IT can help people to participate

E-participation is about using technology to rekindle disaffected citizens' interest in the political process.

E-participation is about using technology to rekindle disaffected citizens' interest in the political process.

Suddenly, after almost two decades of advocating e-democracy, it has become the shiny new thing. But recent proposals to increase citizen participation in the democratic process via electronic methods will not overcome the perception that politics is boring, divisive and dominated by middle-aged men in suits.

E-democracy poses a challenge to our traditional democratic structures by allowing a wider and deeper involvement of citizens that can inform policy at all levels.

We need a more radical re-engagement, building e-communities to revive civic engagement with politics. Instead we get too much top-down democracy which simply replicates all that is perceived to be wrong in our current political system. The process must involve those who would never otherwise interact with politicians. The "e" in e-democracy must be about equality and engagement.

Add-on e-democracy will fail to tackle voter apathy. Clearly, faced with the choice between the stubby pencil on string or voting by pc or mobile phone, the gizmo will win. But it is a huge irrelevance to reconnecting people to politics.

A Mori survey after the last general election found that voter apathy was not the result of a total lack of interest but due to a lack of information from the candidates. Tackling that need with technology will be a more significant improvement in democratic participation than gadgets.

The real value of e-democracy is its potential to link people to politics at local and national level in an ongoing dialogue to involve and inform our legislative and policy-making processes.

Parliament is trying. The recent information select committee report commits Parliament to using IT to increase its accessibility and enable the public to use whatever medium is convenient to communicate with MPs and parliament.

It sets out a series of principles for online engagement and the outline of a concordat laying down the terms on which both parliamentarians and the public can expect to communicate. It includes tackling spamming and providing feedback to participants. It also suggests greater support for MPs to use a range of technologies to consult their constituents via online surgeries and interactive forums.

Sadly the report fails to grasp the democratic challenge and reads like a puff for UK Online and concepts such as citizen-space. Online interactive dialogue is passionate and powerful. It uses citizens' experiences to inform the policy thinking of politicians. It can increase the credibility of politics and effect change.

Take Womenspeak, an online, interactive project I set up, which brought together MPs on the all-party parliamentary group on domestic violence and survivors of domestic violence. The consultation was a unique attempt to get the voices of women and their direct experience heard at the heart of parliament. It has resulted in changes in policy and legislation.

The anonymity of the process; the ability to participate at times and places convenient to the citizen; the value of direct experience; and the fact that every contribution was equal were all important factors.

It proved too that the digital divide is just a notion. The task for us is to reach out to those least involved. In this case the first people online were Irish women travellers and Bangladeshi mothers.

The technology is available but the focus must be on identifying points of access and enabling this via hand-holding and moderating.

We need community online champions. to develop online communities which can actively engage in the democratic process.

At the Bury Park Cyberpark, Bangladeshi mothers, who were introduced to the wired world via a virtual visit to the House of Commons, are now learning online. With the youth group, they are building an online community with accessible information about local services, contacts with Bangladesh and a cyberspace in which they can share experiences and concerns about things like drug abuse and forced marriages.

There is little promotion or government funding of wired communities. Yet encouraging online communities and enabling them to create content and forms of engagement online could develop engagement in the democratic process, empower communities and regenerate civic life. That is what I call e-democracy.

Margaret Moran, MP for Luton South, is parliamentary private secretary at the Department of Works & Pensions

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