E-Discussions Canada

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Case study of online consultation process by Canadian government.

By Luke Heemsbergen at http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=309

Read intro to original article for research methodology.



"First to be explored are the Canadian government’s online eDiscussions. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) began nascent online communication with Canadians in the fall of 2002. Encouraged by citizen demand for interaction with the usually aloof department, the then Assistant Deputy Minister for Policy asked ‘what can we do to engage Canadians and how do we use the ‘web’ to tell our story?’ Part of the answer was a participatory ‘eDiscussion’ space for ‘Canadians’ to respond to policy questions posed by the department. DFAIT policy officers note that the eDiscussions are approached as a tool for the exercise of public diplomacy, contextualization of government content (i.e. policy), and as a form of engagement.

Opportunity for ‘engagement’ is almost exclusively marketed through email to Canadian academia and their students. According to DFAIT’s Google Analytics, for Canadian respondents, generally 60-70% participate from IP addresses associated with academic institutions, with 20% registered to the NGO community, leaving the final 10% for private individuals. Topics ideas for eDiscussion are formed by the eDiscussion team, their Director General and the Assistant Deputy Minister for Policy, and reflect ‘important issues of Canadian foreign policy’. Each eDiscussino begins with questions provided to “help frame the discussion” (DFAIT, 2007 emphasis in original). The site also provides extensive background material in the form of online video interviews of noted academics and practitioners with expertise in the discussion subject. Previous discussions can be found online.

Discussions are moderated for offensive language and to ‘remain in the confines of the questions posed’. DFAIT recorded only one experience where a ‘domestic lobby’ attempted to co-opt a discussion on small arms proliferation to the issue of domestic gun rights. The gun lobby posts were removed, to the consternation of those posting who felt cut out of the ‘policy’ discourse. Interpreted via dispositif as a line of discipline to the discussion, it could be argued the removal of these posts did not allow communicative reason to ferret out through deliberation, the telos of all statements.

Examined here is the Democracy Promotion eDiscussion, which registered 141 postings over a three-month period. Two main streams of thought were observed evolving through the discussion: The need to promote democracy via governance tools, and a rebutting claim for the necessity to address basic human needs - including human rights - before egalitarian designs of democracy would become feasible (click here for a visual map of the eDiscussion - proximity grouped for substance discussion’s visual mapping).

Midway through the discussion, a DFAIT moderator defined democracy as a system that allows citizens to “exercise influence over decisions that affect their lives,” and encouraged participants to enunciate what tools Canada could supply to foster such ends. This line of force rectified issues within the discussion. Significant consensus building was observed within the group of posters identifying with and advocating democratic tools, with more frequent posters synthesizing suggestions directly from previous posters’ comments. Thinking through dispositif, one could interpret visible ‘lines’ of democracy discussed to correspond with Habermasian conceptions of communicative reason.

Considering the technological traits mediating the engagement (i.e. text based not-quite-realtime postings), the targeting of participants, ‘rectifying’ constraints put on participant’s voices, and the initial framing of topics, it is not surprising the resulting phenomena closely mirrored a deliberative discourse. The controlled textual exchange seemed to mediate opinion and thought to a tempered exchange of ideas that Habermasian analysts would surely interpret as communicative rationality. Further evidence from past eDiscussions promotes a thesis of communicative rationality: DFAIT officials acknowledge disrupting their own policy frameworks towards failing states by utilizing the concept of ‘fragile cities’ after it emerged from a previous eDiscussion.

However, conceptualizing methods of maintaining control within the discussion through active ‘lines’ of enunciation, repetition, and rectification produced by participants themselves, speaks to a more nuanced understanding of how power was used in this new social media. In the democracy promotion eDiscussion, one participant voiced normative concern over “promoting democracy” when these words connoted the disastrous polices of “George Bush” and actions that much of the world has come to eschew. After the comment, multiple participants recalled the framing the moderator had given the issue at the beginning of the discussion and suggested that the group should not “put Bush in this discussion”. This disclusion of a controversial figure and course of action in ‘democracy promotion’, and the disclusion of resistance based around it, can be interpreted as one of the subtler lines of force binding this particular dispositif together. One could imagine lines of force ‘rectifying’ stray curves of democratic enunciation. A ‘radical line’ of Deleuzian escape may have been snuffed out to keep the whole.

The knowledge created within the discussion, and reflected upon by those participating, can be interpreted as a result of a ‘specific formation’ of social practice, technology and (subtle) coercive power – in other words a social apparatus blending the relational aspects of technology, media and power: dispositif. It is also interesting to note that the overt framing of and subtle use of moderators in the discussion led to somewhat apolitical debates. While expunging something like the domestic gun lobby comments may seem justified, subtle lines of force that ‘rectify’ what is enunciated in discussion are present.

However, this is not to say that some participants found democratic and possibly even emancipatory value in their participation. A minority of participants, notably those who had posted the most (see Price 2006), made comments to the effect that they felt more educated and involved as citizens through their participation, one noting that even if there was no discernible affect on policy, the discussion was ‘good for Canada’ because it ‘got people thinking about being Canadian’.The (self) education via participation in the eDiscussion may produce emancipatory effects (Freire, 2000) if - Marxian ideological arguments aside - those participating are connected to the topics in a way that allows ‘praxis’ of some sort (via future NGO activity for example).

It is not a surprise that a Habermasian deliberation was observed within the eDiscussion. However, reflecting upon the two prominent paths of consensus regarding democracy (needs/rights vs. tools), lines of enunciation, rectification and visibility may offer a more complete picture of the variance and creativity within this new media phenomenon. The seemingly Habermas-esque eDiscussion contains a multiplicity of parallel lines of enunciation and visibility, with rectifying lines of force from both moderators’ framing and continuing control of the agenda, and organic restraints manufactured by participants out of the constructed social space and medium itself. Thus, lines of rectification that curved (to) parallel, discussant lines of enunciation, and lines of visibility that synthesized concepts and built consensus, may better describe and explain this digital, decentralized, disruptive and democratic political phenomenon." (http://www.re-public.gr/en/?p=309)