Exploring the potential of local e-participation in Italy
This doctoral project explores an intersection between political theory and new media studies to empirically evaluate local e-participation in Italy, a country renowned for citizen aversion toward the political sphere. A participatory perspective is employed to investigate how engagement in a selection of online local forums relates to the “sense of political efficacy” and the off-line political behaviours of participating citizens. On a theoretical level, assumptions from participatory theories of democracy are combined into a representative model, such as the liberal paradigm dominant in Western countries. Whereas liberal accounts confine citizen attitudes to the role of predictors of participation, participatory claims are strong reminders that the same attitudes can be influenced by participation itself, which leads to a (normative) view of participation as a self-propelling force. In light of this suggestion, e-participation is tested with regard to its influential capabilities on the sense of political efficacy. This parameter, extensively examined by political scientists since the 1950s, has been widely recognized as an indicator of healthy democracy. The first selected case studies are online discussion forums based in the Italian regions of Veneto and Lombardia. They refer to specific local contexts (municipalitylevel, district-level) and present relatively significant user activity. Some forums are promoted by local governments within the frame of regional programmes, while others are sustained spontaneously by groups of citizens. The choice of local initiatives is not accidental. The focus on “locality” in this e-participation work hints at the common point amongst political theorists—local participation as the necessary training ground for political engagement at higher levels. Whereas the technological scope of the Internet can be seen as global, its enabling role for democratic citizenship may be useful or even crucial at the local level. The main methodological approach is qualitative, with a corollary of basic quantitative data. In-depth interviews and thematic analysis are the core of the methodology. In conclusion, the project aims at understanding and unveiling the potential of local e-participation to challenge the current state of affairs. In fact, although presented with promotional verve by Italian politicians, the vast majority of e-participation initiatives still operate as empty shells, suggesting the need for a more substantial commitment to e-democracy goals.