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The impact of innovations

Evidence about the long-term impacts of democratic innovations on a broad cross section of the population is hard to come by (Rowe and Frewer 2004; Abelson and Gauvin 2006: 33; see also Geissel in this volume), partly because there is little impact research, partly because the investigation is often a minefield of problems, and partly because it can be exceedingly hard to measure effects with any precision or certainty. Before-and-after research designs are not common. Governments that introduce innovations tend to be shy about monitoring effects, especially if this is costly and there is a danger of revealing failure. Some innovations also require long-term follow-up studies, which can add to expense, and government attention span is often notoriously short. Some reforms have little or no impact, because governments set them up this way. On the other side of the coin, Smith (in this volume) gives examples of mini-publics that have had an effect on public policy, though he also points out that it can be difficult to establish these among the welter of other possible influences on policy issues.

There is also the natural enthusiasm for reforms on the part of those who strongly favour them and want them to succeed. As Geissel points out in this volume, the potential and actual impact of democratic innovations has often been overstated. A good deal of the evidence about innovations, however, suggests that their successes are often relatively modest. We have already seen how little effect many electoral reforms and many of the e-government innovations have had, especially when it comes to combating the powerful forces that promote political ignorance and indifference. Few of the many and varied electoral changes that have been tried across the western world in the last two or three decades have had their intended effect of significantly lifting voting turnout or of stirring the political interest of apolitical social groups. The American Democrats made comparatively heavy use of electronic campaigning in 2008 and the election had a much higher turnout than normal, estimated at almost 57 per cent compared with 37 per cent and 55 per cent in 2004 and 2000, respectively. But this may have more to do with Obama as a candidate and the special nature of the election.

Electronic democracy has been the subject of much hope and expectation, but it too has not delivered large or lasting improvements. One comprehensive survey of the field (Margolis 2007: 765-6) observes that many cyber-democracy visionaries in the 1990s claimed that the web would bring about radical changes in government and politics by increasing citizen involvement and influence over public affairs. The predictions of the techno-utopians have not been fulfilled. Instead, there has been a normalization of political cyber-space and the replication of old patterns. Margolis (2007: 767) concludes that the limitations of e-government and e-democracy should cause us to scale down our expectations. The most they can do is encourage citizens to react to government policies, rather than encourage them to participate directly and proactively in forming those policies.

It is also necessary to allow for the possibility that some innovations may have unfortunate side effects. One may crowd out others by attracting the lion’s share of money and attention. The effects of one may counteract those of another. Innovations may be used for purposes not originally intended. It is not unknown, as we have seen, for initiatives to be used against the public interest by special groups and commercial organizations.

In other cases, the side effects have proved to be positive and welcome. Referendums are intended to produce a popular decision on a specific issue, but there is evidence that they also have a general effect on public attitudes towards government, confidence in political institutions and subjective political competence. In this volume, Kriesi shows that direct democracy in Switzerland helps to improve macro-economic performance, brings public expenditure more closely into line with citizen preferences, helps to legitimate and integrate the political system, heightens the sense that it is fair and democratic, and has a direct effect on life satisfaction (see also Kriesi 2005: 12-14; Baglioni 2007; Moeckli 2007: 121-2). The same conclusions emerge from research in the USA (Bowler and Donovan 2002).

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