The user as an engaged citizen in electronic government- a dangerous association

The emerging global trend on open government makes emphasis on citizen engagement as a possibility as well as a condition of modern societies.  It is the citizen who can take electronic government to a new level: one in which decisions are jointly made (and evaluated).

The experience gained in building electronic government (e-government) infrastructures is now rationalised as as first step, or a platform over which openness, transparency and accountability can be built in societies.


Governments have been the main actors and beneficiaries of these infrastructures.  Some researchers would argue that up to now e-government has been supply-led rather than demand-led.  Still, they would accept that what needs to be promoted is better and more informed use of e-government services.  In other words it is by increasing use how citizens are to become engaged with e-government and with its new incarnation (open government).  Social media technologies can help governments and citizens to engage with societal affairs and at different levels (local, regional, national and even international).


However the association of use with engagement presents a number of problems.  First it is assumed that citizens are just waiting for opportunities to exert their rights.  Such opportunities might not have been that clear when governments deliver e-government services.  This assumption might not hold true for citizens who have still not seen what electronic government or the use of electronic information is about.


Second, there is an assumption that engagement means active participation in deliberation or evaluation.  This is similar to what a lecturer expects her students to do (become engaged with the tasks that are set up for them to learn).  Engagement might mean not being electronically active at all, or not being engaged with something that one does not believe in.  Or being silently engaged, with a low degree of electronic participation but with a high degree of commitment and involvement in local or community affairs.


Third, the metrics that are used by governments to assess engagement have to do with use of social media, visits to websites, electronic exchanges and the like.  Again, this perspective excludes those who for any reason are not actively seen by analytic tools.   More worryingly, some governments are now thinking of adopting social media marketing techniques to attract citizens to use their resources.  The citizen can then become a consumer, one in the set of millions of electronic records that are to be gathered, mined, analysed and relied upon to inform decision making.


Finally, the notion of citizenship is not reviewed or even contested.  What do we mean by citizen when we refer to someone that uses electronic resources?  How this notion fits within what we consider a democratic society or a democratically elected government? Should not there be a consideration of a variety of ideas and questions about citizenship?


Those people in charge of formulating policy to promote open government practices should review the above assumptions and perhaps think again if they want to continue confounding a citizen with a user.


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