Using SMS Texting to Encourage Democratic Participation by Youth Citizens: a Case Study of a Project in an English Local Authority David Griffin, Philippa Trevorrow and Edward Halpin Leeds Metropolitan University, UK [email protected] [email protected] [email protected]
Abstract: Public administrations across Europe take the view that using digital media for consultation with citizens will help to increase their democratic participation. In the UK, the Government has encouraged local authorities to experiment with new electronic communication channels for this purpose. This paper presents a case study in which one such medium, the mobile phone, is being used in an attempt to raise participation amongst young people. It evaluates a project set up to use SMS text messaging as a means of electronic consultation with young people by a council in the North of England. Specifically, it examines the effect of text messaging on democratic participation by the young and the effect of this type of consultation on the processes of the political administration. This case study identifies a number of organizational, social and cultural issues that may limit the scope for using this technology to increase youth participation and change the relationship between young people and their local elected representatives. Based on the initial evidence from this case study, we take the cyber-sceptic stance. We suggest that the mobile phone is not the ‘silver bullet’ for invigorating consultation with young people by the local public administration. We identify a series of potential barriers to increasing participation by youth and changing the relationship between the elected politicians and their constituents. Keywords: e-Democracy, e-Consultation, local government, young people, mobile telephony, case study
The 2001 General Election in the UK highlighted the stark decline in democratic engagement over a fifty-year period. Voter turnout at the election was 65% compared with 78% in 1950. Young people, in particular, appeared to be disengaging from civic involvement. MORI (2005) reports that only 37% of the 18-24 age group voted in 2001, down from 68% in the previous general election in 1997 (Couglin 2003). It has been suggested that less than a quarter of those eligible to vote for the first time actually did so (Russell 2005). Following the 2001 election, some parliamentarians felt that new digital media should be employed to halt this decline in democratic participation by young people, as illustrated by this exchange in the House of Commons in 2002 (House of Commons Debate 12 February 2002 quoted in Parry 2004): “David Taylor MP: Does the Minister agree that the wholesale abstention by younger voters in June 2001 was at least partly rooted in their sense of detachment from an institution widely seen as mired in an era of quill pens and hansom cabs? Does he believe that there is potential for edemocracy to reconnect this place with the electorate, by promoting and improving the consultation with them on matters that we debate? Minister Twigg: I very much agree with my hon. Friend…. Clearly, we face a serious ISSN 1479-439X 63
challenge in reconnecting young people with politics. As my hon. Friend may be aware, there is now a Cabinet committee on e-democracy. It will address many of the issues that have been raised.” The UK government has encouraged local authorities to experiment with new channels of democratic engagement in order to address the fall in participation (Cliff 2004). Electronic voting was trialled in the 2003 local elections; it was not immediately successful (Mathieson 2005). The turn-out did not rise significantly and issues about security and privacy were evident. Council websites are beginning to offer facilities for electronic feedback of residents’ views on service delivery and policy formulation. However, access to such facilities is not universal. 35% of UK households do not...
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