Addressing the real world of public consultation: Whither E-Consultation?
One of the key elements often mooted in the ongoing debates on E-Government is the possibility of using ICT to widen and deepen public consultation processes in decision making, hence improving policy outcomes. This chapter draws on the findings of eight focus group discussions on ‘real world’ consultation processes in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to map out how the early history of ICT-engendered participation may not illustrate such a smooth and uncontested road. As the history and present cultural, social and political identities of the people on the island of Ireland amply demonstrate, democracy is a fragile process that first has to be established and institutionalised and then continuously re-generated from local lifeworlds. We find that there exists a massive culture of cynicism and frustration among activist citizens with respect to state-and administration-initiated consultation processes. This begs the key question: If such levels of cynicism exist – regardless of the sophistication of the ICT technology employed – whither the effectiveness of future E-Consultation processes? We present no simplistic, naive or premature conclusions here, but we tease out some implications of these findings where we grant precedence to deliberative democracy, following Habermas, over technology. Following the critical theory agenda, we challenge the potential reproduction, via electronic means, of a dominant mode of social ordering that, from the evidence presented, appears to actually constrain human possibilities. In conclusion, the problems related to extant public consultation processes identified here are essentially problems of democracy – and not problems that can be solved by technology alone. All those involved in E-Democracy and E-Government research and practice dare not lose sight of this insight. ‘[T]he discursive level of public debates constitutes the most important variable.’1