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From participation to e-participation: what changes? (Part 1)

With information and communication development (ICT) we generally intend any product which enables users to store, transmit, access and even manipulate information. The development of ICT has, during the last years, revolutionized our way of living: at the individual level, think about the way we communicate with friends, plan our holidays or apply for a job. And going wider and deeper, consider how national bureaucracies, state education systems or media have been affected by the introduction of ICT.

To put it shortly, we do not exaggerate by affirming that any aspect of our private and public life, from the social to the religious to the political sphere, has been entirely reshaped by what has been sometimes defined as a third industrial revolution.
It is well known that every revolution leaves on the battlefield a winner and a loser: that`s part of the game. In the case of a technological revolution, winners and losers can be declined as products and habits that we acquire, because considered more functional and efficient in the light of our goals, and that we dismiss, because obsoleted comparing to the new ones. We do not attach messages to pigeons`paws anymore and even mailboxes and call boxes that for decades have been representing a touch of red in the greyness of our cities will soon disappear. With a simple click, we are now able to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world, instantaneously. However, in other cases, the development of ICT produced an overlap of "the new" into "the old" and the result was an extension of possibilities. In other words, our old habits and procedures have been neither replaced nor dismissed, but their potential has been implemented and extended by the introduction of ICT. That is the case of traditional political participation, "the old", and e-political participation, "the new".



Political participation may be defined as the taking part in joint activities for the purpose of reaching a common political goal. The Senate, king`s councils,
congresses, national and transnational parliaments have been embodying for centuries the official political life of republics, nation states, federations and kingdoms. Nowadays, the sittings of Parliaments represent the highest institutionalized form of political participation where deputies, ideally symbolizing the assembly of all citizens, agreed on the rules regulating any aspect of a country`s life. However, political participation may assume several different forms which in many cases have a bigger impact on society than parliamentary acts: trade union congresses, students assemblies, general strikes, demonstrations, parties campaigns, occupations are all forms of joint activities in the light of shared political purposes. Just think about how May 1968 events in France, Rosa Parks` refusal or The Great March on Washington completely changed our way of conceiving political participation.
On the other hand, the concept of e-participation can be defined as "the use of information and communication technologies to broaden and deepen political participation by enabling citizens to connect with one another". By substituting to political participation the definition above, we obtain an extended explanation: e-participation is the use of information and communication technologies to broaden and deepen the taking part in joint activities for the purpose of reaching a common political goal by enabling citizens to connect with one another. The literature usually distinguishes between five forms of e-participation:

(Fig. 1) Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1st, 1955,
for having refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.
(Photo by: Universal History Archive)

1) E-informing: it is the process of gathering and distributing procurement information both from and to internal and external parties using Internet technology.

2) E-consulting: it is the use of technology to engage with citizens and enable deeper contributions and support deliberative debate on policy issues through consulting a wider audience.

3) E-involving: it is about working online with the public throughout a process to ensure that public concerns are understood and taken into consideration.

4) E-collaborating: it is a two-way communication between citizens and institutions that enables citizens to actively participate in the development of alternatives and the identification of solutions.

5) E-empowering: it is the delegation of final decision-making rights to the public, and implementing what citizens decide.

If we take as valid this definition, a consideration on e-participation can already be drawn: I believe that the introduction of ICT in political life affected not only the forms of political participation, but also its ontology. In other words, if it`s true that e-political participation still concerns shared activities for the purpose of achieving political goals, such a radical change within the forms of participation generated by the employment of ICT and justified by the desire of maximizing the chances of reaching a common goal - what I before called extension of possibilities - also produced a switch in our way of conceiving the nature of the political activity itself. It is not a case that scholars had to coin new concepts and categories (as the ones described above) in order to analyse the phenomenon.

Written by: Cristian Riva