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Journal Article

The Ethical Problem of Framing e‑Government in Terms of e‑Commerce  pp73-82

Bernd Carsten Stahl

© Dec 2005 Volume 3 Issue 2, Issue on e-Democracy, Editor: Mary Griffiths, pp59 - 98

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This paper discusses one aspect of the relationship that the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in business has with the use of ICT in government and administration. It argues that democracies rely on their ethical legitimacy and that framing e‑Government and e‑Democracy in commercial terms can jeopardise this legitimacy. For this purpose the paper distinguishes between e‑Government as service delivery and e‑Democracy as the more radical use of ICT for democratic deliberation and policy formulation. It argues that the commercial paradigm can support some of the moral values underpinning democracy but it can also have a negative effect on them by equating customers and citizens, by likening the political and the economic system and by promoting hidden agendas and ideologies. The conclusion argues that democratic decision makers need to pay attention to these relationships. Otherwise they not only endanger the success of e‑Government and e‑Democracy but may even threaten the basis of the moral legitimacy of democratic forms of government.


Keywords: e-Government, e-Democracy, e-Commerce, legitimacy, ethics, morality


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Journal Issue

Volume 3 Issue 2, Issue on e-Democracy / Oct 2005  pp59‑98

Editor: Mary Griffiths

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Is an ‘e‑citizen’ fundamentally different from a ‘citizen’; is ‘e‑democracy’ ontologically different from ‘democracy’? The concepts ‘e‑citizen’ and ‘e‑democracy’ present a substantial challenge for researchers in the crossover fields of new media, politics and government : that of precise, or workable, definitions. Should the hyphenated prefix – and thus perhaps technology alone – determine the shape of research? Or, as others as well as the present writer have argued, can e‑democracy also be thought of as the whole mediated public sphere of online political and civic communication, and learning, in democracies, and thus an ‘e‑citizen’ be thought of as a ‘thing’ in the process of ‘becoming’?

Although e‑democracy has frequently been seen as a natural evolution, a ‘next step’ in the e‑government agenda of ensuring transparency, broadening citizen participation, and deepening, and making more relevant, citizen‑government relationships, it is also the product of new communication practices. For example, in the longish, hyperlinked entry in wikipedia, the anonymous, multiple‑authored online encyclopaedia, it is clear that collaborative composition and distribution of information – wiki – have effectively changed relations of power in the digital age, and will continue to do so, empowering citizens to share knowledge and exercise power. Of course, wikipedia’s information bears none of the imprimatur of national print authorities, nor any of the limitations of the print publication and distribution of dictionaries and encyclopaedias. Anyone can submit an explanatory entry, and critique an entry. The status of online definitions, explanations and extended discussion and analysis is constantly under question, and open to re‑writing by anyone. Gone is the waiting, sometimes for years, for new phenomena to be accepted and understood sufficiently to ‘make’ a dictionary or encyclopaedia entry : the process of consensus about meaning operates in a speedier time frame, and more openly, if anonymously.

The same distributive power is a feature of knowledge exchange at the global civil activist level. The threat of an avian flu ‘pandemic,’ rivalling that of the ‘Spanish flu’ a century ago, has resulted in an interactive online community dedicated to sharing knowledge about flu outbreaks, scientific knowledge, on the ground commentary about government responses, and information about health practices across the globe. Both wikipedia and are evidence of ‘technologies of co‑operation’ to use Howard Rheingold’s phrase, and are among many other new online writing practices and genres where politically active, socially committed citizens individually, or in mobilised collectives, can now make an unprecedented mark on political and social relations at the national and international level. The impetus comes from the grassroots, the solutions are shared. The blogosphere, and other non‑professional, non‑institutional distribution networks, such as customisation and re‑packaging of media services have had an impact on the everyday life of citizen‑consumers, as well as – more spectacularly in the case of txting – on particular political regimes ( for example, in the Philippines). The same is true of interactivity between representatives and the represented in opinion‑polling, conducted by newspapers and online news distributors. Finally, e‑commerce itself has been affected. The making of multinational ‘communities’ around brand blogs is another feature of the radical shaking up of traditional kinds of capital‑consumer, capital‑citizen relationships. The managing of what the market calls ‘user‑generated‑content’ in the digital arena has itself become big business, as companies seek to contain and re‑assemble information which they have not produced themselves.

Major features of current e‑democracy debates are about similar new media phenomena : the effectiveness of online participatory consultation, the validity of e‑voting, public trust in online financial transactions, the security and extent of the data held by government, the increased potential of government intrusiveness into private lives, the accountability and responsiveness of politicians and public servants to citizen interactions, the interoperability of e‑systems of government, and the digital and political divides.

The current selection of ejeg papers, from Canada, Belgium, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and the UK, responds to a call for discussions and analyses of the e‑citizen, within the broader explanatory framework of e‑democracy. From cultural, technological, cross‑national, political and ethical perspectives – the papers offer a rethinking of the potential of online modes of democratic practice. As the wiki examples demonstrate, knowledge can be personally or collectively made and shared, and this kind of practice confirms in many people’s minds the idea that the internet is of itself democratic and participatory. Yet there are problems with such optimism.

Christie Hurrell ’s paper on the internet as a ‘public sphere,’ based on an extended analysis of a four‑month long Canadian online consultation called ‘The Foreign Policy Dialogue’, engages with this optimistic belief in internet‑enabled citizen power, and assesses the civility which is increasingly necessary as a democratic literacy, if ‘e‑citizens’ are to function in effective online policy discussions. Hurrell mentions that citizens are ‘increasingly knowledgeable about public policy issues,’ and her detailed study of the online discourse on policy dismisses the belief that ‘most political discussion online is necessarily rude and divisive.’ Yet her paper ends with a series of questions about the impact of such discussions on government. Ways have to be found by governments to meet the raised expectations of citizens, if cynicism is not to replace respectful deliberative policy input.

Given the explosion of online communication, and multiple new forms of online distribution of information, it could be said that e‑government has frequently taken a rather conservative path. Driven by the admirable principles of transparency, cost‑effectiveness and accountability, e‑government is still dominated by finding technological solutions to digital governance, often attempting to replicate face‑to‑face practices with new digital equivalencies and business systems: examples include replacing the ballot with online voting, or the provision of online means of paying taxes. If questions of technology assume a priority role in research, systems development, access and usability issues, and business strategies, plans and costings become the central foci. Business applications and technical solutions to the wider implementation of e‑voting for example, are sought, based on the results of smaller pilot studies and programs. This is true of the two papers on aspects of ‘e‑voting’, one of the potential markers of electronically enabled democracy, which is sometimes seen stand, by itself, for ‘e‑democracy’. Xenakis and Macintosh tackle the issues of applying ‘business process re‑engineering’ to the e‑voting process in the UK. Their paper identifies the diverse issues involved in managing the complex design of such democratic practices. This design is seen, in Table 1, to encompass consideration of legal and social issues such as validation, eligibility and trust, technical issues such as reliability and compliance, with political issues such as political support and voter turnout, with the cost analyses and interoperability features of a business model. The paper on a Belgian experiment in facilitating e‑voting registration, by de Vuyst and Fairchild, deals with many of the same issues of access, security and compliance, but from the perspective of a national micro‑study which sets out the cultural and political particulars of Belgium’s need to move to new means of increasing voter turnout, given that it has, like Australia, compulsory voting.

When ‘democracy’ and ‘citizen’ take precedence rather than technology, the focus of e‑democracy research tends to be elsewhere, on the outcomes of the changes to government , administrative and democratic cultures which new media forms enable through an unprecedented range of speedy and easy interactions : between government and citizens, citizens and citizens, and government and government. What kinds of impact are these phenomena producing? One answer is that different kinds of democratic practice are emerging – and a movement from representative democracies towards ones with more ‘horizontal’ participatory and deliberative potential. This movement has the possible consequences of losses of power in the executive and administrative arms of government; and sometimes, paradoxically, less space for reflection and deliberation on decision‑making because of the speed and number of communication exchanges.

Government manages parts of this process, not always with a careful enough scrutiny of the kinds of democracy or citizen it is producing. E‑government’s mirroring of e‑commerce with its emphasis on client‑provider discourses and other practices derived from online business, is critiqued in Bernd Stahl’s paper. He argues, against the e‑commerce perspective, that e‑democracy occupies a distinctively different, ethical domain, one which presents questions of legitimacy and power which cannot be contained entirely by business processes and protocols. Centeno, van Bavel and Burgelman’s paper argues that reformed public services in the EU should become the modernising and interoperable means through which ‘public value’ is added to the act of governing. The authors state : ‘A prospective view of e‑Government in the EU for the next decade defines eGovernment as a tool for better government… The new vision also encompasses the provision of better public administration, more efficient, transparent, open, and participative governance and the implementation of more democratic political processes.’ In such a vision the management of knowledge, and the empowerment of the citizen are primary. The role of intermediaries – ‘private, social and public partners’ with government ‑ in distributing knowledge and the value of networked governments across the EU are highlighted in this paper.

In all, the papers reflect the field of e‑democracy research itself : there is a tendency to produce micro‑level studies, as a way of tackling larger philosophical concerns and anxieties about democratic structures, which the impact of new media and the loss of citizen enthusiasm for the ballot have caused. The challenges of e‑democracy present when traditional communication power relationships alter and when citizens become as adept as (or more skilful than) public servants and politicians in the online environment. The biggest challenge for e‑government is effective democratic engagement with citizens, not just with ‘consumers’ or ‘clients’. The biggest challenge for citizens is to develop the online literacies to participate, in all the new ways which technology enables.

We hope to continue discussions at the next ECEG conference in Marburg, where a mini‑track on e‑democracy is planned . We are interested in papers which present e‑democracy pilots and case studies, or address e‑democracy challenges posed by, for example:

— setting an e‑democracy agenda at government level;

— citizens' wider access to ICTs, and the skills and means to generate and distribute content;

— citizen trust in online participation and dialogue;

— deciding the correct balance between online and offline citizen/government, citizen/citizen interactions;

— exploiting the civic learning potential of emerging online tools and new media forms (games, blogs, wiki).

I hope to see some of you there.


Keywords: electronic journal, papers, articles, eGovernment, electronic government, eGovernment methods, eGovernment studies, e-Government Civility, Distance voting, e-Commerce, e-Democracy, e-Government, Elections, Electronic democracy, Electronic government, Electronic voting, Ethics, e-Voting, Knowledge creation, Knowledge use, Law, Legitimacy, Morality, Networked government, Online discussion, Policy, Pprocedural security, Public – private partnerships, Public sphere, Public value, Responsibility, User participation, User-centric government


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