E-Governance in Ireland:
new technologies, public participation, and social capital

Proceedings of the 4th European Conference on E-Government: towards innovative transformation of the public sector. 17-18 June 2004, Dublin. Academic Conferences International; Reading, England: 411-418.

Lee Komito
Deparment of Library and Information Studies
University College Dublin


Research suggests that increased public participation in governance is achieved by encouraging greater voluntary activity. Efforts to create or support voluntary structures with the assistance of ICTs have had limited success, but research suggests that ICTs can increase communication amongst individuals and thus support the development of informal networks which, in turn, enhance community participation. Information systems can be implemented which enable citizens to monitor and influence local service provision; these exchanges create trust and sense of influence that encourages political participation. The implementation of new technologies has already transformed Irish politics, and the Mobhaile project in Ireland is a further example of a social capital building project.

keywords: eInclusion; eParticipation; community politics; Ireland; governance; social capital

1. Government, Governance and Participation

Decreased political participation as evidenced by reduced voter turnouts and a general alienation from government form part of the 'democratic deficit' that has been on the European Union agenda in recent years. Governments see this decreased participation as a threat to civil society and have initiated significant investments to improve government through the application of new information and communications technologies. Most of these e-government proposals involve improving the delivery of services and processing of information, often providing improved access to services by citizens. These projects have provided specific and concrete benefits in administrative efficiency and citizens have improved access to resources or the delivery of resources. Citizens, as consumers of services, have gained, but there is little in such projects that enhances participation by citizens in decision making processes. This is e-government defined as administration of policy; it has little to do with addressing the democratic deficit by improving public participation in the making of policy.

More recently, attention has been paid to the increased involvement of the wider society in the formulation of government policy and provision of services; this has been described as 'governance' (see Pierre, 2000 for a general discussion of governance). There has been an increased involvement of organisations in the policy process; these organisations would often describe themselves as political but not party political. They see themselves as part of the general political process but as articulating broad political issues while remaining outside the formal electoral system. EU policy has sought to increase democratic participation by the use of technology to facilitate participation by such non-governmental and voluntary organisations. These projects have sometimes been described as 'eparticipation' or 'einclusion'. Formal groups (such as trade unions or interest groups) have used technology to improve their own organisational efficiency. However, attempts to use technology to create citizen-based groups, through projects which include online forums, virtual discussion rooms or electronic voting, have been less successful. There are few examples of such projects having significant impact, and little evidence of new formal structures emerging that effectively encourage citizens to participate in policy formation. The projects receive little direct support from the European Union, and a recent policy document, "The Role of eGovernment for Europe's Future" (Commission of the European Communities, 2003), could only propose that all eGovernment strategies should "promote ... online democratic participation". It would seem that EU policy has been effective at improving efficiency but not improving participation. Electronic government is proceeding, but the same cannot be said of electronic governance.

2. New Technologies and community development

Are there policy instruments by which governments could increase civic participation, and can new technologies play a role in this process? Many reasons exist for a lack of civic participation in policy or administration. One cause may be a lack of information about the policy decisions that are to be made and a lack of information about how to have an input into such decisions. Another cause may be a distrust of the impartiality and fairness of those making decisions, so that citizens do not believe their interventions would be effective. Yet another cause may be a lack of desire for greater policy input; if people are content with the existing system, they see no reason for greater participation. While this general satisfaction may be true some of the time, issues do arise about which citizens feel strongly. In these cases, lack of conviction that their policy input would have an impact, as well as a lack of knowledge about how to convey their opinions leads to greater alienation from the policy process.

It has been argued that decreasing levels of social trust and solidarity are a cause of decreasing levels of political participation (Putnam, 2000; Putnam, Leonardi, & Nanetti, 1993). However, the means by which social trust, reciprocity, and solidarity can be increased are not clear, nor is the link between such trust and solidarity and increased political participation. New information and communications technologies have long been promoted as mechanisms by which community formation can be enhanced, with long-term benefits for civil society and political participation. One of the earliest experiments in the use of technologies to enhance public participation was in Santa Monica in 1989 (Docter & Dutton, 1998), and it was one of a number of experiments in community building using new technologies (Tsagarousianou, Tambini, & Bryan, 1998). In many of these studies only a small percentage of the local population used the technology, so it was difficult to make extrapolations about technology, community and participation.

Since then, however, there have been studies of communities in which a majority of residents use new technologies (Huysman, Wenger, & Wulf, 2003; Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002). These studies give a better indication of the potential of new technologies to enhance local community interaction and communication - what would now be labelled as building 'social capital'. A community of special relevance for this discussion is Blacksburg, Virginia in the United States. This community was the recipient of significant technology investment in the mid-1990s, and by 2001 it was a 'wired community': over 75 percent of local businesses had their own web sites, over 80 percent of residents had internet access (which included discussion lists), and over 120 non-profit organisations subscribed to a bundle of internet services that included information sharing software (Kavanaugh & Patterson, 2002). Did the prevalence of these technologies encourage greater community participation as well as political participation?

Contrary to some expectations, research found that increased technology usage over three years did not lead to increased community involvement as measured by memberships in formal voluntary organisations or by amount of activity in these organisations.1 However, there was clear evidence of increased 'social capital building activities', measured by increased amounts of informal communication amongst individuals, including increased communication amongst members of voluntary groups. As the authors point out, this must also mean an increased amount of information being distributed amongst members of the community as well. The authors further argue that increased levels of communication and information flow must imply increased levels of social trust, even if that trust does not manifest itself in greater participation in voluntary organisations. This identifies an unexpected, but important, issue in the use of new technologies: the greater use of communications technologies was not linked with greater participation in voluntary organisations, but was linked with increased communication amongst people who were already members of such organisations and increased communication amongst all individuals, whether members of voluntary organisations or not (see also Hampton & Wellman, 2002).

This offers an explanation for the ineffectiveness of new technologies in facilitating formalised public participation in governance. New communications technologies do not increase the amount of participation in formal voluntary organisations, so EU expectations that ICTs can be used to increase participation in such organisations and so address the 'democratic deficit' are misplaced. However, communities permeated with new communications technologies do display increased levels of informal communication and information. Such communication is essentially individual, although such conversations (either verbal or electronic) can also lead to informal and ad-hoc groups. Could such increased informal communication and information flows be translated into greater political participation?

It has been argued that increased voluntary activity was a measure of increased social capital, and that increased social capital was linked with increased political participation in governance. However, this has often been measured in terms of participation in formal voluntary groups and excluded participation in informal activity, simply because such informal activity is hard to measure quantitatively. However, informal participation may be as significant as formal participation, despite problems of measurement (Newton, 1999). New technologies may have limited success in increasing participation in formal voluntary groups, but the study of Blacksburg demonstrates that they can increase communication. This increase in informal communication is the mechanism by which new technologies can increase information flow through informal rather than formal voluntary activities.

3. Ireland and electoral clientelism

The political consequences of transforming information and communication flows has a special resonance in Ireland. Irish politics has been shaped by a lack of administrative information and accountability, linked with a strong tradition of informal social and political action, that has been characteristic of Ireland since its independence. Ever since Chubb (1963) described politicians as local men who looked after their constituent's interests by "going about persecuting civil servants", Irish politics has been understood in terms of electoral clientelism. Chubb suggested that the Irish politician's primary task was to mediate between his local constituents and the state's administrative apparatus. Voters wanted state services, and politicians helped or appeared to help people obtain those services. Irish citizens have believed that, in order to obtain a government benefit or service, politicians had to intercede on the citizen's behalf. Citizens, it was thought, did not receive state benefits as their right; they received benefits as personal favours granted by powerful and beneficent politicians as a reward for political support. The tacit exchange of political support for special personal preference has been a cornerstone of Irish politics since independence (Komito & Gallagher, 1999). Various factors which have promoted and maintained political clientelism have been suggested, but lack of administrative information and accountability, distrust of the impartiality of the civil service, lack of confidence in the efficacy of interventions, and a monopoly by politicians on knowledge of the bureaucratic process are all central to clientelism (Komito, 1984, 1989a, 1992).2 The informal networks of clientelism are exclusionary and foster the private use of public resources for personal gain (Clapham, 1982). Such clientelist networks would now be seen as examples of negative social capital (Putnam, 2000), and it is preferable that these private exchanges would be transformed into a system of more open and public participation.

For many years, the state maintained the market for electoral clientelism. Bureaucratic procedures were slow and inefficient, so it was difficult for citizens to obtain information about their entitlements, redress in the event of incorrect decisions, or proof that their case was being fairly decided. In the 1960's and 70's, the degree of state intervention in Ireland increased, and citizens' dependence on state assistance grew. Growth in demand led to delays in providing assistance, but, while civil servants responded slowly, if at all, to voters, they responded quickly to politicians who intervened on behalf of voters. This increased the demand for clientelist exchanges. Civil servants also provided little public information about the services or entitlements that were increasingly important for citizens, which increased the value of the information which politicians were able to dispense (Komito, 1984). These are primarily information issues, and were altered by the introduction of information systems in the civil service in the 1990's. The justification for IT investment was to improve the efficiency of service provision (see Pye, 1992 for a more detailed discussion), and indeed the speed of processing cases increased.

Generally, information and communications technologies (ICTs) do not alter political behaviour or administrative practice (Kling, 1996), but in this case new information systems altered the market conditions for clientelist exchanges. Administrative delays had previously sustained the market for politicians to 'sell' their ability to provide information about the status of applications (Komito, 1989a). The introduction of office information systems speeded the processing of cases and made it easier for citizens to directly inquire about cases, so the 'market value' of political interventions lessened. Furthermore, direct queries by citizens previously produced either no answer or an answer only very slowly, because it was so costly to assemble the information; office information systems now enable easier monitoring of cases by citizens (Komito, 1998). Finally, as procedures and criteria for decisions are recorded in electronic information systems, it becomes possible to make those records available to the general public via the Internet as part of ongoing administrative reform.

With increased accountability and access, citizens have found they can monitor and influence the administrative processes of the state to a greater extent than previously possible. This has altered the clientelist 'market' - that is, the demand for politicians' special access, and thus the 'charge' which politicians can demand for their service and the 'price' which citizens are willing to pay for the service. Because citizens have alternative means of accessing information, the need for politician's access to information about services and processes has diminished considerably. A survey in the 1970s showed that 17 of Dublin respondents had contacted a politician at some point; another survey in 1991 showed that 24 percent of all citizens and 21 percent of Dublin residents had contacted politicians in the previous year (Komito, 1989b, 1992). In contrast, a recent study of social values and social capital found that the figure had dropped to 14 percent of all respondents and 13% of Dublin respondents who had contacted a politician in the previous year (National Economic and Social Forum, 2003). A survey of 'political culture' in the late 1960s showed a strong preference for contacting politicians rather then officials or local community figures (Raven & Whelan, 1976). In contrast, the number who had contacted an official or community representative was 10.7% for all respondents and 13% for Dublin respondents (National Economic and Social Forum, 2003). Thus, not only has the level of contact with politicians decreased, but the relative importance of politicians as compared with other figures has also decreased. With a decrease in the electoral value of clientelist exchanges, politicians must find other means of attracting marginal voters. The 1990's saw the growth of policy oriented political parties (left-wing, right-wing, nationalist, and environmental), and, more recently, the growth of community candidates who focus on an issue of concern to everyone in the locality (increased development investment in rural areas of Ireland, investment in local medical services, and so on). The success of these parties and candidates is an indication that the political market has changed, and politicians can now 'sell' themselves to the electorate through policy actions. This does not mean that individual clientelist networks are irrelevant; politicians report that voters still expect politicians to be available, but that such activities are now one of many resources in the politician's portfolio, and by no means the most important.

4. Service provision and public participation

Information and communications technologies have altered the way individual citizens interact with the state's administrative structure and these changed information and communications flows have altered the political system in Ireland. Increased participation in the provision of services and the decline in clientelist networks, as detailed above, does not necessarily lead to an increased voter turnout. Indeed, voter turnout has been declining in Ireland as elsewhere (Lyons & Sinnott, 2003). However, public participation in policy and administration takes place via interest groups, non-governmental organisations, as well as via formal political structures such as political parties and elections. Increased participation in governance can also take place through informal and ad-hoc activities. New technologies already provide evidence that the administrative system functions in a fairer manner than previously believed (and indeed may have actually made the system more fairly). Individuals now see evidence that they can participate in the system and benefit by their participation, even if it is only in the case of directly applying for, and then receiving, benefits to which they are entitled. The next step is to extend this electronic interaction between citizen and state in such as way as to further encourage public participation, whether as individuals or via ad-hoc groups.

An increasing number of local authority services are available online (paying for refuse collection is one example), and there has been a consistent increase in the number of people availing of online services. More significantly, there is clear evidence that individuals and groups are using new technologies to facilitate exchange of information and coordination of activity on community issues. Politicians now send out newsletters electronically and receive queries from citizens via email. More significantly, there is evidence of new technologies being used for collective action. Residents and community groups use technology to organise their own activities and coordinate representations to politicians and officials. Officials now receive 'round robin' emails - a message will have been distributed to members of a residents' group or sports club and each will then send the message to local officials. It is clear to officials that the message has simply been redirected, and a duplicated message has less impact on a local official than an equivalent number of individual messages. However, it nevertheless demonstrates that citizens are using new technologies and, for officials, it is a 'straw poll' of those who feel strongly enough about an issue to engage in some level of policy discussion. Particular events are often a catalyst for such communication, and informal or ad-hoc groups can easily develop to address specific issues. In 2003, there was a controversy regarding a large residential plan for Adamstown in South County Dublin (http://www.sdublincoco.ie/) which attracted significant local and national media attention. The controversy led to a substantial number of email messages to the County Council. Although there was no electronic bulletin board to facilitate discussion of the issue, the concerns raised by individual emails were then addressed and responded to in the form of a series of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) which were available on the Council web site. Politicians and other interested parties did check the information and conveyed that information back to residents via public meetings.

Integral to recent changes in the Irish political system has been an increased trust in the administrative system. Rothman (2003) points out that trust is rarely given unconditionally, especially to governments composed on unknown and unaccountable individuals. Trust is earned, based on actual interactions that citizens have with particular agencies of the state. That trust, once gained, can then be extended to other agencies of the state and thus transmuted into a social capital that leads to greater commitment to civil society. An effective way to improve participation would be to build on the efficiency gains in administration and service provision that have resulted from current e-government investments, and leverage these gains to improve public participation. The previous discussion of clientelism in Ireland shows how trust can be increased as a result of extending office automation technologies in a way that enables greater scrutiny by citizens. When new technologies make it easier for citizens to monitor and influence the provision of services, it increase citizens' belief in accountability and influence over the administrative structure. If people can exercise control over the delivery of services, this provides convincing evidence that intervention has an impact, and individual intervention can be effective. Continual interactions with local authorities on the provision of services such as road maintenance, lighting repair, public amenities such as parks, and so on provide evidence that local authorities listen and respond to citizens on community issues as well. This conviction that citizens can exercise influence can be transposed to the policy arena, encouraging citizens to believe that they can also alter policy decisions. The facility of new technologies to encourage the development of informal and ad-hoc local groups can become a mechanism for community involvement.

The Mobhaile project, currently under development in Ireland, is an example of an information system that may further facilitate the development of community 'social capital' by facilitating interactions between citizens and local government. It is being developed by the Local Government Computer Services Board in conjunction with a number of local authorities in Ireland including South County Dublin, Westmeath, Tipperary North and South, Meath, and Mayo. The project name derives from an Irish term which roughly translated as 'my community' (http://www. mobhaile.ie) and provides a community-oriented interface for both government and community information. It is still at development stage, with public trials still to take place. However, the starting point of the system is make information available to the general public that exists on local authority information systems, and combine it with information about social and economic activities in a community. Information about local services is accessed through a geographical interface, so that individuals access the information of particular relevance to their locality. It is possible to connect to the site and obtain information only about neighbourhood elements of services (e.g., garbage collection, bus routes, planning submissions) provided by local authorities. The citizen does not have to wade through all the bus routes and timetables, since only those that are relevant to the local area are presented. This has obvious benefits in fostering a sense of geographical community; residents can exchange information about the services and issues of relevance to that locality, whether it is to tell each other when the street light will be fixed or whether the planning permission for a nearby development was approved.

The information system enables two-way information flow, so that a service fault can be reported (e.g., faulty street light or abandoned car) by locating it on a map. Such a service is obviously beneficial to the local authority, since it enables rapid notification of problems that need attention. More significant, though, is the sense of accountability and participation it provides for citizens. The geographical input/output format is linked with an open-ended web form so that individuals can pinpoint a location on a digital map and then write a text that indicates a problem - whether that problem is a broken street light, abandoned car, blocked drain, or any other issue which requires attention. The message is then dealt with by local authority officials, and the citizen receives a report. At the moment, it is not possible to trace the progress of the complaint through the system but, in future, a logging system could enable a citizen to track a logged item through the system. Thus, in citizens' interaction with local authorities, they receive evidence that their participation is effective. This is the essential element required to create trust in government. Such a responsive system improves citizen's trust in, and increasing citizen's power, over the local authority system.

The web interface extends to 'community building' because it can also displays social and economic services as well as government services. Some information is picked up automatically from the local authorities own information system (e.g., local taxation lists), but business or voluntary groups can also register with the local authority. There are many benefits of being registered; in addition to location information, businesses and groups can contribute announcements or descriptions about their activities. A business can register the service it sells and provide information about that service, a church can provide information about church services, or a sports club can provide information about matches to be played. Once registered, groups have access to a targeted local audience, and can also be notified by the local authority of issues that affect their particular locality. This creates a local information portal in which the range of local community activities can be accessed. The portal functions as a local notice board combined with local town hall, encouraging the easy diffusion of salient information that is relevant to local residents. Crucially, the definition of 'salient' is only partially defined by outsiders, it is also defined by the local residents who contribute information.

The Mobhaile project contains elements that encourage individual participation and the extension of that participation into ad-hoc community activity. The project is still at the design stage, but it is expected that it will soon be in the testing stage. In conjunction with other strategies being followed by local authorities, it is an example of how participation in the provision of specific services can be the central kernel for greater participation in more general local authority policies. Fundamental to this process, however, is that local authorities listen to citizens and respond to issues that they raise in a meaningful way. If this happens, then in every interaction with the local authority, citizens learn that they can trust the administrative process and that they can influence the outcome of that process. Previously, processing such interventions would have entailed significant labour costs; with new technologies, the cost of such responsiveness is reduced and the local authority benefits by using citizens to report faults in its own provision of services.

5. Conclusion

In recent years, 'e-government' programs have improved the efficiency of administration and service delivery in many European Union countries. These programs have sometimes also included projects that use new technologies to increase public participation in policy formulation by encouraging the development of voluntary groups. Attempts to increase participation in voluntary groups have had limited success; research suggests that new technologies do not increase the number of groups joined or the amount of participation in such groups. However, new technologies do increase levels of informal communication and information distribution. Such information exchange can then become the basis for community participation, if relevant community information becomes available for circulation and discussion. Organisational changes in government administration that new technologies have enabled such information to be available at a relatively low transaction cost. Systems can be configured so that citizens can obtain information previously restricted to government officials, thus permitting greater transparency. This, combined with increased accountability, makes it possible for citizens to intervene on individual and community issues that concern them and then monitor the impact of their interventions. If government policy dictates that officials be responsive to such interventions, then the effectiveness of interventions encourages further participation, thus creating a virtuous circle of ever greater participation. Changes in the Irish administrative and political system provide an example of the indirect and unintended political results of such technological changes in service delivery. Continuing administrative change, combined with increased responsiveness by officials, can encourage greater informal and ad-hoc activity. Current developments, such as the Mobhaile project, are examples of projects which encourage greater trust and participation by citizens and which foster the community building. They provide a community focus for the provision of administrative, economic, and social services; they enable effective participation; and they enable citizens to learn that intervention is effective. Most significantly, they capitalise on the demonstrated affordance of new technologies in facilitating greater communication amongst individuals and the development of informal linkages amongst individuals. Such initiatives will permit an expansion from 'e-government' to the broader arena of 'e-governance'.


1 This assumes, of course, that social capital is measurable by memberships in voluntary associations or the level of participation in voluntary associations, which is debatable. The main advantage of memberships in voluntary associations is that they can be relatively easily measured by surveys (Newton, 1999).

2 Other factors include strong party loyalty on the part of voters, the electoral system of single transferable votes and multi-seat constituencies, and cultural traditions developed during colonial domination (sometimes described as a 'dependency culture').


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