthermore, citizens can mobilize through social media and take political actions. These actions could range from demonstrations against hate in the United States to a full revolution like Egypt experienced in 2011 that was the result of social media activism.

E-government in action: E-rulemaking

America’s founders designed its democracy with checks on power to ensure that no one branch of government had too much control. Sometimes, Congress gives this power to the people. In 1946, Congress passed the Administrative Procedures Act, placing a check on the executive branch’s power to make rules and regulations. Whenever a government agency makes a rule, they are required to post a notice to the Federal Register and provide the public with time to make comments on proposed rules.

The purpose of the comment period was to “[provide] for citizen consultation with all agency rulemaking activities” (Noveck, 2009, p. 130). However, in practice, commentary has mostly been made by corporate and special interests, as well as other government agencies. Regular citizens have historically made few comments except in highly sensationalized instances. The introduction of e-government changed how government agencies create rules and regulations.

The E-government Act of 2002 established “e-rulemaking” procedures, allowing the public to post comments on proposed agency rules on the internet via a government website dedicated to that purpose. The user interface for making comments is a straightforward text box where people enter their comments and submit them by clicking a submit button. This initiative has not increased citizen engagement or participation. Corporate and special interest groups still make many of the comments on proposed rules and regulations. Furthermore, automated computer programs called “bots” can submit thousands of comments, flooding the system. Agencies do not have the resources to sift through the thousands of comments they receive (Noveck, 2009).

It is unfortunate that this implementation of e-government has not been successful regarding outcomes. Citizens will not be willing to submit their genuine concerns about the rules that affect them if they do not have faith that the agencies will listen to them (OECD, 2003). They will instead turn to social media outlets to organize for political change. To improve e-rulemaking, legislation may be required to limit the number of comments from any one entity. Furthermore, Congress must allocate additional resources to this vital form of citizen engagement by providing additional staff to review and interpret citizen comments.

E-voting

One of the primary forms of political participation and citizen engagement is voting. In the United States, voter turnout is historically meager compared to the number of eligible voters. The reasons for low turnout include voter apathy, distance from polling locations, the weather, and myriad others. After the 2000 presidential election in the United States, there was greater concern about manual election systems, and there was a push for reform to use information and communication technologies to improve the accuracy of voting counts (Kenski, n.d.).

Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 to modernize the voting systems. The implementation of the act met with little success. There are still problems in polling places nationwide. Computers break down, scanning systems do not always work, and voting systems are not consistent between states. States administer election procedures and processes and therefore have little incentive to change their systems, even with government funding assistance.

In addition to updating voting systems at polling places with modern Information and communication technologies, some places have implemented internet voting. There are many obvious reasons why people would prefer to vote online. For example, voting from home is just more convenient. Some citizens, especially senior citizens and voters with disabilities, may not be able to travel to polling locations far from their homes. The media have accused many boards of elections of voter suppression by creating a single polling place for thousands of voters, who must wait in line for hours to place their vote. They also cite voter suppression as a reason for placing polling locations far from minority neighborhoods. Internet voting could potentially solve these problems.

Some places have already implemented internet voting. The only nation to hold national elections with the ability to vote online is Estonia (Lust, 2015). In the 2015 election, 31% of voters voted online. In order to vote online, voters had to follow a procedure (detailed in Lust, 2015) that included using a national ID card in combination with a card reader they purchased and attached to their computer. The ID card is one that all citizens have already that contains a “smart chip.” They use this ID when making purchases online to secure those transactions as well. Voters also received a unique one-time use password for the voting system. The system sends to one server, then consolidated and transferred to another server that counts the votes.

Lust (2015) found that there were many problems with the internet voting system in Estonia. During controlled tests, viruses easily infected systems that could change people’s votes. Viruses could also infect servers that counted votes in order to manipulate vote counts and results. Furthermore, voters were able to change their votes due to constitutional restrictions and laws. There was no way to ensure that the person submitting the vote was the same person who used the ID card during the voting transaction.

In addition to the significant security concerns that were outlined in Lust’s report (2015) on Estonia, there are other concerns about implementing internet voting in the United States. First, each state runs its election system, which means that each state would develop different e-voting systems with potentially many different vendors. With so many different systems across the United States, it would be challenging to ensure that officials adequately tested all the systems for susceptibility to intrusion and hacking.

Another issue that Lust (2015) discovered was that most of the people who voted online were wealthier, urban Estonians; agrarian and poor voters were not well represented among internet voters. Many of these voters simply lacked internet access in addition to living very far from a physical polling place, causing many voters not to vote at all, increasing the weight of the votes of wealthy people. The United States also has a broadband access issue in remote areas of the country (Shark, 2015). This problem compounds existing voter suppression problems because it affects many of the same areas.

Just one of these problems with internet voting would be enough to shake the confidence of voters. One of the basic tenets of democracy is that citizens trust the outcomes of elections. In other nations, people have murdered presidents and started wars because they perceived unfairness in the election process. Many authoritarian leaders pretend to have democratic elections but tamper with votes or even lie about the results. It is critical to a democratic society that voting systems remain secure. Until we eliminate the possibility of hacking, internet voting will have to wait.

Conclusion

The rapid changes in technology in the 20th and 21st centuries have resulted in incredible advances in how the government interacts with its citizens. Many governments have turned to information and communication technologies to streamline services, save costs, and increase citizen engagement. E-government is the use of Information and communication technologies to deliver government services and engage with citizens in the public policy process.

Many areas of e-government have been researched, such as the legal aspects of e-government, its implementation, trust in government, and citizen engagement, e-participation, e-rulemaking, and e-democracy. While many areas of research have been explored in the numerous journal articles examined by Bolívar et al. (2012), it seems that academics have not reached a consensus about how information and communication technologies can best be used to increase citizen engagement with their governments.

The examples given in this paper of using information and communication technologies to improve service and citizen engagement have had mixed results. Social media has been very successful at being a “marketplace of ideas” where people can debate and deliberate the details of political issues. Social movements and revolutions have started on social media. Social media was targeted with fake news stories to influence voters in the 2016 presidential election (Goodwin-Ortiz de Leon, 2017). These events demonstrate the need for politicians and public administrators to pay attention to what people are saying and doing on social media. If people know their governments are listening and acting on their concerns, they will be more likely to engage in the public policy process.

Social media has been a success, but some e-government initiatives have had troubles or even failed. As discussed, citizen participation has been thwarted by bots and corporate interests in e-rulemaking. The world is not ready for e-voting because internet security is not yet foolproof, and it may never be. For e-government to be successful at improving citizen engagement, we must address the pressing security concerns. Much more research is needed, and better project management needs to happen before public agencies can implement ICTs in critical citizen engagement infrastructure.

References

Bolívar, R., Pedro, M., Muñoz, A., Hernández, L., Antonio, M., Bolívar, M. P. R., … López Hernández, A. M. (2012). Studying E-Government: Research Methodologies, Data Compilation Techniques And Future Outlook. Academia, 51(51), 79. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1271602067?accountid=13626

Brown, D. (2005). Electronic government and public administration. International Review of Administrative Sciences, 71(2), 241–254. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020852305053883

Goodwin-Ortiz de Leon, C. (2017). Fake News and Social Media: Illusory Truth and the 2016 Presidential Election. ResearchGate. Thomas Edison State University. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.25064.06409/1

Kenski, K. (n.d.). E-Voting. In Encyclopedia of Political Communication. 2455 Teller Road,  Thousand Oaks  California  91320  United States: SAGE Publications, Inc. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412953993.n191

Lincoln, A. (1863). Gettysburg Address. Retrieved November 10, 2018, from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/lib/rutgers-ebooks/reader.action?docID=3314656&ppg=1

Lust, A. (2015). Online voting: Boon or bane for democracy? Information Polity, 20(4), 313–323. https://doi.org/10.3233/IP-150373

Noveck, B. S. (2009). Wiki Government : How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful. Washington DC, UNITED STATES: Brookings Institution Press. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/rutgers-ebooks/detail.action?docID=472728

Oecd. (2001). Engaging Citizens in Policy-making: Information, Consultation and Public Participation OECD Public Management Policy Brief.

OECD. (2003). Promise and Problems of E-Democracy: Challenges of Online Citizen Engagement. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/governance/digital-government/35176328.pdf

Shark, A. (2015). Technology and Public Management. Retrieved from https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Zh3GNd9M1oUC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0

 

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