Cristiano Faria’s book on Open Parliaments has finally been translated from its original Portuguese to English. There are many reasons to read Cristiano’s piece, one of them being the scarcity of literature dealing with the usage of ICT by the legislative branch. I was honoured to be invited to write the preface to this book, in which I list a few other reasons why I think this book is very worthwhile reading. I have reproduced the preface below, with the addition of some hyperlinks.
Towards the end of the 18th Century, not long after the French Revolution, engineer Claude Chappe invented the optical telegraph. Also known as the Napoleonic Telegraph, this technological innovation enabled the transmission of messages over great distances at unprecedented speeds for its time. This novelty did not go unnoticed by the intellectuals of the period: the possibility of establishing a telegraph network that could connect individuals at high speed and lowered costs was seen as a unique opportunity for direct democracy to flourish.
The difficulties associated with direct democracy, so eloquently expressed by Rousseau just a few years earlier, no longer seemed relevant: simply opening the code used by the telegraph operators would suffice for a whirlpool of ideas to flow between citizens and government, bringing a new era of participatory decision-making. Events, however, took a different turn, and as time went by the enthusiasm for a democratic renewal faded away.
In the course of the centuries that followed, similar stories abounded. The emergence of each new ICT gave rise to a period of enthusiasm surrounding a renewal in politics and government, only to be followed by bitter disillusionment. While the causes of these historical experiences are multiple, it is safe to say that the failure of these technologies to deliver their much-heralded potential is underscored by a lack of understanding of the role of political institutions. These institutions are, inexorably, sources of obstacles and challenges that go beyond the reach of technological solutions.
Indeed, one could argue that despite the historical evidence, even today a certain amount of ingenuity permeates the majority of academic works in the domain of electronic democracy and open government, overestimating technological innovation and neglecting the role of institutions, actors, and their respective strategies.
Not falling prey to the techno-determinist temptation but rather carrying out an analysis grounded in institutions, organizational processes and actors’ strategies, is one of the many strengths of Cristiano Faria’s work. His experience as a civil servant in the Brazilian House of Representatives and his academic rigour bring together qualities that are rarely combined in the literature about the public sector. The result is a work that offers an unusual vision, taking into account a wide range of factors involved in processes of technological enactment and institutional innovation.
While underpinning the book as a whole, this encompassing perspective is most prominent in Chapters 4 and 5, in the case studies on the experiences from Brazil (e-Democracy) and Chile (Virtual Senator). Motivating factors, constraints, and institutional and organizational arrangements are brought to light. The reader encounters elements and processes that often go unperceived by even the most attentive observers and experienced academics.
For instance, while analysing the Brazilian case, Cristiano underscores the essential role played by legislative consultants in channelling citizens’ input into the formal decision-making processes of the House of Representatives. Only an individual who is viscerally familiar with the functioning of the public institutions in question is capable of such an insight – one of many throughout the book.
Even for this reason alone, this work is of inestimable value to the Brazilian and international literature in the fields of electronic democracy and open government. Numerous other characteristics, however, further add to its worth for researchers, politicians, civil servants and ordinary citizens with an interest in these subjects.
The object of study is relevant in itself. There is a disproportionate shortage of literature about the role of technologies with regard to the legislative branch. An incomplete understanding of how public institutions operate and interact among themselves has led an increasing number of academics and observers to focus their attention on the executive branch. Furthermore, in the limited literature that is available about the use of technologies by the legislative, the majority of studies are disappointingly superficial or excessively descriptive.
Cristiano’s text, although rich in detail, never loses sight of the major theoretical and normative perspectives that inform the state of the art in the electronic democracy debate. The literature that guides this piece is impeccable. This is a text that brings the reader into contact with the main theories and arguments relating to issues of transparency, participation, actors’ strategies, and processes of institutional and technological innovation.
Lastly, by presenting cases ranging from New Zealand to the Catalan Parliaments, this book has the inestimable worth of being a historical record, immune to temporal and technological changes. Cristiano Faria captures the state of the art in electronic democracy experiences in the legislative at the beginning of the 21st century. To ensure that the destiny of these experiences differs from that of the Napoleonic Telegraph, a realistic and perspicacious reflection is necessary, to which this book makes its contribution.