Promises and seductions of e-governance and e-democracy sound suggestive. Online tools providing citizens with opportunities to express themselves, to get access to various sources of information, to comment on political decisions often have been cherished as prophets of a new era, enabling democratic and inclusive participation. Programs of electronic governance (e-governance) and their implementation are often accompanied by directly or indirectly expressed euphoria of citizens involvement in political affairs: via instruments of e-governance citizens may at any time contact public bodies to watch municipal meetings, to look into prepared and already made political decisions, to vote without leaving their homes. Driving to distant municipalities, waiting until you are invited into the office of a referee becomes unnecessary – all will now be done in a flexible, accessible to the maximum, transparent and accountable way.
Like in any case of high promises, some skepticism is highly appropriate in case of a promised charm of e-democracy too. In this short article I’ll take a suspicious look at a merely one e-democracy tool – a section of “questions and answers” provided by Lithuanian municipalities on their websites – and will share insights gained from this skeptical look. My arguments are informed by the symbolic interactionism which allows for analyzing social micro-processes while considering these often normal or even trivial objects of analysis as instructive phenomena for the societal level.
“Questions and answers”
It has become a part of etiquette to provide the section “questions and answers” on the websites of municipalities (and not only of them). To offer this sort of instrument is considered not only legitimate, but also a must since municipalities can demonstrate their progressiveness and democratic values. This section belongs to the instruments of the so called e-governance; almost every municipality in Lithuania has it on its website. The aim of “questions and answers” is to give citizens the opportunity to provide their questions, suggestions and comments and to receive the answers from municipalities.
The title of the section is literally translated from Lithuanian as “You ask – we answer”. A seemingly innocuous structure of four words and one dash between them. A semantic structure which directly underlines the intention of the dialogue: “we” appeal permanently to “you” and “you” are supposed to be permanently willing to reply to this appeal. The impression of innocence fades after one looks carefully at what this structure means, what interaction model it expresses and what kind of power relations it implies.
The title of the section “you ask – we answer” supposes unambiguously separated roles of the actors included: on the one side there are “you” – ‘askers’, unsettled and underinformed citizens who seek information, advice and support, on the other side there are “we” – municipal employees, responsible for replying and not plagued with any questions, and instead of this sharing their answers with citizens sometimes benevolently, sometimes parsimoniously.
The designated status of “you” is that of uninformed, lacking knowledge or reasonable access to sources and therefore forced to apply to “we”. “We”, then, is a group of constitutively others, rewarded with huge knowledge and information resources and – if they have mercy – sharing with citizens their goods in suitable pieces, dropwise or more generously. These pieces of knowledge are cooked in moralizing juice so that “you” can feel even more handicapped and not able to get access to relevant sources in by yourself.
“You ask – we answer” represents both sides as two unrelated constructs, two dash-separated spheres of the world, where “we” in principle cannot have anything to do with “you”. Social interactions in form of questions and answers which in conventional contexts serve as connections of both pieces, in this case, strengthens their diversity and separateness.
Askers are constructed as a group annoyed by the deficit – related to information or an existential uncertainty, the group of answerers is supposed to be a surplus group in relation to information or certainty, endowed with almost divine knowledge, since no question remains unanswered. This structure does not imply that the surplus group can be incurred with any deficits like questions, doubts or uncertainty, and a deficit group cannot fundamentally enrich the surplus group. The dichotomous structure presupposes the advantageous identity of one group at the expense of another group.
The two-stroke social interactions bereaved of future and past allowed in the case of this section (one question – one answer, no continuation, no reciprocity), strengthens a clear separation of the roles without any possibility of bridging or fusing the roles since it can be neither modified nor questioned nor negotiated: “we” cannot identify with “you” and “you” cannot become a part of “we”. Either you “ask” or “answer”. Such a strict distinction of social groups between “you” and “we” reminds us of Goffman’s “total institutions”, where one of the essential and unquestionable principles of acting is a clear separation between the staff (supervisors, sisters, teachers) of total institutions and inhabitants/clients/patients/prisoners.
Models of interaction
The structure itself is quite a different issue from the way it is filled in and used by the actors. It is worth to take a look at the concrete interactions between citizens and municipal representatives in the section “Questions and answers”, at least where the questions and answers are made public. A detailed study is required to analyze how the structure frames questions and answers, what kind of interaction types can be observed. In the following, I’ll share only the first and still instructive insights. I will begin with a quote from such a section on one municipality’s website:
Could you, please, inform when Donelaičio street (the section between the street S and street B) , which has already turned into a lake, will finally be restored. There is a huge pit underneath water, people damage their cars, and pedestrians can no longer pass. […] So many times we were in municipality, and so many times we wrote to the municipality and to the newspapers – nothing. They promised things would be better in future, in 2011, then in 2013. People now need to live there, and wade through the water to their homes. […] The neighborhood residents no longer have any hope that this will ever come to an end. After all, the surrounding streets have been reconstructed […], the sewers were made. Perhaps, the money was there because municipal officials live there, and where the officials do not live, the street is left unreconstructed. Nobody cares about poor people…
[…] Due to the large size of the project and limited funding opportunities [..] the municipality is currently unable to implement the entire reconstruction project. However, […] in 2013 it is planned to install rain sewer system in this part of the street. Currently, the volume of work.is being estimated. When the evaluation of the work is finished, we will proceed to search for funding opportunities and public works contracts. The work is planned to be carried out July 2013.
The question asked by a resident named Vytas shows for what different purposes the category “ask” can be used. His question is not only long, consisting of a series of arguments, but includes aspects that move far from the originally intended information function and passes a wide range of interactional models in relation to the municipality. The query begins with a question (“when will… “), it continues with an appeal towards the empathy of municipal employees regarding the troubles of ordinary citizens of the city (“wade through the water”) and ends with indirectly expressed criticism regarding the government being self-centered and not caring about troubles of the ordinary people.
Vytas derives from the initial hierarchical structure framed by the section title and proceeds to an interactive model while appealing to the humanity of municipal employees. From the presupposed position of powerlessness imposed on him by the structure of “you ask – we answer” Vytas breaks away by appealing to the universal human experience of troubles and tries to initiate a new egalitarian structure by framing his responders as colleagues able to solidarize with ordinary people.
However, Vytas leaves this newly created structure of equality quite fast – perhaps fearing the fragility of this structure or because of uncertainty whether the other side is able to maintain solidarity – and goes into the third interactive model. Here he takes over the hierarchically higher position which enables him to make assumptions about representatives of municipality, their actions and their limited morality and legitimacy. While making hints about the “arranged” streets reconstructed near to the residences of the municipal representatives he weave in a discourse very popular in the Lithuanian context which constructs politicians as selfish and opportunistic individuals.
In the course of one single question the asker makes a long interactional career, from a helpless to the omnipotent actor. This clearly demonstrates that participants do not simply obey the structural impositions of the “questions and answers” section that restores municipal power advantage, but rather use the structure for their own purposes, partly demonstrating obedience (asking), partly transforming the structure and replacing their helplessness with verbal omnipotence (appealing, accusing).
Such an alloy of interactional modes is not a simple task for the answerers: how and to which of the interaction modes offered to respond, how to deal with the risk of losing professional self-esteem and identity? The reaction we observe in the quote is the expected one in case of municipal representatives: the answer reflects the businesslike professional operating logic of municipality. The employee of the municipality ignores both the asker’s invitation to reach the interaction mode of collegiality or empathy-driven interaction as well as accusations and allusions of power.
Instead, the answer is expressed according to the presupposed structure, imposing power deficits to the asker and power resources to the answerer. The answer contains a number of facts relating to the questions asked (“when”) and facts of which the author of the question may not know, like the information regarding a planned project. Empathic appeal to solidarize with ordinary people is replied with the economic arguments referring to precarious economic situation of the municipality (“limited access to founding”), which reproduces the original structure of imposed power imbalances, since city residents are hardly familiar with municipal economic situation and can neither oppose nor demand an explanation why the situation is like this and have to accept it without any protest. The answer, which at first glance seemed to be purely informative, in fact restores the power imbalance between the municipality and the citizens and an instrument of e-democracy turns out to be silencing the voice of citizens instead of serving its expression.
The example analyzed above should not be considered as a manifestation of municipal arrogance, while we need to take into account the organizational field structuring social interactions between municipality and citizens. Particularly, bureaucratic logic should be mentioned as one relevant frame. This logic is intended to deal not with people but with problems and issues and to directly abstract from individual interests.
E-democracy, understood as re-consideration of human side of politics by state and municipal bodies is a contradiction in itself since bureaucratically structured organizations are able to exercise promises of people-orientation neither in real nor in virtual contexts, Their institutional logic as modus operandi provides neither knowledge or opportunity nor means to realize this. Promises of “democracy” and “openness” are contrary to the logic of bureaucracy, as already defined by Max Weber. To replace the bureaucratic logic with one of democracy – whatever it may be – is no solution either, since the essential requirements of the government bodies still require clear bureaucratic elements, particularly in respect to the justice principle achieved only regardless of the individual’s expectations. Moreover, the majority of public institutions are not ready for e-democracy: it is not clarified who can and should deliver answers over which period, who coordinates all processes. Perhaps, answering online question is not included in any qualifications, each answer holds potential threats to appear incompetent, or to respond too openly and provoke complaints. Insistence on bureaucratic logic and modus of interactions is not the whim of individual employees but a reasonable way for municipal employees to deal with new, complex situations of online queries with familiar methods. Beneath the imposed omnipotence of municipal position lies helplessness and disability.