What explains variation in online political engagement?

Image: Peter Tandlund (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Sweden is a leader in terms of digitalization, but poorer municipalities struggle to find the resources to develop digital forms of politics. Image: Stockholm by Peter Tandlund (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

While much of the modern political process is now carried out digitally, ICTs have yet to bring democracies to their full utopian ideal. The drivers of involvement in digital politics from an individual perspective are well studied, but less attention has been paid to the supply-side of online engagement in politics. In his Policy & Internet article “Inequality in Local Digital Politics: How Different Preconditions for Citizen Engagement Can Be Explained,” Gustav Lidén examines the supply of channels for digital politics distributed by Swedish municipalities, in order to understand the drivers of variation in local online engagement.

He finds a positive trajectory for digital politics in Swedish municipalities, but with significant variation between municipalities when it comes to opportunities for engagement in local politics via their websites. These patterns are explained primarily by population size (digital politics is costly, and larger societies are probably better able to carry these costs), but also by economic conditions and education levels. He also find that a lack of policies and unenthusiastic politicians creates poor possibilities for development, verifying previous findings that without citizen demand — and ambitious politicians — successful provision of channels for digital politics will be hard to achieve.

We caught up with Gustav to discuss his findings:

Ed.: I guess there must be a huge literature (also in development studies) on the interactions between connectivity, education, the economy, and supply and demand for digital government: and what the influencers are in each of these relationships. Not to mention causality.. I’m guessing “everything is important, but nothing is clear”: is that fair? And do you think any “general principles” explaining demand and supply of electronic government / democracy could ever be established, if they haven’t already?

Gustav: Although the literature in this field is becoming vast the subfield that I am primarily engaged in, that is the conditions for digital policy at the subnational level, has only recently attracted greater numbers of scholars. Even if predictors of these phenomena can be highly dependent on context, there are some circumstances that we can now regard as being the ‘usual suspects’. Not surprisingly, resources of both economic and human capital appear to be important, irrespective of the empirical case. Population size also seems to be a key determinant that can influence these kind of resources.

In terms of causality, few studies that I am familiar with have succeeded in examining the interplay of both demand for and supply of digital forms of politics. In my article I try to get closer to the causal chain by examining both structural predictors as well as adding qualitative material from two cases. This makes it possible to establish better precision on causal chains since it enables judgements on how structural conditions influence key stakeholders.

Ed.: You say government-citizen interactions in Sweden “are to a larger extent digital in larger and better-off societies, while ‘analog’ methods prevail in smaller and poorer ones.” Does it particularly matter whether things are digital or analog at municipal level: as long as they all have equal access to national-level things?

Gustav: I would say so, yes. However, this could vary in relation to the responsibilities of municipalities among different countries. The municipal sector in Sweden is significant. Its general costs represent about one quarter of the country’s GDP and the sector is responsible for important parts of the welfare sector. In addition to this, municipalities also represent the most natural arena for political engagement — the typical political career starts off in the local council. Great variation in digital politics among municipalities is therefore problematic — there is a risk of inequality between municipalities if citizens from one municipality face greater possibilities for information and participation while those residing in another are more restrained.

Ed.: Sweden has areas of very low population density: are paper / telephone channels cheaper for municipalities to deliver in these areas, or might that just be an excuse for any lack of enthusiasm? i.e. what sorts of geographical constraints does Sweden face?

Gustav: This is a general problem for a large proportion of the Swedish municipalities. Due to government efforts, ambitions for assuring high-speed internet connections (including more sparsely populated areas), are under way. Yet in recent research, the importance for fast internet access in relation to municipalities’ work with digital politics has been quite ambiguous. My guess would, however, be that if the infrastructure is in place it will, sooner or later, be impossible for municipalities to refrain from working with more digital forms of politics.

Ed.: I guess a cliche of the Swedes (correct me if I’m wrong!) is that despite the welfare state / tradition of tolerance, they’re not particularly social — making it difficult, for example, for non-Swedes to integrate. How far do you think cultural / societal factors play a role in attempts to create “digital community,” in Sweden, or elsewhere?

Gustav: This cliche is perhaps most commonly related to the Swedish countryside. However, the case studies in my article illustrates a contrary image. Take the municipality of Gagnef as an example, one of my two cases, in which informants describe a vibrant civil society with associations representing a great variety of sectors. One interesting finding, though, is that local engagement is channeled through these traditional forms and not particularly through digital media. Still, from a global perspective, Sweden is rightfully described as an international leader in terms of digitalization. This is perhaps most visible in the more urban parts of the country; even if there are many good examples from the countryside in which the technology is one way to counteract great distances and low population density.

Ed.: And what is the role of the central government in all this? i.e. should they (could they? do they?) provide encouragement and expertise in providing local-level digital services, particularly for the smaller and poorer districts?

Gustav: Due to the considerable autonomy among the municipalities the government has not regulated municipalities working with this issue. However, they have encouraged and supported parts of it, primarily when it comes to the investment of technological infrastructure. My research does show that smaller and poorer municipalities have a hard time finding the right resources for developing digital forms of politics. Local political leaders find it hard to prioritize these issues when there is almost a constant need for more resources for schools and elderly care. But this is hardly unique for Sweden. In a study of the local level in the US, Norris and Reddick show how lack of financial resources is the number one constraint for the development of digital services. I think that government regulation, i.e. forcing municipalities to distribute specific digital channels, could lower inequalities between municipalities but would be unthinkable without additional government funding.

Ed.: Finally: do you see it as “inevitable” that everyone will eventually be online, or could pockets of analog government-citizen interaction persist basically indefinitely?

Gustav: Something of a countermovement opposing the digital society appears to exist in several societies. In general, I think we need to find a more balanced way to describe the consequences of digitalization. Hopefully, most people see both the value and the downsides of a digital society, but the debate tends to be dominated either by naïve optimists or complete pessimists. Policy makers need though, to start thinking of the consequences of both inequalities in relation to this technique and pay more attention to the risks related to it.

Read the full article: Lidén, G. (2016) Inequality in Local Digital Politics: How Different Preconditions for Citizen Engagement Can Be Explained. Policy & Internet 8 (3) doi:10.1002/poi3.122.

Gustav Lidén was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

See his websites: https://www.miun.se/Personal/gustavliden/ and http://gustavliden.blogspot.se/