“How are Parliaments using Internet and ICT in the service of Democratic Representation? A proposal to measure Online and Political Engagement from a top-down perspective”

By Sofia Serra da Silva

Parliaments or legislatures are considered the keystone of democratic governance. In fact, authors like Lijphart consider that ‘Legislatures should probably be regarded as the most important institutions in a democracy’ (Lijphart, 1994: ix). They perform key actions in polities and they have one core-defining function: they give assent, on behalf of a political community, that extends beyond the executive authority, to binding measures of public policy (Norton, 1990), even though parliaments vary substantially in terms of their functions.

Despite the formal and theoretical importance of parliaments and their roles in representative democracies, several opinion polls have been showing signs of apathy, disaffection and political discontent mong European citizens regarding political institutions, in general and in specific parliaments (Hibbing andTheiss-Morse, 1995, 2001; Inglehart, 1999; Norris, 1999; Dalton 1999; Pharr, Putnam and Dalton, 2000, 2004; Torcal and Montero, 2006). Although the public remoteness and alienation from the formal democratic process has never been more acute, the public access to parliament has never been greater (Coleman, 2004:1). This paradox of contemporary politics along with the signs of apathy, disaffection and political discontent have forced institutions and political actors to rethink and re-evaluate their current practices and seek new approaches to connect with citizens.

A recent and growing body of literature has looked to Internet and Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) as important tools in the relationship between political institutions and public society. In fact, the last decades have been characterized by the emergence of the information age (Castells, 1999) and by changes enhanced by ICT, where the Internet “plays an increasingly important role in communicating and forming public opinion” (Leston-Bandeira, 2009:13). Understanding how a central political institution such as the parliament uses the internet is therefore crucial to address some of the challenges faced by today’s democracies (Leston-Bandeira, 2009). Considering this, internet and other technology related tools could lead the way to rejuvenate parliaments and strengthen relations between them and citizens.

This paper seeks to make the case for the importance of parliaments under the opportunities brought by the emergence of the information age, arguing that technological developments could allow parliaments to engage more effectively with public and improve the way they work in order to become more genuinely representative of their electorates, more accessible and accountable to them, more open and transparent in their procedures, and more effective in their key tasks of legislation and oversight of government.

Today several indicators require us to pay attention to how political institutions are using the internet. First, we know that all European parliaments (along with other public and political institutions) belonging to EU are working online, at least in one of multiple online platforms (website, Facebook or Twitter). There was an evolution since the beginning of the millennium: while 57% of 179 national parliaments worldwide which were analyzed by Norris (2001) had a website, that number increased to 97% in 2006. Second, recent data show that European citizens are know more integrated online than ever before. Almost two-thirds (65%) of the EU population used the internet daily in 2014, compared with less than a third (31%) in 2006. Recent data, from November 2015, shows a 79,3% of Internet penetration in EU population, which it is also testified by the amount of internet users – 402,937,674 and 236,230,000 Facebook subscriptions. Thirdly, despite the limited experience to date, several experts, politicians, government officials and policy advisors recognize new ICTs to be powerful tools for enhancing citizen engagement in public policy-making (Coleman and Norris, 2005).

Therefore, nowadays, the question we need to ask is not about whichparliaments are online or even about how parliaments will be affected by the internet, as if new technologies are an irresistible extrinsic force (Coleman, Taylor and Van De Donk, 1990), but how are parliaments using internet and ICT in the service of enhancing and evolving the process of democratic representation? How are they using these tools to strengthen the relationship between them and citizens and to promote citizens engagement?

Paper to be presented at the 24th World Congress of Political Science, Poznań, Poland.

 

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