Citizen Participation and Digital Town Hall Meeting

Citizen Participation and Digital Town Hall Meeting

Donald P. Moynihan (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-947-2.ch113
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If part of the promise of digital government is to enable citizens and businesses to enjoy greater convenience in their interaction with government, another goal is to revitalize democracy itself. A decline in civic engagement between citizens has been noted in society (Putnam, 1993) while citizen distrust of political institutions is on the rise (King & Stivers, 1998). Both trends do not augur well for democracy. Democratic theorists and public administration scholars have argued that one way to reverse these trends is to foster greater citizen participation in public decisions. Why is participation so important that B. Guy Peters (1996) points to it as one of the four main alternatives for the future of governance? Participation is justified as a normative right, a contributor to better public decisions, and an enabler of higher social capital. One broad rationale underlying greater participation the rise of postmodern values among citizens, characterized by both a distrust of formal institutions such as government and political parties, and a desire for more participatory democracies (Inglehart, 1997). Societal changes, particularly increased education, lead to a greater demand for involvement and access to information (Thomas, 1995). Access to information is facilitated by new technologies. Citizens therefore enjoy both the will and the means to break the monopoly and centralized control on public information enjoyed by the government (Cleveland, 1985). Participation is also justified in terms of benefits to individual citizens and society more broadly. Any form of citizenship beyond simple legal status requires active citizen involvement in public matters and the community (Cooper, 1984). Participation serves to establish the worth of individual citizens, allowing them to feel a sense of ownership and take an active part in controlling their surroundings and developing their capacity to act as citizens. The process of public deliberation also benefits society by creating democratic legitimacy and a deliberative political culture (Habermas, 1996). One basic barrier to enhanced citizen participation is the nature of bureaucracy itself. Barber (1986) has argued that government has become a form of “representative bureaucracy” that undermines individual responsibility for beliefs, values, and actions, and is incompatible with freedom since it delegates and alienates political will. The values of bureaucracy are based on expertise and qualifications, conflicting with democratic values that underpin the idea of participation. Citizens are defined as non-expert outsiders who may have to be listened to, but are likely to have little actual impact on decisions. This is reflected in the failings of traditional modes of citizen participation. Subject to particular ire is the town hall meeting/public hearing mode of participation. King, Fetley, and Susel (1998, p. 323) say: “The most ineffective technique is the public hearing. Public hearings do not work.” Such meetings can be poorly attended and dominated by elite, non-representative groups (Fox & Miller, 1996). Hearings are often timed late in the decision process, used to convince citizens of pre-made decisions rather than gain their input, and provide no opportunity for an iterative dialogue. They have also been critiqued for fostering self-interested claims rather than concern with the general welfare of the citizenry and deemed unsuitable to foster choices between policy tradeoffs. Citizens attending public hearings tend to have little background information on issues, often leading to poorly informed opinions about policy and the working of government (Ebdon, 2002). Can the problems of the traditional town hall meeting be solved through a more digital approach? Yes and no. As this article will show, digital town hall meetings, if well organized, can enable a large and diverse group of citizens to engage in an intelligent iterative dialogue with each other and with elected officials. However, whether this input ends up shaping governmental decisions still rests largely in the hands of public officials.

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