2002 has been an interesting year for watchers of digital government in Victoria. At the end of March the Minister for Innovation, John Brumby released the new government policy for online government - Putting People
at the Centre, while in February the Minister for Information and Communication Technology announced a parliamentary inquiry into electronic democracy that will report in December of this year.
Putting People at the Centre outlines a broad whole-of-government approach to online service delivery and electronic democracy. The policy commits the state to review the range of government activities provided to the public and develop new delivery methods aimed at tailoring service delivery for Victorians. As an adjunct to
this overarching policy position, the electronic democracy inquiry will examine potential new uses for online technologies to support democratic government and encourage public participation in the policy making process. The inquiry will consider new methods of community consultation using online technology and enhanced ways to provide
the public with information about the workings of government. Overall the government has committed itself to "increase even further the transparency and accountability of Parliament and the Government".
Reading both policy documents and many academic writings on electronic democracy you begin to wonder if you have entered a new economy that appears powered solely by cliché: new interactive technologies like the Internet will allow governments to do "more with less", reducing "duplication" and increasing
"efficiency", the new services will "empower" citizen-cum-consumers with "customised" interactive services and "choice" to meet their needs and desires with flexible services and products, 24x7x365.
In discussions of electronic government around the world this level of rhetorical boosterism is pretty much the norm for first world nations, and the new state government policy projects the type of Internet-savvy state image that Victoria has been attempting to cultivate over the past five years. The government, however, needs to
be cautious not to create a rod for their own back in over-hyping the potential of online technologies to enhance Victoria's democracy and deliver a wired utopia for the masses.
In touting new technologies as a way around the complex institutional structures of government departments, the government is inviting the Information Technology (IT) industry to come to the party with expensive new solutions to personalise government interactions with the community. For the industry this opportunity comes at the
right time. With IT spending low in the private sector, recession-proof government contracts offer the potential to support ailing revenues. In the United States we have seen the IT sector highly proactive in advocating new media solutions to a range of government problems. In the past few years, the industry has promoted electronic
voting systems as a solution to the political impasse in Florida and biometric verification technologies in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York. The cost of these solutions, as always remains high, as governments are invited to lead at the bleeding edge of technological development.
Industry-driven responses to democratic problems remain problematic, however. In an era when information technologies are reshaping the way commercial activities are undertaken, it is important to consider that online services remain limited to a relatively privileged minority in our community. Industry activity, especially in high
technology fields, tends towards "cherry picking" profitable market share, rather than universal service for all. In the deregulation of telecommunications services in Australia, support for customers who offer only marginal profitability has only been maintained through the use of government-mandated cross subsidy and
regulation, not via the beneficence of private-sector companies. Currently, over sixty percent of Australian households do not have Internet access, and the division between rural and urban users remains high. Additionally, while the usability of online services has been enhanced with experience and practice, the skilled Australian
Internet user is more likely to be male, educated, and earning in excess of $70 000 per annum. Not your average punter.
Therefore, while Putting People at the Centre does identify problems associated with the "digital divide" in our community, it's focus on "online only" services backed by increasing public Internet awareness and access programs remains problematic should the online segment of our community receive services
that are vastly superior to what can be expected by those Victorians who lack the technology, skills, language, or interest to access and navigate the Internet proficiently. Similarly, in consideration of online democracy initiatives for the government and parliament, the electronic democracy inquiry proposes a range of online only
activities such as Internet-based voting, streaming of parliamentary debates, and "electronic town hall" meetings between representatives and the public. While online only services have problems in justifying the fairness of service delivery, especially among those of our community who most need government services (the poor,
the disenfranchised), over-emphasis on electronic democracy displays serious limitations if the government wishes to display real concern about "continuing to restore democracy".
In consideration of electronic democracy, we need to consider the central tenant of democratic government: for a system of government to be democratic, there needs to be political equality among the citizenry. Equality, in this sense refers to the capacity for each citizen to cast an informed vote, free of coercion or violence, and
that each vote be counted roughly equally. But what it also requires is that each citizen has equality of access to the political process, that information is provided widely and that the capacity for citizens to interact with policy makers is fair and equitable across the whole population. What this means is that, in our
digitally-divided world, any electronic democracy initiative that substantially increases the ability for the online community to access and influence the policy making process must be matched by similar developments in the offline world. This, obviously has resource and time implications, and the "broadcasting" of parliament
(for example) through streaming video or audio technology is a relatively inexpensive activity when compared to dedicating similar broadcasting through free-to-air technology (television and radio, having a much higher market penetration than the Internet).
With thoughtful consideration of parity between the online and offline communities, new initiatives to enhance democratic accountability and transparency will improve Victorian democracy. The Bracks government must, however, be cautious in its approach to the introduction of new electronic democracy or risk further alienating that
section of our community who see government and access to the political process as the preserve of elites.