Use of Online Forums by Local Governments in Estonia and Norway
The Internet is in its democratic ideal form a tool for enhancing citizens´ participation in political life. For participation in local politics and life, citizens can read or send comments in different forums operated by local municipalities and local newspapers.
Besides Internet access and other technical preconditions for using the Internet, there are certainly very many other motives and factors which influence people´s readiness for and activity in online participation. Comparing political participation in an old and new democracy through a channel that is equally new to both populations, the article tries to answer the question: Are old democracies more likely to embrace and integrate this additional form of participation, or does it possess more political importance in new democracies?
The research questions will be answered through a comparative study of data from population surveys in Norway and Estonia. The survey of Norway is limited to certain regions, whereas the Estonian survey is nationwide. Our focus is on local government because it is at the local level that citizens most directly experience the presence of the government and can act as active public agents. In both countries, the local level provides a large part of the public services, and local politics thus closely affect people´s lives.
We based our definition of civic culture on the model of Dahlgren, according to which the most important components of civic culture are spaces, values, identities, skills and practices. With this as our point of departure, we sketched out how these components of civic culture could be connected to the level of participation, the motives of online participation and the composition of online participants.
One of the most striking findings is connected to the relation of e-activity and general political activity. In Norway, e-activity rises slightly with political activity until the group with high general political activity, which is remarkably more e-active than other groups. In Estonia, the situation is different. First, even the group with non-existent political activity contains 6% of those whom we can regard as e-active. Second, the break point in e-activity starts already from the group with medium e-activity.
Generally, it appears that activity in online-participation is not strongly related to civic culture. Estonia is a highly unique example where the developments of civic culture and ICT have been interwoven – the former was strongly influenced by the latter, which, in turn, has left its impression on democracy in Estonia. In Norway, on the contrary, the democratic systems were advanced enough to render online participation just an alternative among others, which therefore deserved less attention. Thus, we can conclude also that the potential of the Internet for increasing participation and democracy exists.