Digital divide and civic engagement

With the dissertation defended I plan on bringing this blog back to life.

I started a post-doc position with the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI), based in Cornell Law School. The project runs a very interesting operation called Regulation Room. It offers a platform and, even more importantly, a process for online public participation in the federal government rule-making process (if you don’t know what rule-making is, you are with the majority of people out there and should definitely go to the Regulation Room, because it has all the explanations). I will be working on collaborative drafting of policy input and consensus building around policy issues; aspects that currently are absent from the platform and frankly not sure will be necessarily a standard part of it. I hope to write about this work as I move along.

Yet, even before I started working on my own piece of CeRI research, just learning about the Regulation Room prompted interesting conversations that easily linked to my interest in the digital divide. The result is a paper I co-authored with one of my new colleagues, Rebecca Vernon, which will be presented later this week at the “New ICTs + New Media = New Democracy? Communications policy and public life in the age of broadband” (CFP) – a workshop organized by the Institute for Information Policy at Penn State University and the New America Foundation.

I am not sure what the policy of the workshop is about publishing the papers, so in the meantime I’ll post the extended abstract. Hope you’ll find the premise interesting. If you are interested in the rest, please email me or just leave a comment.

Between Twitter revolutions and Facebook elections, there is a growing belief that information and communication technologies are changing the way democracy is practiced. But how universal are those effects? In this paper we look into what van Dijk labels “motivational access” in digital divide as an impediment for citizens to actively utilize information and communication technologies for civic engagement. We focus on the Cornell University eRulemaking Initiative as our case and conduct an in-depth investigation into its recent efforts to get the public involved in the Department of Transportation rulemaking process using online tools. Recommendations based on this analysis address both national policy frameworks and agency specific regulations.

The digital divide is viewed as major impediment to information-technology-enhanced democratic processes. But if you build it, will they come? Will making broadband more readily available necessarily increase participation in democratic processes? Will making government information available online motivate citizens to engage with government institutions? Will opening up communication channels necessarily yield productive feedback from people? Are the barriers for meaningful civic participation online primarily technological?

Regulation Room (http://regulationroom.org) is a project of Cornell University eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI). It is an online platform developed to engage the public in the federal agency rulemaking processes. In addition to its technological platform, Regulation Room has developed a set of moderation and outreach techniques to make both the procedures of rulemaking and the content of the rules more accessible to the general public. CeRI works with the Department of Transportation on actual rules the agency is seeking public comment on. As such, it serves as a real-life laboratory to explore uses of technology in democratic processes.

Over the past 15 months, Regulation Room worked on 3 rules that resulted in formal comments submitted to the Department of Transportation. In this paper we unpack what it takes to engage citizens in democratic processes and help them make their participation count. Our analysis suggests that while digital divide defined in terms of physical access and technological literacy may play a role in impeding civic engagement, they may not be the only important factors. In effect, while ensuring that all citizens have broadband access and well-developed technical skills go a long way toward ensuring public participation in democratic governance, it will not result in the desired breadth and depth of participation without further policy changes and investments in new technologies. Practices that evolved around the use of technology on the one hand and the engagement with government processes on the other, play an important role affecting civic online participation.

The paper presents an assortment of lessons and observations from “Regulation Room” and offers policy recommendations that suggest viewing civic online engagement through the lens of socio-technical practice, wherein the technology requirements for citizens to engage effectively in democratic processes are examined in conjunction with the normative assumptions of individuals as they interact with their government through online media.

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