The development of information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as the Internet and Internet-based applications, has given rise to the study of the virtual space, in which a democratic model of the political structure of society can appear. Today, some researchers note that the modernization of the democratic regime is taking place on the Internet (Contucci et al., 2018). Although ICTs provide the opportunity for citizens to contribute to public decisions online, there are challenges with the trust of governments, a lack of well-designed platforms, and the inclusive participation of citizens.
Digital Democracy Review
The use of ICTs to develop and strengthen democratic institutions and increase citizen participation in political and social activities is defined as digital democracy, also known as e-democracy. Contucci et al. (2018) state that the essence of e-democracy is a system of relationships between government, citizens, and organizations based on information and communication links. Its main mechanisms include electronic voting, polls, online network communication, requests and proposals of citizens, and the formation of communicative communities (Holzer & Schwester, 2019). In the narrow sense, digital democracy refers to the use of e-support to ensure the constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens that require certain formal decisions. In a broad sense, this concept embraces the consideration of opinions and the involvement of citizens and organizations in political relations and processes.
Today, the ICTs allow millions of citizens to express their point of view on important political issues, realizing their basic civil rights and freedoms in new forms. Considering that digitalization penetrates every sphere of life, public administration also tries to innovate its approaches to working with people and managing its processes (Holzer & Schwester, 2019). One of the key benefits is that within the framework of the virtual space, no significant censorship restrictions are imposed on the freedom of expressing one’s opinion (Gastil & Richards, 2017). On the contrary, conditions are formed for the announcement of various attitudes and points of view, which creates conditions for the emergence of a point of contact between the authorities and the citizen to enhance the life of society.
Importance of Digital Democracy to Pubic Administration
Digital democracy is significant to public administration as it provides not only static information but also the opportunity for dynamic exchange between public officials and citizens. As stated by Holzer and Schwester (2019), two-way communication creates a public dialogue, in which people can receive valuable recommendations or request some decision-making on one or another issue. Dynamic citizen deliberation promotes inclusive participation and balanced information, while it is also expected to ensure freedom of coercion and timeliness in addressing issues (Holzer & Schwester, 2019).
Accordingly, the main stakeholders involved in e-democracy are citizens and government representatives, as well as ICT specialists and other intermediaries. However, proper digital democracy work requires a range of factors to be met, such as trust in the public authorities, effective problem-solving, and data safety.
The issue of trusted identities is probably one of the key concerns faced by citizens when they attempt to participate in digital democracy. For example, hackers often send e-mails and make calls to gather personal information or make people think that they need some service or product to pay for. In 2011, the National Strategy or Trusted Identities in Cyberspace was launched in the US (Holzer & Schwester, 2019). However, there are still many cases of digital deception, fraud, and other forms of destructive cyber activity. Asenbaum (2019) claims that digital technologies are secondary: they by themselves do not help, for example, the development of protests, and do not interfere with them. Digital technology speeds up time and decreases distance, but if such opportunities are not in demand, they cannot change anything.
Electronic bidding makes it possible to make all public procurement transparent when any citizen can identify a violation via the Internet and act as a public watchdog. Nevertheless, if there is no institutionalized mechanism for responding to the results of such control, officials cannot provide proper democracy (Contucci et al., 2018). In turn, some people do not go to polling stations during elections not because they are uncomfortable and want to vote from home, using their laptop or smartphone, but because they are not interested in the elections. They are likely to consider that nothing depends on their vote, and they do not believe that the candidates will be able to solve their problems (Contucci et al., 2018).
The experiment on the introduction of electronic voting in the elections in the US in 2016 caused a negative rather than a positive reaction in society. If there is no trust in the bodies and institutions that organize elections, smart technologies cannot restore this trust, especially if the results of electronic voting look ambiguous.
The availability of new interactive communication technologies, such as teleconferencing, opinion polling systems, automated feedback programs, and so on, allowing constant public consultation, has not led to the creation of true democracy. The fact is that professional communication agencies mostly work for profit and are guided by the interests of the ruling circles in the face of large companies and the state bureaucratic apparatus (Helbing et al., 2019).
Therefore, they tend to consistently silence the most controversial social problems and suppress political innovation. This is also complicated by the growing specialization of political functions and the extreme lack of time and attention inherent in modern society. The continuous increase in the volume of the transmitted information and the uncontrollability of processes cause disorientation and passivity in citizens (Helbing et al., 2019). People are likely to become indifferent to collective forms of political participation and, accordingly, withdraw into the sphere of private life, disregarding personal responsibility and contribution to democracy.
To make digital democracy work more effectively, there is a need to design and introduce online civic engagement tools and encourage citizens to be proactive. It is important to implement flexible management systems and transfer responsibility for making decisions not just to the states, but also to counties and local organizations, encouraging control and expertise from the civil society (Contucci et al., 2018).
Digital democracy will work when the contact between citizens and government at all levels is established since mere technology implementation cannot provide positive results. Asenbaum (2019) suggests that a new materialism approach should be used to pay more attention to democratic processes and cooperation between the government and citizens. In particular, equality and inclusivity should be prioritized, while online democracy should be intertwined with the offline format. Consequently, these initiatives would increase public trust in the safety and appropriateness of e-democracy. The increased participation of citizens would also promote the further development of policies for proper public administration.
A lack of well-designed platforms is another challenge that impedes the adoption of digital democracy and makes it vulnerable to various cyber threats. Gastil and Richards (2017) recommend the integration of online civic spaces so that it can be convenient for users to actively express their opinions and participate in the decision-making processes. The authors assume that gamification principles can be beneficial to designing online commons, encouraging more sustainable and deliberative citizen engagement (Gastil & Richards, 2017).
In other words, the improvements in the interface and connectedness across online platforms that provide the access to e-democracy would eventually lead to a greater understanding and more widespread practice of democratic rights and freedoms in cyberspace. It should also be emphasized that the growing globalization of the contemporary world makes a huge imprint on the democratic configuration of information networks. It weakens the control of nation-states over communication sources and promotes the wide dissemination of political ideas and democratic experience.
To conclude, the emergence and spread of ICTs that rapidly penetrate all spheres of public life create the basis for the further development of civil society. Digital democracy serves as the basis for building a moral, electronic, and socially-oriented state with a multi-structured and guaranteed realization of civil rights and freedoms, where citizens are involved in social and political life using technologies. It is critical to enhancing the role of civil society by expanding its space for self-government, which would improve the practices of e-democracy. There is a need to elaborate on new strategies and theories to engage citizens, advance online platforms, and overcome the current challenges of mistrust of public officials and cyber threats.
Asenbaum, H. (2019). Rethinking digital democracy: From the disembodied discursive self to new materialist corporealities. Communication Theory, 1-29.
Contucci, P., Omicini, A., Pianini, D., & Sîrbu, A. (2018). The future of digital democracy: An interdisciplinary approach. Springer.
Gastil, J., & Richards, R. C. (2017). Embracing digital democracy: A call for building an online civic commons. Political Science & Politics, 50(3), 758-763.
Helbing, D., Caron, & Helbing. (2019). Towards digital enlightenment. Springer International Publishing.
Holzer, M., & Schwester, R. W. (2019). Public administration: An introduction (3rd ed.). Routledge.