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Helton, United States, Computer Sciences A Study of E-Democracy in the UK I plan to study the emergence of e-democracy systems in the UK over the past fifteen years. These are initiatives by which governments make systems and services accessible, both to private citizens and to one another. Some of the goals of e-democracy and are openness and transparency, as well as providing citizens a direct voice in how their government works. Over the past fifteen years, the Internet has transformed the old models of information and entertainment publishing and distribution, so I pose these questions: Can it similarly transform institutions of democracy? Can governments operate with such transparency? And if so, what are the cultural, political, legal, and technological requirements that support such transformations? Are there any particular approaches that are especially well suited for government use? For example, while a number of Congressional watch sites have emerged in the United States over the last five years, they are largely external to Congress and all rely on the same source: the THOMAS system at the Library of Congress. If the US Congress's record in voluntary openness seems a little meager, consider the fact that the Executive Branch exists with little public scrutiny, and many of its departments operate irrespective of the other departments, even when collaboration would be in the collective best interest (the FBI and CIA, for example, rarely shared information before 9/11, and even though they have taken some steps to remedy this, cultural differences between the organizations minimize such contact today). Contrast this with efforts in the UK to add transparency to the Prime Minister's office, namely via the newly launched Number10.gov.uk site, and the number of sites that track the UK Parliament and expose government services to the public in Internet accessible ways. My investigation will center on why there is such a difference between the US and the UK with regard to these systems. I developed an interest in e-democracy as a result of my own uses of the Internet, both as a consumer and a producer of online content. As a consumer of information, I recognize the need for high quality, trustworthy sources, and as a producer of content (I publish and maintain my own blog, and I am aggressive about maintaining a consistent appearance across my public digital dossier), I am fully aware of the ease with which such information can be made available, whether that information is reliable or not. For instance, social bookmarking sites like Digg.com, Slashdot, and Reddit propagate popular information quickly, and thousands of people will read and discuss this information regardless of its source; quite often, that information is inaccurate, misleading, or false, but if no official or reliable sources exist, consumers of information are left with few alternatives. As Internet technologies have become more sophisticated, allowing real time two-way communication between content producers and consumers, there are a number of areas where adoption of such tools is still inadequate, leaving consumers frustrated and willing to trust the most dubious Internet sources for lack of real, trustworthy sources. Thus there is a great need for governments to embrace the openness and transparency that e-democracy can provide, but they will need to understand how to do so safely and efficiently. I believe that the Internet is a tool that is best suited to enable this kind of transparency, and that the UK has a good track record for providing a set of best practices that could be applicable to the US. My approach for this study will rely heavily on my extensive technological background as well as my US military background. As a technologist with over a decade of experience, I have
Aaron B. Helton, United States, Computer Sciences a firm grasp of the complex interplay between the systems that support e-democracy. I learned much of this by continually experimenting with new technologies, from ordinary use to support and development of new systems. In particular, I have had a great deal of experience implementing social networking tools inside a company to facilitate collaboration and serve as an authoritative source for certain kinds of information. Additionally, my six years as an information technologist for the US Army equipped me with a sensitivity to the levels of security that are required when exposing government services to the public over the Internet. I spent a great deal of time developing, revising, implementing, and reviewing information security plans, and so I have a full general understanding of how governments approach security in online systems. For instance, military security considers threats from both internal and external sources, and each type of security measure is given equal footing. This is appropriate in a civilian setting as well, since a great potential exists by which negligent or malicious actions might expose personal data or leave it otherwise vulnerable to exposure. Consider, for example, the US Department of Veterans Affairs and its recent loss of a laptop containing sensitive information about military veterans. This danger of accidental disclosure is one that must be addressed when considering these systems, and the US military has procedures that help to mitigate or eliminate it. Therefore my military background will provide me with a good understanding not only of WHAT security measures to take, but also WHY. From this platform, I will be able to get a clearer sense of the remaining factors at play in the UK's particular approach to e-democracy, whether they stem from cultural, political, or legal issues. The outcome of my study of the UK's approach to e-democracy will be a series of articles, published in a journal or elsewhere, on a set of best practices that the US can follow when considering such initiatives. As I expect there to be a number of cultural factors involved in the difference between each country's acceptance of e-democracy, I also hope to foster an exchange of ideas that can bridge the cultural differences by highlighting cultural similarities between the US and the UK. After completing this research, I plan to apply it toward a DPhil. at the Oxford. To that end, I have been in contact and plan to work closely with Dr. Ian Brown at the Oxford Internet Institute, whose work in e-democracy parallels my own (for instance, he served as an observer at the London elections in May of 2008). My studies will begin in October 2009 and continue through June 2010 at Oxford University. The Oxford Internet Institute is home to an extensive Internet studies library as well as prominent research in e-democracy. I plan to pursue coursework that will deepen my understanding of the legal, political, and cultural aspects of this research. While much of my time will be spent at Oxford, I also plan to get a sense through interviews with UK citizens about their own perceptions of e-democracy, and I will reinforce this with a series of surveys that will help to provide a more quantitative analysis of UK citizens' attitudes toward such tools. Next, I plan to get a sense, through interviews and surveys, of the UK government's views on edemocracy, possibly utilizing surveys there as well. And finally, I plan to take advantage of Oxford's reputation as a gathering place for great minds, many of whom will be focused on these very topics. Oxford conducts and hosts numerous conferences and events each year that attract people from all over the world to discuss a wide range of topics, and if past events and upcoming events are any indication, I will be able to build a solid research framework on a very rich tapestry of perspectives.
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