Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


4. Information and communications technology, citizen participation and bureaucratic accountability

It is not uncommon to come across statements to the effect that the technology behind ICT has occasioned a very fundamental shift inter alia in the role of government and governance (ICT and Government Committee, 2001). At the very least it can be agreed that the ICT revolution involves a technology that strengthens intellectual (learning) capacities such as information, communication and knowledge (Bellamy and Taylor, 1998). This of course has particular pertinence to the role of public administration (government) in modern societies given the centrality of communication and the provision of information to their functioning. Public administrations all over the world are finding it imperative to ensure that they are in a position to engage in social processes of collective learning as a means of harnessing collective intelligence as a source of continuous improvement as well as of information sharing (Lebessis and Paterson, 2000). ICT is at the same time responsible for a vast increase in the amount of information that is available both in a quantitative sense and in the manner in which it renders information accessible. ICT in principle increases the transparency of processes and structures by generating information about the underlying productive and administrative processes through which public administration accomplishes its tasks (ICT and Government Committee).

Part of a possible significant shift in contemporary society is the advent and multiplication of networks right across the various spectrums of economy, polity and society (Cassels). Networks are explicitly conceptualised as pluri-centric forms of governance in contrast to uni-centric or hierarchial forms of governance. It is in any event becoming a truism that ICT has a strong network character: the Internet has been aptly described as a "loosely connected network of networks with communication technology at their core" (Frissen, 1996). The horizontalisation of governance in the form of networks is a major trend in modern-day public administration (Bovens, 2000). In the EU it is certainly not limited to the fields of economic policy making and related areas (Kohler-Koch and Eising, 1999). Also in the sensitive fields of policing and criminal law we are witnessing an untold and very scantily documented rise in different forms of network governance outside and in addition to formal institutional structures. If we read the Council conclusions of 20 September last it finally is laid down in black and white for all to see just how central a role committees of (senior) civil servants , networks of public prosecutors and task-forces of Police Chiefs, and quasi-institutions such as the Provisional Judicial Cooperation Unit (Pro-Eurojust) are assuming, in the construction of EU policy-making in the field of law enforcement (Council Conclusions, 2001).

One major problem is that the trend towards increased horizontalisation of governance relationships does not fit at all with an understanding of accountability in purely vertical pyramidal terms (see, for example, Bovens, 2000). In other words, accountability as it has been traditionally understood and applied in the Member States of the EU and in the EU itself (despite the absence of the rigid division of powers found at the national level) is premised on the vertical structure of public administration and the absolute primacy of (representative) politics in that context. The democratic process by which the executive is accountable to the legislature is the crowning principle of this system and the concept of administrative responsibility (or ministerial responsibility) its symbolic seal. Such vertical accountability is embedded, albeit certainly imperfectly, in the EU system as well. Indeed in recent years it has been reinforced in significant ways, in particular by the development of (further) executive responsibility to the European Parliament and indeed this would seem to be part of the Commissions implied agenda for the 2004 IGC institutional reform process (see, WP, pp.30-31; see too, P. Magnette, 2001).

But at the same time there is more to developing notions of accountability tailored to the modern-day "fourth branch" of government, both at the national level and at the international level and their complex inter-weavings. More effort of imagination is required than a simple copy (albeit adapted) at the level of EU structures and processes of the classical national system of vertical accountability. The clash between the vertical structure of government and the trend towards horizontal networks, no fan of hierarchy, is one of the main problems facing government (governance) in the information society. This fundamental problem is not alluded to at any stage in the WP although the early work of the Forward Studies Unit showed awareness and sensitivity to this aspect of the debate (Lebessis and Paterson, 1996 and 2000). Instead, the Commission in its WP is content to adopt a congratulatory approach to its information policy (including the controversial new regulation on public access to documents) and some meagre thoughts in a separate communication on developing its communications policy (WP, p.11). Indeed further examination of the Report of the (internal) Working Group 2a ("Consultation and Participation of Civil Society") as well as that of Working Group 1a ( " Broadening and enriching the public debate on European matters") , reveals that the general attitude displayed within the Commission to the significance of ICT is a highly ambivalent one, confined largely to viewing it in purely instrumental terms . In other words, it tends to focus on the introduction of more on-line information (for example, data-bases providing information on civil society organisations active at the European level or listing all consultative bodies involved in EU policy-making) rather than on reflecting on the institutional potential and dynamics of the technology in a broader (citizenship) framework (see, Bovens, 2001).

The decision by the Commission not to deal with the key issues of access to information and the linked question of the communication policies of the institutions is a major defect in the White Paper and pre-determined a fairly marginal role for "active" civil society representatives in its development of the governance agenda in the EU. In my view the Commission in its WP gravely underestimates the changing relationship between public administration and citizen and the role which ICT is playing in that regard. It is a rather futile exercise to attempt to pigeon-hole as part of an exclusively vertical pyramid of accountability the role of the citizen and their civil society representatives in the manner which the Commission attempts to do (see, for example, WP, pp. 14 et al ). In effect its contribution only goes in the direction of expanding the composition of an advisory and to date fringe-organ, namely the Economic and Social Committee, to include "representatives" of civil society (WP, p15.). Actually the point is not only the risk that the Commission "selects" according to certain criteria a limited number of Brussels-based NGO's with sufficient capacity etc., giving it funds, buying its loyalty, but that a golden opportunity is lost to harness the energy, the interest and the engagement of a wide variety of civil society participants who are not necessarily looking for strict "participation" rights as such but rather to engage in a vigorous and dynamic fashion in public debate, where different viewpoints can be heard, deliberated upon and ultimately be decided upon by the formal decision-makers (see further Curtin, 1999). It is precisely that process where I would suggest ICT can play a key role.

A decline of trust by citizens in their political institutions is a feature of many Western democracies over the course of the past decade or more . This crisis of confidence has been evident not only in a drop of support for politicians as a group (Pharr and Putnam) but also in a drop of support for (and public participation in) political parties (see, Peter Mair, 2000, Frissen, 2001). The same phenomena are present both in many Member States of the EU and also with regard to the political parties which put forward candidates in the European Union context. The Commission for its part is content to remark in anodyne (and inaccurate) fashion that: "European political parties are an important factor in European integration and contribute to European awareness and voicing the concerns of the citizens" (WP, p.16).

What is as a matter of fact (rather than pious aspiration) very striking in these times is the empirical evidence pointing towards the increasing interest of citizens in theme-related information and theme-related activity as an alternative form of political engagement. For example, in the Netherlands , the level of activity among citizens in organisations and associations has increased in a striking fashion over the course of the past decade (see, Report of Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau on the Netherlands in Europe, 2000). In the European Union too the growth in the existence and activity of the so-called "civil society" sector in and around the structures and processes of EU governance is increasing very steadily (see, for example, the Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee, 2000 and Curtin, 1999) .

As a result of engaged , albeit non-traditional, political activity citizens not only have much greater motivation to themselves (or via an association or interest group to which they belong) seek out information as to the performance of the public administration, they are thus better placed than ever to scrutinise the manner in which public administration tasks are carried out . Moreover it follows that (large groups of) citizens no longer need or wish to have passive relations with the public authorities but rather wish to play a vigorous part in defining these contacts as they see fit (ICT and Government Committee, 2001). In other words, citizens are themselves developing their role, using the technology offered to them by ICT both in terms of acquiring information and maintaining virtual and horizontal relations with no traditional time and space constraints (Dutch Council for Scientific Advice to the Government), and are more willing to actively engage on (specific) issues than in times where a more heroic view of politics prevailed (sees on the role of ICT in strengthening the possibilities for civil society organisations to participate in the process, Internet en Openbaar Bestuur, 2001).

In other words the input of civil society is in my view not to be harnessed to some convenient point in the decision-making system and then that a chosen few are selected at the behest of a central actor (in this instance the Commission) to be allowed to participate in the formulation of an opinion of an advisory organ with a very limited role to play across the broad thrust of the public administration and governance process. A more fruitful and tailored approach is to seek "spaces" for deliberation by a wide range of interested parties at various stages in the decision-making and implementation processes, prior to the adoption by those formal political actors who ultimately can be held responsible and to account in a mature political system (see further Curtin, 1999).




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