A Trip down memory lane
Travelling provides many benefits including an exposure to the approaches used elsewhere in government and other mechanisms for connecting citizenry to the mechanisms by which they are governed. The world was probably far simpler during the cold war in which globally governments fell into two broad groups: Western Style democracies and Eastern European Style dictatorships. While, upon broader examination, the distinctions between those two were probably not as pronounced in some ways as the populations involved would have believed, much of that perception was due to the fact that the cold war was in many ways a propaganda war and through the control of information, something that was relatively easy to do, governments managed the message they wished their citizenry to respond to. No longer! Mechanisms for government are evolving rapidly based upon numerous factors including culture, population socio-economic index and, happily, technology.
Democracy in the 21st century
Such approaches become increasingly difficult to maintain in a world where there is broad access to information. Ubiquitous information access is, in fact, an enabler of an informed citizenry but can also serve to obfuscate with misinformation, conflicting opinions masked as facts and a real risk of catering to entrenched ideologies which are not, in fact based in any way on reality.
It is, in a sense, a wonderful problem to have. The internet allows for not only the dissemination of information but its verification and targeted distribution. On the other hand there are, by necessity and design, no checks and balances on that information. How is a citizenry informed and able to make decisions as members of a 21st century democracy if they are presented with information which, while not necessarily true, supports an appealing but harmful ideology? How do citizens work their way through the plethora of information at their disposal? How do they provide feedback to their governments on the direction they wish those governments to take?
While modern telecommunications technology offers society much, to be effective as a tool for democracy it must provide two basic utilities to deliver upon that promise:
1. Transparency in which the citizenry is able to fully understand what their government is doing and know that it is doing it in an open and accountable manner
2. Participation in which the citizenry can both communicate with government and, at appropriate times, provide guidance to the state on the direction it wishes the state would proceed
The first of these two functions was once the responsibility of a free press and while that venerable institution still provides this service, transparency can be augmented by new tools and views into the actions of government. The second, Participation, was served primarily by the ballot box, supplemented by letters to parliamentarians or the press and general citizen involvement. This can now also be augmented by technology.
How will technology play a role?
A further trend of which we must be increasingly aware is that technology is also becoming commonly available in places where information was once difficult to obtain. As we saw with the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, individuals can provide spot reporting globally and with verifiable accuracy which can provide game changing results far faster than previous democratizing agents. It is also worth noting that deploying the infrastructure necessary to provide internet and telephony technology worldwide is simple, straightforward and becoming more so all of the time.
While requiring further behavioral and technological maturity it is clear already that technology in the developed world democracies is providing for improved transparency and interaction with government along with increasing the possibility and ease of voter participation in elections. On line government sites, including meeting information, published government documentation, the ability for the public to comment and request information, are all trends, powered by technology to improve government transparency and accountability. Electronic voting systems for the public will ease the difficulty of participation in the democratic process. While some of this technology is more mature and other less so, it is coming and will change how the world is governed.