This document considers the state of e-democracy
and presents an analysis of two online-consultation pilot projects conducted at
the National Assembly by the Committee on Institutions in 2000 and 2002.
Democratic institutions in the majority of Western societies
today are passing through a crisis of confidence because participation in
elections and political life generally has declined. This growing indifference
on the part of the citizenry is well documented, and it is spurring public
bodies to seek innovative ways to bolster the confidence of the population in
their elected representatives.1
“Cyber-optimists” see the advent of new
information technologies as extending a lifeline to our democracies.
E-democracy has been perceived as a means of reviving the citizens’
interest in public affairs and of revitalizing democratic institutions, whose
ways are deemed less and less suited to contemporary realities.2 Expectations were very high in the
1990s, but they have since been dashed. E-democracy is progressing more slowly
than predicted. Even its most fervent advocates have been compelled to
admit that it does not suffice merely to juxtapose “democracy” and “information
technologies” in order to bring about an overnight revolution in democratic
What exactly do we mean by
“e-democracy”? In the larger sense this term refers to the use of
information technologies by democratic agents (governments, Parliaments, the
media, political organizations, citizens/electors) in governance and in
political processes.3 In
this article the notion of e-democracy will nonetheless be limited to citizen
participation in the parliamentary process. In the Quebec context its
other facets (electronic voting, online campaigns, online government, etc.)
fall under the jurisdiction of organizations that are distinct from the
National Assembly, such as the chief electoral officer, the government, and
Below we reflect on e-democracy and its
possible consequences for the institution of Parliament in Quebec. More
concretely we look at two experiments that the National Assembly has conducted
in holding electronic consultations. The lessons drawn from these can
guide the institution in bringing desirable adjustments to future exercises as
well as in making unavoidable choices regarding citizen participation and the
integration of information technologies into the proceedings of Parliament.
Parliament and the Challenge of
The Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines three levels of interaction between
the citizen and the state:
- Information. A one-way relationship in which the state produces
information and transmits it to the citizen.
- Consultation. A two-way relationship in which the citizen has the
opportunity to make his or her views known.
- Active participation. A partnership between the
state and the citizen, who is directly and actively involved in the
process of policy formulation and development.4
This classification applies equally
well to relations between the citizen and Parliament. These three levels
of activity provide a yardstick with which it is possible to measure the degree
of interaction achieved in the various e-democracy projects.
The very first step in e-democracy is
the democratization of information. Like the majority of public bodies
the National Assembly is well advanced in this area. Its internet site contains
a sizable quantity of information on the Members, on current and previous
debates, and on the various activities conducted by the institution.5 Indeed, in this respect the Assembly
may be compared advantageously with many other Parliaments in Canada and around
the world. We would note briefly that the website of the Parliament of
Quebec distinguishes itself through its impressive historical section, the
promptness with which it is updated, its video bank, and especially the fact
that all parliamentary debates are indexed, thus making it possible, for
example, to locate every speech made by any given Member with just a few
There is no doubt that internet
technology has made a swift democratization of parliamentary information
possible in Quebec.
A small group of citizens far
from Parliament can now obtain information at the same time as a major lobbying
firm established in the capital. We should make clear, however, that the quantity
of public information produced by the Assembly has varied little during the
past twenty years. What has changed with the arrival of the internet is
the ease of access to this information. With a simple click a citizen can
find out whether his or her Member has spoken on a subject of personal interest
or locate all that has been said about a bill or about any other subject.
Previously he or she would have had to go to a public library and pore
over the Journal des débats (Hansard) for days to obtain the same
Although the databank that is the
Assembly website must be continually enriched, and a number of improvements
remain to be made in the way it is organized, the democratization of
parliamentary information is an accomplished fact. Accordingly, we are
now turning our attention to the second level of interaction: consultation.
With regard to the third level of
interaction, that of “active participation,” no proposal to achieve it in
relations between Parliament and the citizens is now being examined. We
must not neglect to give due consideration to this question, however, since the
gradual integration of new information technologies into the consultative
process could eventually raise citizens’ expectations regarding opportunities
to interact with Parliament.
The Assembly’s Experiments in 2000 and
Since parliamentary committees stand at
the heart of exchanges between parliamentarians and citizens, it seemed natural
to conduct our first experiments with e-democracy in that setting. These
experiments were so conceived as to take account of the Standing Orders of the
Assembly, which govern the conduct of proceedings in parliamentary committees.
This cautious but proven approach had the advantage of integrating the
new medium in the proceedings of Parliament rather than the reverse. The
online-consultation project was thus defined as an extension of a general
consultation conducted by a parliamentary committee.
Our first experiment with an online
consultation, which was authorized by the Speaker of the Assembly in answer to
a request from the chairman of the Committee on Institutions, was held from
June 21 to September 18, 2000, to investigate the impact of the proposed Free
Trade Zone For the Americas.
The consultation website was designed
as a questionnaire that the user was invited to fill out by answering nine
questions drawn from a reflection paper produced by the committee and entitled Quebec
and the Free Trade Zone For the Americas: political and socioeconomic effects.
An open-ended question not directly related to the reflection paper was
added to allow internauts to give their views on any other facet of the Free
Trade Zone For the Americas (FTZA) that they deemed pertinent. A
hyperlink in the home page of the Assembly website led directly to a
description of the committee’s terms of reference and then to the questionnaire
itself. Respondents were asked to register and to identify themselves formally
(name, address, telephone number, etc.). The completed questionnaire was
submitted to the clerk of the committee as a standard e-mail, and the
respondent received an automated confirmation of receipt by e-mail.
The main objectives of the exercise
were to encourage participation in parliamentary deliberations by citizens and
small organizations and to help parliamentary committees to carry out their
work by giving them an additional consultation tool.
A further objective consisted in
demonstrating that using the internet would allow reductions in costs and in
the time needed to receive, transmit, and process submissions.
Pursuant to the Standing Orders of the
National Assembly, one of the requirements for participating in a general
consultation is to submit 25 copies of a brief to the committees secretariat.
It was decided after due consideration that citizens who took part via
the internet would be deemed to have submitted opinions rather than formal
briefs, since the prerequisites were not the same for these two forms of
Twenty-five valid opinions were
received on the internet as against 39 “paper” briefs. Four of these
opinions distinguished themselves by virtue of their more fully developed
content, and two were selected to be transformed into briefs in order to allow
their authors to appear before the committee on September 28, 2000.
On the whole the pilot project was
carried off without difficulty, and the very same committee renewed the
experience two years later.
The second online consultation was held
from October 17 to December 20, 2002, on the reform of the electoral system.
Committee hearings were to have been held in March of the current year,
but the consultation could not be completed owing to the dissolution of the
National Assembly. We can nonetheless highlight a number of interesting
aspects of this online-consultation process.
The online consultation assumed
essentially the same form in the Assembly website as had that of the pilot
project on the FTZA. An introductory page outlined the committee’s terms of
reference, and a separate page presented a questionnaire that was to be filled
out on line. The questionnaire contained a number of questions drawn from
a reflection paper entitled Reforming the electoral system in Quebec.
The statistics on the number of visits
to the site tell us that the consultation home page was visited 4,867 times for
an average of 74 hits per day. The reflection paper was consulted 1,711
Thirty-eight citizens submitted their
opinions electronically. For the purpose of comparison we should note
that the committee received 160 briefs, 32 of which were to have been presented
during meetings of the committee. The opinions received were summarized
and distributed to the Members in tabular form. One internaut who also
sent a brief in traditional form was to have made a presentation during the
Unlike the first consultation, this one
allowed citizens to download the questionnaire in Word format in order to fill
it out off line and send it to the committee by e-mail at a later time.
The results of these experiments with
online consultations were generally satisfactory.
Although we had initially been somewhat
fearful that we would face an avalanche of replies, in fact we did not.
On the contrary, given the visibility of this consultation and the
considerable interest surrounding the subjects it covered, it is reasonable to
conclude that the rate of participation was low. In hindsight, however,
that is not surprising. After all, internet technology has existed for
only a few years, and people do not instinctively take part in a general
consultation organized by the Assembly merely because they possess a computer.
The current procedure for transmitting briefs has been well established
for decades, and most participants seek above all to meet parliamentarians in
In the long term, however, it is more
than likely that a growing number of individuals and groups will learn to use
this medium to make their views known to the Members. In witness of that
we can cite the difficulties encountered by the American Congress, which is
seriously beset with an avalanche of e-mails.6
The potentially prejudicial effect of
mass e-mail sendings remains an abiding concern to those responsible for online
With regard to the quality of the
opinions submitted, most were quite brief (two pages) and contained little
substantiating information. The internet is a medium that favours speed
and “spur-of-the-moment reactions” (somewhat like an open-line show), whereas
matters examined in committee are complex and require reflection in depth.
It was evident in the majority of cases that the reflection paper had not
been read. A number of participants exhausted the subject after having made
only two or three comments.
Fostering large-scale participation in
parliamentary deliberations through internet technology has its limits.
One thing is certainly clear: The great majority of citizens who wish to
take part in online consultations are not experts in the subjects under study.
That is perfectly normal, since experts are accustomed to availing
themselves of the formal procedure in order to be invited before a committee.
It must nevertheless be borne in mind that general consultations serve
not only to seek the views of experts and those of the main socioeconomic
groups but also to solicit opinions from the general population. From
this point of view accessibility and quality of debate are not mutually
exclusive; they can coexist and even complement each other. Thus, online
consultations supplement traditional briefs as a means of expressing one’s
views during a general consultation.
We believe that certain improvements
ought to be made. The questionnaire absolutely must be made more user friendly.
During both consultations the online questionnaire was designed to mirror
faithfully the contents of the reflection paper. The objective was to
encourage internauts to refer to the paper in order both to better inform them
about the subject and to focus the debate on common points of reference. The
risk inherent in this method resides in the fact that the reflection paper was
not at all adapted to be read on the screen. As a result, during the
consultation on the reform of the electoral system internauts who reached the
page containing the questionnaire were faced with 22 data-entry fields for
answers to some fifty questions!
The visual dimension of online
consultations must also be thoroughly revised. Right now the visual first
impression is clearly not very appealing. We should note that in the
context of the pilot project there was no justification for an investment in
this respect. During future consultations, however, greater effort must
be made to render these pages easier to navigate.
Finally, a process for evaluating such
consultations, if carried out systematically, would surely help the
participants in these projects to better identify those aspects that need to be
improved. It is particularly important to solicit comments and suggestions
from the Members themselves; that could not be done during the first two
consultations. A questionnaire should also be designed to collect the
opinions of internauts regarding the online consultation.
Outlook For the Future
Certain experiments under way at other
Parliaments herald an increased use of new information technologies in the
parliamentary field in the relatively near future.
General consultations. Citizens can take part in
consultations in a variety of ways. Besides the transmittal of an opinion or a
brief by e-mail, participation in a discussion forum run by a committee appears
to be emerging as a vehicle that will make it possible to integrate internet
technology with the parliamentary proceedings. Some Parliaments and
governments have already tried this approach, albeit with mixed results.
The British government and the Swiss and French Parliaments have
instituted such forums.
Presenting petitions. A few Parliaments, among them
the Australian federal Parliament, have begun under certain circumstances to
receive electronic petitions. Before we make any recommendations to
parliamentarians in Quebec about this possibility, however, we must analyse all
aspects of the question, both technological (the authenticity of the signatures)
Clause-by-clause consideration of bills
in parliamentary committees. The idea here is to allow citizens to make their
opinions known during the legislative process by giving them the opportunity to
draft proposed amendments, clause by clause, to each bill. To our
knowledge only one Parliament, the Chilean Senate, has undertaken a pilot
project of this kind.
In general, the greater the degree of
interaction that is achieved through an e-democracy project the more
significant are the changes that must be made to the rules of parliamentary
procedure to accommodate it. Since any alteration in the Standing Orders
can have unexpected consequences for the balance of forces among the political
groups within the Assembly, it is crucial that we proceed with extreme caution.
Prudent and methodical though we may be
in our approach, we remain convinced that pressure will increase in the years
to come to undertake new experiments with e-democracy. Indeed, to ignore
information technologies as a means for bringing citizens closer to the
institution of Parliament would itself entail certain risks.
With the arrival of new information
technologies a growing number of institutions – whether they be ministries and
government agencies, the media, or any number of other organizations in civil
society – have developed the capacity to create new venues for exchange and
expression. Although these changes attest to a flourishing social life
and must therefore be welcomed, they may well alter the traditional role of
The National Assembly stands at the
heart of democracy in Quebec. It is the place where the great issues of
the day are debated and where the will of the people is expressed through their
elected representatives. Parliament cannot remain on the sidelines in
respect of what other organizations, such as ministries and civil agencies, are
doing in their relations with the citizens; if it did so, it would risk seeing
its role in the development of policies and legislation marginalized.
A major constraint on all e-democracy
projects consists in ensuring the equal treatment of those citizens who use the
internet and those who continue to rely on traditional vehicles. Under no
circumstances should the Assembly favour the technologically sophisticated in
our society to the detriment of those who have yet to embrace new technologies.
Unremitting vigilance in this regard is
imperative, for it is in the minutiae that inequities will make themselves
felt. Our experience during the consultation on the FTZA offers a good
example: Citizens who sent their briefs by the traditional route were obliged
to assume the costs of photocopying themselves, whereas the two internauts
whose opinions were converted into briefs paid nothing.
From another point of view the most
important technical obstacle to the development of e-democracy is computer
security. This consideration did not receive priority during the first
two online consultations for the following reasons:
- No computer system is 100% secure. To have
awaited the creation of such a system before launching the
online-consultation project would have been tantamount to developing
nothing at all;
- We thought it important to gain experience with what
an online consultation ought to be and ought not to be before creating
costly information-security architecture.
Security mechanisms have been evolving
rapidly during the past few years. The issue of security (the integrity
and authenticity of information), with respect to protecting both personal data
and the Assembly’s computer network, will occupy an increasingly pre-eminent
place in future consultation projects.
Our first two experiments with online
consultations were successful notwithstanding a modest rate of participation.
These encouraging results have convinced us of the validity of an
exercise that consists in anchoring the introduction of information
technologies in the parliamentary process and in avoiding overly ambitious
megaprojects that can lead to unforeseen consequences. The problem is not
so much to adapt democracy to technology as it is to adapt technology to
Although these forays in e-democracy
were favourably received by Members and participants, we note that the
furthering of e-democracy does not appear to have a high priority for either
group. They find these developments interesting, but at present they
discern no urgent unfulfilled need for e-democracy. We may thus expect
that any initiatives of this kind which are undertaken in the years to come will
be more in the nature of experiments than a true integration of these
technologies into the proceedings of Parliament.
One thing is certain, however: Internet
technology is here to stay, and its expansion into the majority of the spheres
of human activity (including democracy) will continue. The earliest
statistics on visits to the Assembly website go back to April 1997, when it was
visited 6,700 times in one month. In November 2002 the number of monthly
visits exceeded 130,000. The Assembly administration is duty bound to
prepare itself for future changes and to adapt its methods of work to the new
technological realities, as it did in the past with the arrival of television.
In the final analysis, it is those who
make up the Assembly, that is to say the Members themselves, who will dictate
the evolution of e-democracy in its participative form at the Parliament of
1. Several books and
articles have been published on this subject, the most influential of which is
probably that of Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of
American Community (2000).
2. Pippa Norris,
“Democratic Divide?”, American Political Science Association: “Media Virtue
and Disdain,” August 31-September 2, 2000.
3. This definition is to
be found in the site of Steven Clift, an expert in e-democracy:
http://www.publicus.net/articles/edemresources.html (accessed on March 12,
4. OCDE, Public
Management Policy Brief: Engaging Citizens in Policy Making: Information,
Consultation, and Public Participation, Paris, OCDE, 2001.
5. As at March 10,
2003, the site had nearly 35,000 files representing about 110 gigaoctets.
Besides text files there are a constantly growing number of audiovisual
6. In 2002 Senators’
offices received, on average, 55,000 e-mails per month. (E-Mail Overload
in Congress: Managing a Communications Crisis, Congress Online Project, 2002;
http://www.congressonlineproject.org/email.html) (accessed on March 12, 2003).