In the age of the internet and social media, parliament communication is becoming a dialogical process of connections that include deliberation, input gathering, connections with constituencies, political marketing, electoral exercise, and representative democracy. Before the internet and the expansion of social media in politics, political communication tended to be non-interactive discourses and unidirectional explanations of political ideas and intentions. The internet has brought change to this interaction, although with variations depending on countries and political systems. With social media use on the rise, parliaments and their constituents have direct means of interaction. This allows Members of Parliament to react more rapidly to queries and events concerning their constituencies. It is a striking development that can be perceived in the following aspects: transformation of public sphere; increased civic engagement; and the adjustment of institutional functions.
Scholars have explored prospects for democracy unfolding as the result of the impact of the internet interactivity. Bentivegna (1998), for instance, wonders about the possibility of public sphere, inspired by Habermas, a concept that has gained salience with the emergence of electronic means of communications. She states that "over the last few years a great deal has been said about the electronic square as a possible modern version of the concept of "public sphere""(p. 1). The potential of ICTs to unleash democratic expressions has been identified in the creation and expansion of public spaces of communication. Malina (1999), among others, assesses the underlying social and political conditions that support and reinforce the development of democratic participation through new media, as she contrasts the new political and social context with traditional media characterized by restricted or limited access. She points out that "supported by a blend of liberal, communitarian and entrepreneurial philosophies, the emergence of computerised ICTs, known as telematics, has prompted less hierarchical discourses, characterised by the prospect of more intense democratic participation, visible-ness, public-ness, and open-ness" (p. 23). Coleman (1999) considers the existence of open channels of communication as conditions creating "a free flow of information both amongst citizens and between representatives and voters" (p. 67). He provides a similar view with Malina's (1999) highlighting the contrast between centralized communication system dominated by their monologic structure and the new channels through which citizens experience democratic communication.
Resurgence of Civic Engagement
The internet has emerged as a constitutive component of the framework supporting the interaction between elected representatives and their constituencies. Its use in deliberative and legislative democratic structures does not, however, eclipse the purpose of representative functions. There is a consensus among scholars that the use of the internet in democratic process has contributed to revitalizing and reshaping a fading political order characterized by increasingly weak civic commitment due to declining levels of trust (Griffith and Leston-Bandeira, 2012). This faltering enthusiasm is coupled with dwindling democratic legitimacy and accountability reflecting dissatisfaction among citizens (Coleman and Gøtze, 2001; de Faria, 2013). As a representative institution, parliament epitomizes the dialogue between elected officials and citizens, is responsive to the public's input, and engages the public in policy making.
The internet is expected to enhance such public involvement, and parliaments are increasingly opening up to the evolution enabled by the digital world. Representative relationships benefit from the engaged public that seizes opportunities for learning in an interaction with elected officials. Institutions of governance, in which the work of elected representatives and public policymakers is prominent, cannot overlook the role that an engaged public play through the use of online means of communication. Such participation has become more and more salient and online communications are providing citizens with means to engage with governments.
Information Technology and Institutional Functions
Institutions are gradually accommodating the interaction with citizens through the integration of information technology. As such they can allow for citizen engagement in the policy making process. The result reflects, as Coleman and Gøtze (2001, p. 8) note, a commitment by representative institutions "to entering into unreserved communication with those who elect them." Does the enactment of information technology by parliament imply change in parliamentary routines and procedures? Most certainly the institutional makeup of parliaments remains unchanged and continues, by definition, to be determined by its functions and role in society. However, these functions and roles, with their significance established by democratic imprint, are being conditioned by an evolving culture fashioned through expanding digitalization with its prominent feature of boundlessness.
Digital democracy creates the conditions for parliaments to experience inflows of citizens' input through enhanced and multiform interactions facilitated by an array of means of communication. The digitalized form enabled by "ubiquitous computing" (Boehme-Neßler, 2019) has penetrated the institutional order of all government branches despite their notably rigid structure. This inescapable reality, which Boehme-Neßler describes as "an extreme case of omnipresence and dissolution of boundaries," (p. 9) is embraced by citizens as means through which they engage in policy making. For instance, an increasing number of petitions by citizens are made through digital communications linking citizens to members of parliament. Scholars observe that parliaments have come to view e-petitioning as highly effective and have resorted to establishing their own e-petition systems (Asher, Bandeira and Spaiser, 2017; Panagiotopoulos et al. 2011). In an analysis by Miller (2009, p. 170), which is also referred to by Panagiotopoulos et al, the author mentions debates within the UK Parliament with regard to the development of an e-petition system following initiatives by the Scottish parliament and the Welsh Assembly. It is impossible to view this type of development as not pertaining to the realm of institutional change that includes the widening of the public sphere. The conception espoused by theorists of the rational choice brand relates the development of institutions to human design mapped in accordance with specific rules and arrangements (Peters, 2019). Such arrangements are taking place in parliaments that commit to matching institutional functions and structures with citizens' interests, input, and electoral choices.
Information technology is more than the applications commonly used for communications and social media. It is a range of capabilities that have proven to widen the space of interactions between Members of Parliament and constituencies. There is noticeable enthusiasm with the use of information technology, which has translated into interest in political activities by citizens. Key aspects of this development include the expansion of the public sphere, increased civic engagement, and the contribution of constituencies to parliament's agenda and decision making. Information technology has transformed the political message from a one-directional narrative into a multidirectional and multidimensional conversation involving a myriad of participants expressing various and divergent interests.
Asher, M., Bandeira, C. L., & Spaiser, V. (2017). Assessing the effectiveness of the e-petition procedure through Twitter conversations. doc174.pdf (oidp.net) <https://lida.leeds.ac.uk/research-projects/assessing-the-effectiveness-of-the-e-petition-procedure-through-twitter-conversations/>
Bentivegna, S. (1998). Talking Politics on the Net. Research Paper R-20. The Joan Shorenstein Center, Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Boehme-Neßler, V. (2019). Digitising Democracy: On Reinventing Democracy in the Digital Era - A Legal, Political and Psychological Perspective. Springer Nature Switzerland AG.
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Peters, B. G. (2019). Institutional Theory in Political Science: The New Institutionalism. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.