Inside Government: The role of policy actors in shaping e-democracy in the UK

December 07, 2016 by Mary Houston

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The thesis focuses on the emergence of e-democracy in the UK between 1999 and 2013. It examines the part that policy actors have played in shaping the agenda. Emphasis is placed on how e-democracy is understood by those charged with developing initiatives and implementing government policy on democracy. Previous research on e-democracy has focused largely on the impact of Web technologies on political systems and/or on how, why and to what degree, citizens participate. Less attention is paid to what happens inside government, in how policy actors’ conceive public engagement in the policy process. Their perceptions and shared understandings are crucial to the commissioning, implementation, or deflection of participatory opportunities. This thesis is concerned with exploring how policy actors experience, interpret and negotiate e-democracy policy and practices and their perceptions of citizen involvement in the policy process. Competing discourses shape institutional expectations of e-democracy in the UK. The research examines how policy actors draw upon wider discourses such as the modernisation of government and the emphasis on transparency. It analyses understandings of technologies in government and the effects of relational interactions and linkages in policy and practice. The thesis draws on fieldwork in the UK from 23 in-depth, semi-structured interviews and participant observation data with a range of policy actors: civil servants from several government departments, government advisors and participation practitioners. In conjunction with interviews, documentary analysis was carried out on government documents, published between1999 and 2013. These focused on the role of Web technologies in government and include policy papers, advisory reports, audit reports and guidance for civil servants. Documentary analysis was combined with interviews and participant observation to compare the stated aims of e-democracy with the constraints and opportunities experienced by policy actors in their work. The findings highlight how contested interpretations of participation and differing approaches to technology affect the design, management and evaluation of projects. Such interpretations and contestations are not developed in isolation but emerge as actors come together in different spaces and configurations. Probing the relationships, motivations and perceptions of government insiders provides new insights about the development of e-democracy within the institutional context in the UK.