eParticipation, political system, digital democracy, cyberspace, internet, e- governance, e-government, participation, participatory democracy, political theory, information society, knowledge society.
The emergence of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) has resulted in numerous optimistic concepts like digital democracy, cyberdemocracy, the digital agora, the virtual community, and the global village, giving the impression that cyberspace automatically implies the broadening of democracy within society. The discourse has thus far mainly narrowly focused on concepts such as e-government and e- voting implying that the use of ICTs by public administration strengthens democracy.
In contrast to this narrow view the approach of the ICT&S Center at the University of Salzburg stresses that political participation is a broad concept that aims at including those affected by decisions within these processes. It is based on a broad concept of power that sees the latter not as something that is imposed on people from above by institutions that cannot be controlled. But as something that is distributed in a certain way and that is produced in social practices.
The task of eParticipation is to empower people with ICTs to be able to act in bottom-up- decision processes, to make informed decisions, and to develop social and political responsibility. Therefore, eParticipation is a means to empower the political, socio- technological, and cultural capabilities of individuals giving the possibility that individuals can involve themselves and organize themselves in the information society.
The relationship of ICTs and society (ICT&S) is not considered as one where a limited group of political experts takes decisions, controls power, and informs others by the way of new technologies of these decisions. We rather consider digital democracy as a process in which all people are enabled to become capable of acting as political experts, taking decisions, producing power, and using ICTs for co-operation and self-organization. Social structures have enabling and constraining effects on human practices (Anthony Giddens), the task of eParticipation is to limit the constraining and to maximize the enabling effects of ICTs.
This concept brings the ICT adoption process from the macro-level of state endorsed e- policy to the micro-level, representing the individual – an indispensable precondition in order to bring about the capable user. We need to turn away from techno-deterministic viewpoints to human-centred and culturally sensitive approaches. One can also characterize this concept as the shift from building infrastructure to creating identities or from bridging the digital divide to closing the knowledge gap. This means putting the individual in the centre of the adoption process of technology. Therefore cognitive, cultural, and social factors must be considered in order to achieve an encompassing understanding.
In this paper the notion of eParticipation is introduced and three application areas are outlined: eParticipation and user-centred design, an empirical study on political online communication of youths in Salzburg, and an empirical study on political online discussion boards in Austria.