The problem of democratic engagement in the policy process - Assignment Example

The use of ICT (Information & Communication technologies) has only been recently regarded as a tool in government policy making and the basis for its sudden introduction and growth can be considered a facet of Labour Modernisation agenda which was proposed in 1997. This essay aims to show that recent stagnation has forced the government to look for alternative channels of reaching the public and increasing their participation.

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The use of the internet and other electronic devices has giving the government the opportunity to gain public participation through unorthodox means and change the entire structure of how the public view the government and services it provides them. In Central government it is hoped the emergence of e-government will lead to greater participation in general elections and general awareness.

In local government it is hoped that e-government will allow for much greater participation of citizens in reshaping local policy and service delivery at the very core. But although ICT has the potential to change British politics, it still has many obstacles to over come before the full benefits of this modernisation can be reaped. The government views ICT as its single greatest method for retaining public participation in government politics after an ever quicker decrease in public turnouts for elections since their time in power.

Dropping to an incredibly low figure of only 59. 4% in the 2001 General Elections there was a real fear government would degenerate into a separate entity to that of its citizens, being unrepresentative and subsequently unable to create policy that actively portrayed the mood of the general populace. This was illustrated furthermore in local elections where turnout in 2000 was only 29. 6%, compared to an average of 41% in the 20 year period between 1976 and 1996.

Even though there was a slight increase in the 2002 elections this situation is coming dangerously close to removing the claim for any local authority to speak with legitimacy as the authentic voice of its community (Kearns, Chap. 2). But a vast increase in internet usage over the last 5-10 years has ignited a government realisation of a method of communication with the public that was previously impossible. According to Office for National statistics only 20% of UK households had internet access in 1999. This figure increased to 37% by the end of 2001, and is now estimated to be at around 56% of the general populace.

As this new medium allows improved access to information and service distribution, so does the government’s aspiration for exploitation of new electronic channels to increase democratic engagement in central and local government policy processes. In Central Government ICT allows for the improvement of citizen interaction on many levels and although some of the more obvious concepts like e-voting are clear examples of public engagement, other aspects of E-government like Best Value, government intranet & efficiency and transactional services allow for greater participation.

If one assumes that any increased public participation, and usage, of government services to be a form of active contribution to the policy process (in that increased awareness of government activity through any means and the acceptance of E-government as a policy) that in itself is a boost to general democratic involvement in government policy. So in effect for people to use transactional government services, like online tax forms, is in a way making people more aware of government procedure leading to greater use of government services and information sites.

But for Central government the priority is still to increase General Election turnouts. Although the government is yet to state its intention on changes to voting practices it seems to be anticipated in the foreseeable future that ICT will allow for the public to vote using various network channels to access the internet and vote accordingly. Considering the speed at which internet access is being used, through not only PCs but through mobile phones and even digital TVs, the exploitation of these modes of access for voting would likely lead to a greatly increased general election turnout (Audit commission, National report, Chap. ). But as mentioned earlier, transactional benefits would allow for citizens who feel excluded from government policy processes to see that in addition to gaining services through e-government they can also access information on government and its procedures. ICT also brings up the possibility of even greater interaction with the public through concepts like CRM (Customer Relations Management) and JUG (Joined Up Government).

CRM effectively allows for government to personalise the individuals usage of government websites to ensure each organisation knows who they’re dealing with, help to steer the individual’s site usage and allow for his/her passage through the system. This is not only restricted to the internet either, allowing for the same personalised information on the individual to used at home, through a digital television, or even over the phone with staff.

This level of service delivery will greatly reshape the public view on public service consumption, hopefully leading to a type of personalised service delivery similar, yet superior, to some private company personalised web-services e. g. Amazon. But the advantage lies not confined to only one site. Consumer tracking and information will be built up and developed through his/her entire usage of any government service. So in effect, a civil servant or even social worker could access information on the tendencies, patterns and commitment of a customer’s interaction with the whole e-government system.

Subsequently leading to better relations between government and the individual, and easier access of information for the public on government policy and its processes. JUG is basically the usage of a government intranet which allows for information to be distributed through the whole government network. Similar to CRM in that it uses e-government as a tool for delivering information throughout the network, the benefit of JUG is significantly directed towards providers then the consumer.

This is well illustrated by recent examples of JUG; joint provision for adult support being fully developed through care direct, and children at potential risk in the system as is being established by the IRT system being implemented by the Children’s and Young Person Unit. ‘Therefore this joined up approach allows for al appropriate staff to be able to access and contribute records, enabling case-tracking regardless of child movements [in this case] and multiple agency involvement. ‘ (Morphet, J. , Pg. 11) This furthermore there is a clear indirect benefit to the public through vastly improved service delivery.

It is this active participation in services and increased access of information which involves the public to much higher degrees. In a manner this participation is a by-product of greater understanding of government and indirectly helps to democratise government process and shape its policies towards public service delivery. But although much of Labour’s ambitions are placed in Central government improvements the area which is most important the people lies in the day-to-day care of Local government services.

In conjunction with other key public sector bodies, such as police and local health bodies, they [local government] either commission or directly deliver vital public services including education, housing and social care (Audit Commission, national report, Pg. 8). The providing of these core services to the public has created a much closer relationship between local government and the individual then at central level. Additionally the sheer extent of services provided allows for much greater scope in the development of e-government as a tool for delivery and interaction in the policy process.

ICT has the potential to create a huge online community which can debate every facet of local government activity and policy. The progress towards implementing e-government at a local level is measured by the Best Value Performance Indicator 157 (BVPI 157). This framework hopes to help get local governments to the point where they can put any queries to public for open debate by 2005. The system aimed for should provide ways for local people to make their views known and, moreover, to enable them to see and to understand the views of others.

In addition these tools could be used to bring different local organisations and professional groups together in collaboration. Which, while laying the foundations for future partnerships and cross organisational debate would also give local government staff access to real expertise in some areas not possible before. In this way civil servants and the community could become almost equal partners in development of policy and access to information on progress could be done more efficiently by not only local government staff but by the public as well.

With the advent of CRM citizens will be able to see how their input in debates, forum discussions and emails with community leaders progresses with the policies being implemented. This would lead to understanding never seen before in British politics, where the public are not only aware of government practise and information on process but having enough knowledge to present input into service delivery through individual deliberation (Kearns, Chap. 2). Even areas such as Best Value could, and should, be consulted by all sections of the local community on what the key Best Value priorities and objectives ought to be.

So again e-government would allow more people to take part in service related discussions in a way which does not require people to attend public meetings at set times and locations. Subsequently they also have the advantage of allowing citizens to see and understand the views of other in their own community and to engage in debate over what the service priorities are. What is also important to note is that not only would this lead to improved participation in local politics, but the ease of access through multiple channels would increase the range of participants.

This means that individuals previously excluded from the process would be able to balance views of local governance and make it more democratic. E-government also has the potential to change to relationship between government and the citizen. Previously the government wasn’t able to correlate data on citizens between departmental services. That is to say they went able to create personal files which encompassed all information about individuals and their dealings with local government in all areas.

What this would mean is that instead of some one have to found out what they can get and need from government and then ask for it, the local authority would already know everything about the individual and be able tell him what he needs. Subsequently this would take the responsibility for acquiring services away from the citizen and to the government. So a pensioner wouldn’t have to ask what services he can get from his community, it would be the authority’s responsibility to let him know and give him the easiest access to these services.

This would cut out entire administrative duties, speed up service delivery and create a much more efficient system for implementation with local authorities. It would therefore allow for more time to be spent on policy process and give a more positive attitude towards local authorities’ as service providers, possibly leading to greater participation from the public. There are other potential benefits of e-government within local government after the new structuring of the authority executives. Non-executive elected members of government play the role of representing the interests of constituents and scrutinizing committee policy.

With the recent structural changes these elected members are freed up from previously excessive burdens of committee work and are expected to invest more time in building relationships with constituents and gain a better understanding of their needs. E-government allows this type of interaction and also allows the non-exec to take evidence from people with expertise or experience of relevance to the issue under scrutiny (Kearns, Chap. 3). This is an obvious example of how the public could get even more involved in policy scrutiny and policy through ICT.

But before ICT can successful engage the public there are many issues which could make it much less effective. For starters there is the security issue. This basically means that unless the government can convince the public that the sites are secure and that all information on them is completed safe many individuals would be weary of exploiting e-government to its full potential. But there are more fundamental problems with ICT. Implementing it could bear many issues which may prove to be very difficult to overcome.

Even if the possibility for participation is there for the public to engage with local officials these officials have to be trained. In fact for it to work effectively I would have to be not only representative of the public using ICT but also the government staff using it. For this it would require all staff in relevant positions be given the knowledge and skill to use ICT to its full capability which could become a huge endeavour considering the amount of different staff involved and their different areas of expertise (Audit Commission, National report, Chap. ). The there is the issue of whether the professionals and government employees will accept the changes and the reshape of their structure. The matter of time and money is also very significant. The creation of a working form of e-government is still not necessarily possible by 2005. The time it could take to create a working system may be significantly longer and for labour to try and push it to completion before the next general election may leave Britain with a system containing numerous gaps and bugs.

ICT is also thought of as a way for the government to saving money by reducing administrative jobs and increase efficiency through the whole of government. But so far it is already estimated to have spent i?? 2. 5billion on local government installation so far and hopes to spend i?? 6billion by 2005. Yet the majority of this money is going into maintenance of government sites and if the system grows, which it inevitably will, it is possibly that the use of e-government will become too expensive an endeavour to continue practically.

In conclusion it is evident that there is great potential in ICT for engaging the public in the policy process throughout the entire political spectrum, enabling the public to obtain services more efficiently, interact with local government over policy issues and even make voting more accessible to excluded areas. But even if ICT can solve the problem of democratic engagement there are many fundamental problems in its implementation which could hinder or even destroy the prospect of E-government ever becoming an actuality.