Beyond the Online Transaction: Enhancement of Citizen Participation via the Web in Ontario Provincial Government

Beyond the Online Transaction: Enhancement of Citizen Participation via the Web in Ontario Provincial Government

Brendan Burke
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-699-0.ch027
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Among North American state and provincial governments, there are only a handful of chief executives who make the most of the Internet as a tool for gaining citizen input on policy questions and disseminating a clear and well-crafted agenda. Dalton McGuinty, the Premier of Ontario since 2003, was the first to push the Web beyond conventional e-government functions such as tax or fee payment, the filing applications for programs, and report dissemination, into a realm of interactive facilitation of democratic governance. This chapter describes the context of Ontario politics and establishment of common e-government techniques before McGuinty became his government’s leader, the responsive digital strategies that he adopted to treat Ontario’s situation as he came to office, and an assessment of these strategies five years into his leadership of this diverse province.
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Introduction: A Higher Order Of Digital Engagement

When initiating the field of public administration in North America late in the 19th century, Woodrow Wilson declared, “It is getting to be harder to run a constitution than to frame one.”(1887) With over a century of history passed since this statement and much development of the field of public administration, it is clear that one cannot run a constitution or other guiding institutions of governance without informed support and consensus of the citizenry. This is a major current challenge, as citizen trust in government can scarcely fall lower than its current levels. Support for government agencies such as the police and military average approximately 50 percent worldwide; however legislative actors are granted much lower support from citizens. Parliaments in Africa and East Asia have the positive endorsement of approximately 40 percent of their citizenries, support in the European Union is as low as 35 percent, and in Latin America public trust in the political process is as low as 15 percent (Blind 2007). In the United States, the drop-off over the past few decades is dramatic; from approximately 60 percent support in the 1960’s, trust in government among Americans fell to 20 percent by the turn of the century (Bok 1997). When this is the case, who is left to sustain progressive change in democratic societies? What policies and administrative mechanisms will it take to bring citizens back to a reasonable level of trust in governing institutions?

A range of internal or administrative reforms implemented during the 1990’s and into this century attempt to reengage citizens and stakeholders in their governments’ programs and administration. Under titles such as “reinventing government” or the “New Public Management,” nations and their subnational governments have made strides to meet public expectations for responsiveness, effectiveness, and accountability (Kettl 2005). The main interest within this book falls to on-line provision of public services, such as processing of governmental business transactions and the dissemination of information related to governmental services and programs. Indeed, there has been tremendous success in these areas, with much greater efficiency, economy, and flexibility in how governments worldwide meet their constituents’ needs (Fountain 2001; Coursey and Norris 2008). One direction for this book’s enhancement of knowledge about Internet-based innovation relates to a conventional view of the “digital divide,” the gap between haves and have-nots regarding contemporary or current technological access to on-line services and information (Dewan and Riggins 2005). It is possible, however, to expand the discussion of digital access and application to look beyond service transactions, to the Internet’s role in enhancing democratic participation as part of an attempt to reduce the chasm within levels of citizen trust in government. Citizen participation was discussed, at least in theory, within the reform writings of the 1990’s, but few worthwhile examples of effective participation initiatives arose above the community level. The Canadian province of Ontario provides a rich case of well-crafted citizen participation initiatives using both face-to-face techniques as well as Internet-based mechanisms. This chapter builds an understanding of this successful case as a discussion point for the prospects and pitfalls of e-government effort that moves beyond citizen-government transactions toward facilitation of community dialog on behalf of its own self-determination.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Scientific Management: Classic enhancements to bureaucratic programs and agencies, based in the strengthening of command and control structure, clear rule orientations, the use of expertise to run systems and processes, and rational, informed decision making.

New Public Management: A group of administrative reforms designed to modernize governments into the Twenty-first century. This term, used mostly in Europe, especially recognizes reforms that privatize or outsource the provision of governmental services.

Integration: The movement of government transactions to the Internet, via a combination of information databases and interactive Web sites to gather information and payments for services.

Reinventing Government: The American version of the term, “New Public Management.” This set of reforms, initiated by Vice President Al Gore in 1993 involved the use of business practices and a “customer” orientation to the delivery of bureaucratic services.

Digital Democracy: The use of the Internet or other computer technologies to enhance governance processes such as voting or participation in public hearings.

Administrative Reform: Modernization techniques to improve the performance of bureaucratic programs and agencies.

Interaction: E-government techniques to enhance two-way communication, most prominently e-mail and discussion forums.

Watchful Eye: The enhancement of citizen and interest group participation in governmental decisions.

Liberation Management: The movement of government services toward a more modern vision of the state, consistent with the use of business techniques and practices; a greater focus on customer or client need; and use of and responsiveness to technological and societal advancements.

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