Across the globe participation in democracy is at an all time low. Where voting is not compulsory voter turnout has dropped significantly in recent years. For more than a quarter of a century participation in American elections has declined. In 2000, lower than 50 percent of potential voters bothered to cast votes in a residential election – the lowest voter participation rate since 1824.

Although we have compulsory voting, anecdotal evidence suggests that genuine participation in our democracy is also at an all time low in Australia.

Discontentment with politics is deep and rising. Politicians vie with journalists and used car salesmen in the pits of public esteem.

According to a recent survey in the UK, only 22 per cent of the public think that Britain’s present system of government works well (down from 48 per cent even in strike-bound 1973), while 76 per cent believe it could be improved. Results of this sort of survey are repeated across the western democracies.

Powerlessness is the recurring theme: the belief that “they” are not listening and do not know what life is really like in “our” schools, hospitals, workplaces and communities – “they” being faceless politicians engaged in fatuous slanging matches.

The UK survey also found that three-quarters of respondents believed they should have a significant say in government policies between elections, but a paltry 9 per cent felt that they actually did so. Large majorities, survey by survey, support new checks on government and a greater role for voter participation and a new style of Parliament in strengthening democracy.

As a recently elected Government backbencher in the Tasmanian parliament, the number friends and constituents who have asked me questions such as “So, is this a full time job” and “What is it you actually do in your job?” has surprised me. Fair questions for people to ask when there is no actual “position description” for my job and certainly no reporting mechanism back to the electors other than the local media.

Today’s discontent with politics may be largely caused by a failure to adapt our political system sufficiently over recent decades to reflect changes in society and changes in the way technology can allow and encourage a more participatory approach.

There is a widening gap between the representatives (politicians) and those they represent (the people).

We have reached a point in time where two convergent trends are likely to have a significant impact on the future shape and form of democracy itself. The first of these trends is that there is a dramatic decline in membership in our communities. This is manifested in almost every western democracy by lower voter turnouts, lower levels of participation in political and civic life, rising cynicism towards political institutions and parties and a collapse of the social “infrastructures”, such as the church, unions, service clubs and political parties which were once strong community connector organisations. From this there is a growing recognition that new relationships between Government, citizens, and institutions must be developed if a crisis in democracy is to be averted. As citizens have tended away from seeing Government as a “paternal” provider and have become more consumerist, individual old styles of representative Government have come under pressure. That is, there is a widening gap between the representatives (politicians) and those they represent (the people).

The second convergent trend, obvious across the globe, is the rise of digital media and information-communication technologies (ICT). To millions who are connected to the Internet, or even cable television, these new technologies offer membership to new social forums and peer communication that is relatively cheap to enter, inclusive, communicative and unconstrained by time and distance. These technologies have not only enabled online social change but have fundamentally changed the way we work, shop, bank, find information and connect with other people and communities. Sites such as are changing the way new social structures are being formed. If these technologies have offered so much change in the way we communicate, why haven’t they impacted on the way we participate in our democracy?

Most Governments (including the Tasmanian Government through projects like Service Tasmania Online) have developed e-Government strategies that exploit ICT and digital media to deliver services to constituents. However, only a progressive few have engaged these technologies to reinvigorate democracy itself through greater public participation, better communication with stakeholders and making the democratic process more rewarding, accessible and responsive to all.

According to Stephen Coleman (Director of the Hansard Society for e-Democracy) the goal in exploiting these new technologies for progressive Governments should be to generate and sustain online public engagement in policy deliberation. Deliberation is the key word in Coleman’s assertion – that is exploitation of technologies should not merely be new a way of citizens asserting existing preferences but should be developed in a way that fosters the formation of well informed preferences through encouraging citizens to scrutinise, weigh up and discuss competing values and policy options.

Increasing disengagement of our youth

Another worrying trend in participation rates around the globe is the increasing disengagement of our youth in the political process. The UK’s Minister for e-Commerce Douglas Alexander MP, recently said “… delve below the headline statistics and the warning is even more stark. The detail of the demographics reveals that in the 18-25 age group over 60% did not vote.” Perhaps they never will.

In his important book, “Growing Up Digital”, futurist Donald Tapscott outlines the changes emerging in the “echo” of the baby boom generation as they are “growing up digital.” Tapscott says:

“This new culture… is a culture that is stemming from the Net Generation’s use of interactive digital media. We should pay attention because the culture which flows from their experiences in cyberspace foreshadows the culture they will create as leaders of tomorrow in the workplace and society.”

Referring to the new stock of “reality TV” programs that are very popular in the 18-25 age bracket, British paper, The Independent recently reported that more people voted in Big Brother evictions than in European elections.

The US political scientist, Robert Putnam, in his famous book, Bowling Alone has argued that a decline in membership of civic networks has resulted in a significant drop in political engagement in the US. Putnam argues that people become engaged in civic and wider political affairs when they have acquired habits of communal connection – as these habits fade, political engagement also falls away.

Although Putnam and others put forward “social capital” as the great social panacea many would argue against that position. However, whether we subscribe to Putnam’s theories or not, it is an undeniable fact that citizens of most western democracies perceive political policy development and decision making as remote from them.

On the surface this isn’t an unappealing scenario to some politicians

Does the corollary to Putnam’s assertion hold true? That is, Putnam argues the decline in community participation has led to a decline in political participation. If we are able to increase one, will the other also rise? This question may be a diversion. We need to focus on how we address the lower participation rates in democracy and perhaps in doing so we will be able to identify new models for developing greater social capital at the same time.

If we aren’t able to find new ways to engage the public in our democracy, we must of course face the alternative. The alternative, by definition, will be a community that is disengaged. Perhaps on the surface this isn’t an unappealing scenario to some politicians. However a disengaged public who has hostility towards decision-making and policy formation processes that appear to ignore them is a much less appealing vision.

There is anecdotal evidence that Tasmania too is suffering from a reduction in social capital and certainly from a disengagement from the political process.

By bringing the public into the loop of policy formation, opportunities for mutual understanding between the representatives and the represented can occur. The public can inform its representatives with experience and expertise and the representatives can inform the public about the complexities and dilemmas of good policy formation. If the representatives continue only to rely on the expertise of the inner circle we have not, as a society, made the significant but vital transformation to the much talked about “learning organisation”.

Although it is difficult to quantify due to compulsory voting, there is anecdotal evidence that Tasmania too is suffering from a reduction in social capital and certainly from a disengagement from the political process. Perhaps we, as politicians, would make a counter argument. For example the volume of correspondence in Tasmanian ministerial offices is increasing significantly. With the advent of e-mail this seems like it may be becoming unmanageable. Indeed, a recent example of a correspondent to a ministerial e-mail address who was “deeply offended” that the Minister had not actually typed the initial e-mail reply himself, highlights the potential downside of allowing the adoption of technologies for communication and consultation without a proper usage policy framework. This significant increase in information flow will not result in better policy formation unless it is done in the context of a rules based framework that is developed to enhance communication channels – not flood them!

The increase in ministerial correspondence may also point to dissatisfaction with the policy formation process and a lack of understanding of the complexities of decision-making. It does not imply a more engaged public but instead it probably points to the opposite.

The most recent of these “debates” currently in the public eye is that of logging in old growth forests. It could be argued that the “debate” is actually a series of exchanges of statistics and emotive statements that do not serve to educate and inform either the representatives or the represented.

Recent history in Tasmania may also point to this disengagement. The last thirty years of debate in Tasmania have undoubtedly been characterised by the usual suspects engaging in the usually polarised debates over the environmental and social policies of a succession of governments. The nature of these debates and the way they have played out also points to a lack of understanding in the wider community of the complexities of decision making involved.

The most recent of these “debates” currently in the public eye is that of logging in old growth forests. It could be argued that the “debate” is actually a series of exchanges of statistics and emotive statements that do not serve to educate and inform either the representatives or the represented. Only through a public engagement that is truly deliberative where the public is encouraged to scrutinise, discuss and weigh up competing policy options can the represented form informed preferences rather than simply assert them. Perhaps the latest five options papers on old growth logging by Forestry Tasmania is a good move towards this.

They must first understand what we do with our time

Director of the Hansard Society for e-Democracy, Stephen Coleman, says that public deliberation, at its best, is characterised by qualities such as access to balanced information, an open agenda, time to consider issues expansively, freedom from manipulation or coercion, a rules based framework for discussion and a recognition of differences between participants.

If we are to improve on our past performance, Tasmanian democracy needs to move to include a framework for public deliberation that aspires to the above qualities and increases participation levels in that framework. It is clear that innovation occurs more rapidly in organisations when there is freedom to discuss new ideas and a framework to harness new ideas. Wealth is being created in organisations globally where innovation and newness can be harvested. Ideas generated in the Tasmanian political context also need to be harvested to create a more innovative society to deal with a rapidly changing global environment.

Tasmanians have been innovative. Government programs such as the Online Access Centres and Tasmania Together have been significant attempts to modernise our democracy and provide a new medium by which the people of Tasmania and their representatives can develop new ideas. If we are to lead the world in this area and reap the benefits of our innovative nature, we need to develop a clear vision and implementation plan to modernise our democracy.

For my part, I am working on developing tools that exploit new technologies in order to engage with my constituents. Overwhelmingly comments from my friends with regard to my recent election are along the lines of “what is it you do with all your time anyway.” I have decided to concentrate on ways I can use new media to inform my constituents of the answer to that question. With an innovative piece of Tasmanian developed technology, I have recently launched what I believe is an Australian first in political websites. I will publish my entire diary online for all my constituents (and political colleagues) to see.

Before we, as politicians, can engage our constituents in meaningful policy deliberation, surely they must first understand what we actually do with our time!

David Bartlett’s online diary is at:
David Bartlett