Use of Internet for Citizen's Participation
in Urban Management: A View from Japan
Policy Analysis Series E-079. June 2015.
The relative advantages of online environments as an ideal medium for community participation has been touted for long, for various purposes and needs. The Internet facilitates sharing of the key ingredient of participation - information - to assist vision formation, informed decision-making, scenario-building and the like.
With differing objectives and access to resources, the multitude of actors that form the urban fabric have long presented a challenge to effective participation in urban management. This presentation attempts to link the twin issues of citizen's participation and urban management through the medium of Internet. It is based on preliminary results of an ongoing survey of websites set up by local governments in Japan, and hence the discussions presented here have to be seen with this limitation in mind. An Online Citizens' Participation Model is presented for discussion
What exactly is citizen's participation? The idea that people should participate in planning, implementing and managing cities has gained wider acceptance among local governments and development agencies. Arguments in favour of citizen's participation have been touted for long, and ultimately it means a readiness of both the government and the citizens to accept certain responsibilities and roles. It can also mean that the value of each group's contribution is acknowledged, appreciated and used. The honest inclusion of a citizen's representatives as "partners" in decision-making, makes for successful participation.
But, the allegiance to participation remains verbal in most cases. When it comes to implementation, local governments advance numerous reasons why participation is 'impossible' or has to be restricted only to some forms of consultation of beneficiaries. Preconceived notions, neglect and contempt, mutual distrust and arcane codes and bye-laws have only exasperated the situation.
Past experiences on citizen's participation have clearly shown that participation cannot just happen; nor can it be taken for granted, either. There are several preconditions to participation which have to be met before it can be applied and sustained in a particular situation.
- Participation has to be a gradually developed response to an actual and pressing collective need of the citizens. This is, in fact, needed as a rallying point for the community to come together.
- The benefiting target group of a participative action has to be clearly defined, in order to utilise the common interest and awareness in securing their position and improving their living conditions.
- It is of critical importance to inform the selected target groups, in a comprehensive manner, of all the relevant features of the programme or project for which participation is being sought. The aims, finance, technology, organization, management aspects have to be covered.
- In order that communication links between the authorities and the target group be maintained, there should be a strong community organization within the neighbourhood, which could also seek the assistance of an external organization for information and motivation.
- A smooth functioning of the citizen's organization structure ideally evolves through the collective efforts of the residents, with the aid of an accepted local leader. This is critical in representing the aspirations of the residents.
- The local leader and other members should be trained in and made aware of the urban management process. Management is an important tool for reaching the desired aim of a collaborative project, for example, of monitoring and evaluation, or making responsible decisions in financial matters.
Participation has been touted as key to urban programme development and management - practically a situation that requires consensus in decision-making and action. Some of the widely advocated applications include neighbourhood planning, decision-making, programme and project implementation, financing and construction. Participation can take place at different levels, from the citizen's having no voice at all in the proceedings to that of advisory roles and full representation in all stages. For Citizen's participation to be truly effective, it is necessary for the people to be involved in all stages of planning, design, implementation and evaluation of an urban programme or project. The very success of a project may sometimes depend on the degree of participation of the beneficiaries.
Internet and Information Quality
This presentation looks at the specific role that the Internet plays as a medium in fostering and aiding citizen's participation between urban residents and local governments in management of urban areas. It highlights the critical role that information plays in this process. It is useful to look at a quick overview of the Internet, before it's role in urban management is discussed.
Much like the moving press radically changed the way people communicated in 16th Century Europe, the Internet has been central in the process of revolutionising our communication, information distribution, and many other aspects of our lives. The Internet has also revolutionised the computer and communications worlds. The invention of the telegraph, telephone, radio, and computer set the stage for this unprecedented integration of capabilities under the umbrella of the 'Internet'. The Internet is at once a world-wide broadcasting capability, a mechanism for information dissemination, and a medium for collaboration and interaction between individuals and their computers without regard for geographic location, and time zones.
The Internet represents one of the most successful examples of the benefits of sustained investment and commitment to research and development of information infrastructure. Beginning with the early research in packet switching in the 60s and 70s, the government, industry and academia have joined hands in evolving and deploying this exciting new technology.
Parallel to the development of the Internet has been a growing body of knowledge emphasising the importance of information itself, and characteristics of 'good' information . In fact, the key commodity that underlies effective online participation of citizens and local governments is, in fact, information. In the same way that one manufacturer's product is more attractive to a customer because it has features which suit their specific requirements, so too, information will have characteristics which add value, depending upon the purpose for which it is required. The critical aspect here is to provide the right information at the right time to the right user. Some of the information qualities are -
Source: MCB, 1998
||The amount of information provided should be adequate for the purpose - not so much that the key information is lost, or so little that it does not present a complete picture.
Suitability It should be appropriate to the skills and competencies of the citizen or urban planner who will use it and in a form that makes it `user friendly'.
||The breadth of information supplied will be in accord with the purpose for which it is to be used, for example, a population forecast will use census statistics over several decades.
||The subject matter which the information covers is the same as that which the citizen or urban planner is addressing.
||As accurate as possible but, in some circumstances, not at the expense of timeliness - sometimes it's better to be 90 percent accurate than 100 percent out of date.
||It should be available when required.
||The information is based upon standards that also apply to other information systems, for example, the accounting year as opposed to the calendar year.
||The information is presented in an appropriate style, for example, high quality printing and graphics in the case of an Annual Report.
With the focus being on information as a key ingredient to initiate effective participation, how can the above qualities of information be developed and instilled using the Internet?
- Quality - the Internet enables large amounts of information to be made available to end users, properly and sufficiently packaged so as to be useful.
- Suitability, Scope, and Relevance - with feedback loops and communication possibilities widely incorporated in websites and 'homepages', it is also possible to tailor to the specific information needs of users. This also includes dynamic information that is packaged on-the-fly to suit different needs.
- Accuracy - while fraudulent information is indeed made available on the Internet, there is a larger question of information processing and management that has to be kept in mind when disseminating it online.
- Timeliness - Unlike a book or a brochure that cannot be easily modified after it has been printed, online information can easily be modified, edited, added to, and updated easily and frequently. This ensures that the information can be kept current and timely.
- Compatibility - Easy access and updating of online information as well as the simplicity and cross-platform compatibility of Internet information enables data and information to be disseminated, analysed an compared (thereby, also avoiding duplication).
- Presentation - As mentioned earlier, common information formatting standards across computer platforms and operating systems enables appropriate presentation styles to be used.
Online environments in Japan
Japan has been slow in the rate of computerization and the use of Internet - both at the local government level, as well as among individual users. Among the OECD countries, Japan's level of computer use has been quite low, and the gap in informatization between local governments and the private sector has also been large. The use of computers and other digital equipment in local governments has essentially revolved around management of citizen's data, tax information management, census information etc. But this has not sufficiently graduated to using the Internet for citizens involvement and participation in urban planning and management [MHA, 1998].
As with other advanced countries, the general use of Internet in Japan has grown remarkably in the last few years, particularly with the availability of Japanese language software for accessing the Internet. The following discussion derives its data and implications from a comprehensive survey of websites put up by Japanese local governments. It is preliminary, and covers interaction only between individual citizens and the local governments. Later phases of the research will cover other actors as well, including citizens groups, NGOs, universities and other organizations.
Relative development of the Internet and its various components have been widely discussed, and many documents available online. The coming together of the Internet as a information and communication medium, and citizens participation as a tool in urban management has been logical, but not smooth. In a series of informal interviews, presentations and online email discussions, the following features were identified as reasons and justifications in the wider use of the Internet for interactions between local governments and citizens in Japan.
What are the features of the Internet that has facilitated wider participation?
- The volume of information that can be provided is huge
- A wide number of users can be targeted
- Different types and formats of information can be used
- Dissemination can be done at a very low cost
- Latest and current information can be provided
- Ease of use and convenient
- Space and time independent
What have been the problems or shortcomings in adoption of the Internet?
- Resistance to computers and online technology within local governments and by citizens themselves
- Appropriate software and peripheral hardware to access and utilise the Internet, particularly in the Japanese language.
- Shortcomings of Internet technology: low bandwidth, limitations of the hypertext mark-up language (HTML) etc.
But, it has been widely argued that the above problems and shortcomings are temporary and transient because -
- Computer and online technology have been evolving, making it increasingly faster, easier, and more convenient to use the Internet.
- Costs have been falling for both hardware and software
- Increasing and exclusive information dissemination on the Internet, forsaking conventional print and other media.
- Off-the-shelf computers that are Internet ready (including those that are used only to access the Internet, popularly called 'Network' Computers).
Local governments in Japan have come to realise and understand the key role that information plays in an enlightened citizenry - not only in participation, but also in developing partnerships with the citizens and the civil society at large. A detailed analysis of the use of the Internet by local governments in Japan revealed a 'continuum' of information: information is delivered to the user (either to the local government or to the citizens), which is then processed and is fed back to the information generator.
The three important steps in the information continuum are:
Examples of activities under these three steps are given below:
- Information delivery
- Information processing
- Information feedback
- Information delivery
Information is delivered in text formats, and as photos, maps, 3D images and interactive movie formats. Information on policies, programmes and projects; laws, rules and legislation; local government departments and responsible persons; contact addresses; ideas, lifestyles proposals etc. are provided.
- Information processing
This involves the 'decoding' of information to be matched against personal objectives, wishes and wants (in the case of citizens) and against stated plan objectives and goals (in the case of local governments); drawing implications for policies and programmes; creating alternative scenarios based on the information received; and generate feedback cycles.
- Information feedback
Receive and process email messages; make a choice or cast a vote; reply to questionnaires and interviews; respond to others' email messages and opinions etc.
The Online Citizens' Participation Model
The discussion presented so far, as mentioned earlier, is preliminary. However, an attempt has been made to consolidate the information collected so far into an 'Online Participation Model.' The model illustrates the give-and-take nature of information that is facilitated by the Internet and the communication modes that it enables. Not only is information given out (facilities and services, city plan information, public projects by local governments; opinions, individual business plans, lifestyle choices etc. by citizens), but information received is processed and used to modify values, behaviours and norms. As support institutions on a second tier, business and industry, research organizations, universities, NGOs, other local governments, prefectural/national governments also facilitate and support this interaction .
Figure 1: Online Participation Model
Challenges for the Future
There are several challenges that local governments face in increasing the use of Internet facilities for greater participation of citizens in urban management processes. Besides overcoming the problems and shortcomings mentioned earlier, the main challenges cover the critical issues of information management and communication processes:
- Linking organizational and operational framework for information dissemination processes.
- Inter and intra communication channels within the local government structure.
- A clear information strategy on issues such as goals, means/modes, time-space, evaluation, etc. need to be put in place for effective communication and partnership.
- Strong political support for an effective information management system needs to be developed.
- As the popularity of the Internet increases, and the degree of participation improves, the incorporation and synthesis of the large volume of email messages and opinions received online may become difficult.
The challenges further extend themselves in using the Internet per se more creatively to foster and deepen citizen's participation. This can be done by convening online forums (in various formats) to identify wishes, wants and needs of the citizens. A clear system of identifying the target citizens who have specific and/or special needs has to be put in place. Efforts of local governments in information dissemination itself need to be highlighted and explained to the citizens so as to increase participation. The need for citizens to form organizations and groups to increase their representation in local development affairs needs to be facilitated by using collaborative means enabled by the Internet. Access to knowledge resources for understanding the wider issues of urban management and their implications also needs be improved.
- Infosys , Information Systems for Development. International Planning Network (IPNs). Website - http://www.soc.titech.ac.jp/info-sys/
- MCB , Information Management Courseware. London: International Management Centres.
- MHA , "Internationalization and Informatization" Tokyo: Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of Japan.
- Srinivas, Hari , "Community Groups and Planning Action: The Need for Citizen's Participation" Paper presented at the 30th World Congress of ISOCARP at Prague, Czech Republic, 4-10 September, 1994.