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E-democracy – are the lights on in Australia?


Democracy has always been a given in Australia. Even if lately we’ve developed a penchant for changing leaders more often than we change our toothbrush, generally we have never felt that our democracy has been challenged or threatened or that it would be in the future. However, this is not the case around the world, and it doesn’t mean that our democratic and governmental processes can’t be improved by technology.

E-democracy is…

The concept of digital democracy, or e-democracy, is rapidly emerging from the significant digital transformations taking place within everyday human interactions, be they social or economic. A definition states: “e-democracy encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that are augmented by technology, and that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.”

E-democracy offers greater community access to political processes and policy choices, and potentially greater transparency.  Citizens can have all government information at their fingertips and easier access to their government officials. In this new generation where the internet and social networking rules daily lives, there is a growing expectation that people can not only access government services on-line, but also engage directly with democratic processes and policy making.

There are a significant number of movements and improvements that can be attributed to e-democracy. Briefly, the ‘Occupy’ movement following the 2008/09 GFC was predominantly mobilised through social networks and the ‘Arab Spring’ and pro-democracy movements in Egypt and neighbouring countries are notable examples from the ‘early days’ of e-democracy.  Within Australia, grass-roots petitions and issues-based campaigns designed to influence existing democratic processes are perhaps the more familiar cousins of those more revolutionary movements.

The current state – there and here

Societies around the globe continue to grapple with how to incorporate the groundswell of online political activity into existing governance processes. For example, Estonia, who are way ahead on the e-democracy journey, managed to achieve digital voting in 2005 with over a third of the population now voting online. Faith in the system is very high with a single voting registry where people cast their vote and can even go back and change it right up until the deadline.  Now take Latin America, they’re focusing more on transparency initiatives such as open judiciary portals designed to increase confidence in the justice system.

Meanwhile, following the revelations of Cambridge Analytica’s ability to run highly targeted political advertising campaigns, there is a growing awareness of the need to achieve greater transparency and perhaps apply stronger governance to digital advertising platforms like Facebook if local democratic processes are to be protected from undue external influence.

Back in Australia, in late 2018, the Federal Government (with Liberal at the helm) unveiled its Digital Transformation Strategy, declaring that all Commonwealth services will be available through digital channels by 2025 with a promise alongside this to make Australia a top-three digital nation by the same year!

Projects that are on target to be launched this June include virtual assistants for welfare support and the government’s Digital ID trials; while the next year sees the pilot of the ‘Tell Us Once’ project, that shares individuals’ changed circumstances across government departments, along with welfare payments being lodged digitally.

The Digital ID project forms a key part of the strategy, with a pilot program currently underway. Digital Transformation Minister, Michael Keenan, maintained that the service will be remaining as opt-in and not go down the same path as My Health Record: “It will be opt-in, it will only be there for people that would like to opt into it. It’s going to make government services so convenient and easy to access that Australians will want a digital ID.” How these initiatives will be influenced by the result of the 2019 federal election remains to be seen.

Trust, especially around data security is and will remain one of the most difficult tasks for the Government to manage. The current strategy explicitly states: “We will be ethical in how we treat your data and be clear about what we do. We believe you should have control over your data. Trust is central to how the government uses data to inform its policies and programs. Australians want to know how we use their data.”

In practice, KJR is proud to be working with Service NSW, which has been through huge digital changes over the past few years. Anyone who has recently got a new driver’s licence in New South Wales would have noticed significant improvements in efficiency of the process as a result of its digital transformation. There has also been the road tolls rebate program, and the online rego application scheme that has had fantastic feedback.  On a national level Australia has already had success with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) which is fundamentally changing the way people with disabilities can access services.

Outside of government-led initiatives, it has been interesting to observe the emergence of political parties such as Flux, exploring the idea of direct digital democracy. By using a secure issue-based voting system, party members are able to directly express their position on each piece of legislation before parliament, pass that vote on to a delegate who may be better equipped to scrutinise it, or reserve their vote for another issue they consider to be more important. Like other open government initiatives, the goal is to deliver greater transparency and accountability, and reduce the influence of lobbyists and backroom deals.  Such an approach is only feasible in a digitally enabled society.

So are we close to Estonia and the e-democracy dream? Well, we’re closer than we were five years ago but the road won’t be without hurdles, including ghosts of bungles-past. It’s going to be a fascinating and exciting future in both government digital programs and grass roots movements. We’re looking forward to seeing just how far Australia can go in its digitisation to the benefit of all its citizens.