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Parliamentary Group On Domestic Violence Essay

| November 7, 2016

Parliamentary group on domestic violence

Abstract

Democracy is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents. This is ongoing in electronic democracy (e-democracy) and the only innovation is in the platform (in this case: electronic) which is supplied through Information and Communications Technology (ICT). It would have to be pointed out that ICT is not a solution to democracy but an enabler of new means of engagement between the parliament and the people. The report focuses on two online consultation based case studies: All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence (Womenspeak) in the United Kingdom.

Introduction: E-democracy

Plato stated that, “democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequal alike” (Droppings, 2010).  Electronic democracy is a medium which enhances direct interaction between the people and the parliament in the policy-making process through Information and Communication Technology (ICT). E-democracy can be seen as a “stage in the historical evolution of the democratic experiment” (Coleman and Norris, 2005). E-democracy is a new concept and grew slowly in the UK since 1997 where only 2% of the population had access to the internet. Nevertheless, by the year 2006, 60% of the UK population accessed and used the internet regularly (Ferguson and Miller, 2007). Since 2005, the number of MPs with their own websites has risen to around 520 and as per 2007 reports 39 MPs were blogging in Westminster (Ferguson and Miller, 2007). As there is no denying that e-products are increasingly becoming a big part of our lives, this report will be focused on the effects that electronic democracy has had in the United Kingdom. Specifically, it will examine of one particular online consultation: women sufferers of domestic violence dialogue. The aim of this report is to assess the positive or negative effects of e-democracy and to avoid the democratic paradox of a ‘one-way conversation’ (Postman, 1986).

One of the challenges faced by e-democracy is how to increase the dialogue of the government with the individual and vice-versa (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2003), as well as maintaining the connection and obstructing the danger of “e-consultation fatigue”. E-consultation fatigue is a “lack of government feedback on citizens’ contributions” (OECD, 2003) and thus, defeats the whole purpose of democracy. Another challenge which protrudes from this is the growing “concern over the amount of resources that could potentially be required to undertake such analysis and feedback” (OECD, 2003). Furthermore, coherence would have to be ensured in the information provided and accessed; ensuring issues such as risk of identity theft or malware threats do not arise. In addition, an effective system needs to be formed that would evaluate e-engagement (what has been achieved and what needs to be achieved) and commitment of the government to adapt structures and apply a validated transparent decision-making process to ascertain results of online consultations are analysed, broadcasted and used (OECD, 2003).

E-democracy focuses on building a healthy relationship between the public and the political representatives. The democratic paradox is a disconnection between the public and the parliament. This disconnection existed to such an extent that the British Parliament had provided a title for the public’s role which is of “strangers”. Democracy promotes speech and presenting the views of the majority, however, parliaments were “seen as representative institutions precisely because it is not possible for all the citizens to be present and speak for themselves”. (OECD, 2003)   The impact of e-democracy and invalidation of this paradox is visible in the online case study held by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic Violence in March 2000.  The purpose of this consultation was to allow women who had survived through domestic violence to give direct evidence to a group of MPs who were investigating this issue. Women were able to voice their torments and the violence they suffered, through the electronic platform which was labelled ‘Womenspeak’. This was a revolutionary initiative that “used ICTs effectively to open up the parliamentary process to a group of people whose voices are rarely heard”. (OCED, 2003)

Case Study: Domestic Violence Dialogue (Womenspeak)

The online consultation was successful on many fronts, especially in terms of accessing Internet, providing the women with the resources, support and training to access online accounts consistently. The partnership between the women’s organisations & centres as well as Hansard Society and All-Party Parliamentary group “played a key part in advising on the consultation, reaching the target audience and providing support to participants” (OECD, 2003). The consultation involved the female community in the agenda-setting stage of the UK policy-making cycle. Moreover, the female participants “were aware that they were giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry and could have an effect upon the policy making process” (OECD, 2003) which places them as the leaders of this particular consultation and innovation. Hence, the data collected is accountable and observable with clarity as the government is able to understand the needs that the citizens have, and allow an active unbiased input for the policy-making decisions.

Furthermore, the online consultation (Womenspeak) demonstrates the way in which women were enabled to participate and share their experiences of domestic violence with other women in similar situations. The Internet provided a safe and secure forum for this discussion to take place, and this was verified through the statistic that 94% of the participants felt that the consultation was a valuable exercise. More specifically, 92% of the women felt they had learnt something from the contributions of the others (OECD, 2003). Ultimately, the accessibility factor and the ability to follow the threads of discussions were highlighted in three quarters (78%) of the participants finding the whole process easy to follow and understand (OECD, 2003).

However, one of the criticisms regarding the interaction between the women and the MPs was to do with the time scale that was used, as it spanned over a short period of time: four weeks. This timescale produced 960 messages as a total of 199 women logged onto the system provided (OECD, 2003) which indicates that the government has the citizen capacity to support this innovation. Due to the vast experiences conveyed through these messages, it was not possible for the MPs to address each question and all the threads that formed. There was dissatisfaction felt by one-third (39%) of the participants due to the lack of input from the MPs, especially because the instant uploading of the comments/questions by the participants led them to believe that their queries will be answered immediately. (OECD, 2003)  However, this would not have been possible because the MPs had other demands on their time and addressing every contribution would have taken a much longer and lengthier process than the time frame provided. This consultation allowed the niche to be visible in the e-engagement; in terms of what was achieved and what needs to be achieved, on the demands of the participants. The contributions could have been summarised weekly to the MPs by the independent moderator, who was present to make sure that the participation was not monopolized by few but allowed and encouraged more input.

The traditional way of democracy is where the only right that the public exercises is of voting. The real power resides with the political representatives/electors to challenge or express the views of the people (Mahrer and Krimmer, 2005). However, e-democracy attempts to break free of this rigidity, by encouraging participation from men and women, from different socio-economic groups and ages on topics/subjects. The aim of the government was to promote greater interaction and understanding between the public and the parliament, thus, putting the democratic paradox of rule by minority to rest. This would be achieved by allowing recognition of the public views and knowledge, to influence decision-making by “increasing policy transparency and maintaining the longer term goal of regaining public trust in … political institutions” (Bickerstaff and Haynes, 2002).

A wide range of methods were used to recruit participants for the online consultation (OECD, 2003).  The platform as well as the enabler: the Internet and media, was used to connect the groups of people and the authorities in a productive way, so that the policy-making decision could be informed. However, interests in the discussion and debate dwindled which can be classified as the ‘e-consultation fatigue.’ This is supported by the survey conducted by the United Nations Global e-government consisting of world’s top 20 countries. The survey found that countries “providing on-line opportunities for citizen participation are seriously lacking in relevancy and usefulness, and are at only a third of the potential of what they could offer” (Mahrer and Krimmer, 2005).

Nevertheless, it has to be noted that by conducting these researches and inviting public interaction, the majority of the participants in Womenspeak “were not ‘the usual suspects’: party members, lobbyists or people who lived in or around the Westminster village” (Coleman, 2004). The voices heard in this consultation forum would most likely not have reached the parliamentarians nor had the same impact without this particular platform of online consultations. There is, nevertheless, no evidence that ICT (Internet), as a medium, is essentially wide-ranging as consistent training and direct access has to be provided. Furthermore, there was always a need of actively promoting the public interaction. In particular, the success of the Womenspeak consultation and “depended upon extensive outreach work, not least to overcome problems associated with the use of the internet as a democratic tool” (Coleman, 2004).

Disappointment amongst the women participants (39% felt MPs were not interested and actively contributing) and the victims of floods does not signify that online interaction between representatives and represented, led to greater trust between the two communities (public and the government bodies). In addition, there is also the question of responsibility which poses an “obvious empirical question of how a more geographically mixed (in terms of risk proximity) cross-section of the public would attribute causal responsibilities; and if these differ from those of affected groups, whose voice would then count the most” (Bickerstaff and Haynes, 2002). Another criticism of e-democracy which is a branch of the democratic paradox could be that “the internet appears to enlarge the inequalities of the digital divide within information-rich and information-poor environments” (Mahrer and Krimmer, 2005). However, the misconception that online discussion is uninformed and of poor quality is unfounded in this study. This is because significant amount of messages referred to external information which “did not dominate the discussion to the exclusion of others; and, in the case of the Womenspeak consultation, there was a high level of interactivity” (Coleman, 2004).

With today’s norms of representative governance, democratic citizens appear to be “content to inform policy and law-makers rather than make policy and law themselves; but they do expect their representatives to be responsive to their input” (Coleman, 2004). In the online parliamentary consultations for Womenspeak, there are indications that the views and discussions by the online consultants influenced policy and the digital-divide may be a myth. In the case of women suffering from domestic violence, a summary of the consultation was presented to the Minister for Women which highlighted various “issues from the consultation in parliamentary questions to the Prime Minister and other Ministers” (Coleman, 2004). Some evidence given by the women and the conditions in which they lived (with abusive partners and information-poor environments) in the online consultation “raised Government concerns about child contact arrangements where there are violent fathers” (Coleman, 2004). This leads to the probable conclusion that some of the powerful, descriptive incidents related by the victims of domestic violence, upon their families, living standards and survival has done “more to stimulate policy action in this area than traditional campaigning could have done” (Coleman, 2004).

Conclusion

The “ultimate test of value for an online consultation is whether it contributes to making better policy and legislation” (Coleman, 2004). To an extent during the 1990’s and up to 2005 the “Parliament’s passivity, or resistance, toward technology not only meant that it missed out on valuable efficiency and logistical benefits, but at a time of declining political engagement, it also passed up opportunities to enter into productive dialogue with the public” (Bickerstaff and Haynes, 2007). Therefore, online consultations may not become a solution for the “disconnection between politicians and citizens, but they do have the potential to support a more direct form of representation (in contradiction to direct democracy) in which the public is likely to feel less unheard” (Coleman, 2004). To conclude, a former leader of the UK House of Commons argued that the democratic paradox does not need to be accepted which leaves the citizens “with a wider feeling than ever before that their voices are not being heard.” (Cook, 2002)  The use of ICT can ensure a synergetic democracy “by giving us greater opportunities than ever before for better transparency and a more responsive relationship between the government and the electors” (Cook, 2002).

 

Bibliography:

Bickerstaff, K. and Haynes, K. “A content analysis of the floodforum.net Dialogue”. 2002. Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology.

Coleman, S. “Connecting Parliament to the Public via the Internet: Two Case Studies of Online Consultations”. 2004. Information, Communication and Society.VOI 7 No 1, pp. 1-22.

Coleman, S. and Norris, D.F. “A new agenda for edemocracy”. 2005. Oxford Internet Institute Forum Discussion Paper No. 4, University of Oxford.

Cook, R. Speech to Yougov E-Democracy Conference, London, 10 April 2002.

Droppings, Bird, 2010. The paradox of democracy, 5 February, <http://birddroppings.me/2010/02/05/the-paradox-of-democracy/>.[Accessed 12 December 2012].

Ferguson, R. and Miller, L. “Parliament for the Future: Forecasting the form of digitally-enabled Parliament”. 2007. Hansard Society Report. (Hansard Society, London).

Koelher, Robert. 2009. Democracy’s Paradox, 18 June. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-koehler/democracys-paradox_b_217523.html>. [Accessed 12 December 2012]

Kupchan, Charles A. “The Democratic Malaise: Globalization and the Threat to the West”. Foreign Affairs; Jan/Feb2012, Vol. 91 Issue 1, pp. 62-67.

Mahrer, H. and Krimmer, R. “Towards the enhancement of e-democracy: identifying the notion of the ‘middleman paradox'”. 2005. Information Systems Journal 15 (1): 27–42.

OECD. “Promise and Problems of E-Democracy: Challenges of Online Citizen Engagement”. OECD Publishing. (2003).

Postman, N. “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show”, Business, Penguin, New York, (1986).

Wandhöfer, Timo, Steve Taylor, Harith Alani, Somya Joshi, Sergej Sizov, Paul Walland, Mark Thamm, Arnim Bleier and Peter Mutschke. “Engaging Politicians with Citizens on Social Networking Sites: The WeGov Toolbox.” 2012. IJEGR 8.3: 22-32.

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Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Political Science, Social Science