in Urban Management: A View from Japan
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 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 -
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?
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?
What have been the problems or shortcomings in adoption of the Internet?
But, it has been widely argued that the above problems and shortcomings are temporary and transient because -
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:
The Online Citizens' 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:
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.
Hari Srinivas, UEMRI Japan
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Contact: Hari Srinivas - email@example.com