The Virtual Town Hall

The Virtual Town Hall

R. A. Cropf
Copyright: © 2007 |Pages: 6
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59140-789-8.ch248
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A key part of the appeal of interactive communications technology (ICT) has been its huge potential to facilitate citizen access to and participation in government and the political process, particularly since the advent of the World Wide Web (WWW) in the early 1990s. The ability of citizens to initiate direct contact with government individually and become civically engaged can be enhanced by telecommunications, according to e-democracy proponents (see Barber, 1984, 2003; Becker & Slaton, 2000; Cleveland, 1985; Clift, 2004; Davis, Elin, & Reeher, 2002; Nye, 1998). We refer to this use of ICT to enhance democracy as the virtual town hall (VTH). When we use the term “virtual town hall,” we refer not only to specific current or prior use of ICT as a site for interactive public discourse but also to the full range of potential civic discourses that might be mediated through and enhanced by ICT (e.g., electronic town meetings, citizen juries, e-panels, and online polling, to name just a few). In short, the VTH concept encompasses all the ways in which contemporary and future interactive technologies can potentially create a “virtual public sphere,” returning to “mass culture” some of the interactive and direct discourse practices of the traditional, local civic environment. We believe that such technologies have the potential, when developed and implemented properly, to enhance participatory government in any areas where broad-based access can be achieved. Likewise, this potential should encourage us to pursue the goal of increasing access to ICT for people everywhere, regarding it as a fundamental public service, like a basic utility, that constitutes a major factor in maintaining the quality of life. Governments in the United States and elsewhere have created a strong presence on the WWW since the mid- to late-1990s. However, government Web sites typically emphasize what has been called a “services first, democracy later approach,” especially in the United States (Clift, 2003). The use of ICT to enhance citizen engagement with government and politics is often overlooked, downplayed, or ignored by governments in favor of the technology’s capacity to help facilitate the delivery of public services. Technology provides numerous opportunities for a more open, democratic process of governance and increased political participation. In theory, ICT makes this possible for the following reasons identified by Abramson, Atherton, and Orren (1988): the huge volume of information that can be exchanged; the ability to exchange this information without being constrained by time and space; the unprecedented control users have over what messages are received and when; the decentralization of information production and control; and the interactive nature of information exchange. Thus, the VTH can bring into being an online version of the public sphere, empowering ordinary citizens to strengthen their communities and democratic institutions (Cropf & Casaregola, 1998). The VTH uses ICT to encourage public discussion and deliberation over the proper ends of government and the means to achieve those ends. We contend the VTH can serve as a means to strengthen civil society. As noted by Putnam and others, civil society is essential to democracy. Civil society helps inculcate the core values and norms associated with democratic government. Indeed, according to Alexis de Tocqueville, civil society is what makes democratic government possible. Whether the potential of the VTH to strengthen civil society is fulfilled, however, depends on the current choices made by governments and other social institutions regarding issues of citizen access to ICT and the role of this technology in democratic governance.

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