Adoption is not enough: Institutionalization of e-participation initiatives

Published date01 July 2023
AuthorTiina Randma-Liiv
Date01 July 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Public Policy and Administration
2023, Vol. 38(3) 329351
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/09520767211069199
Adoption is not enough:
Institutionalization of
e-participation initiatives
Tiina Randma-Liiv
Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance, Tallinn University of Technology, Tallinn, Estonia
This study investigates the institutionalization of e-participation initiatives in six European
countriesEstonia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Spainusing a
multiple case study. The following research questions are addressed: How have recently
established e-participation initiatives been institutionalized in public administrations?
What are the formal and informal aspects of their institutionalization? It is concluded that
the adoption of a digital solution does not in itself trigger a change in the policy-making
process because the institutionalization of e-participation is not a linear process. The
formal institutionalization increases the sustainability, transparency, and throughput
legitimacy of e-participation and allows citizen proposals to be handled in a standardized
way. Although the formal institutionalization of e-participation is key for an institut ional
change towards deliberative democracy, it needs to be accompanied by informal in-
stitutionalization through the supporting ideas, values, and preferences of politicians and
public off‌icials who have the power to change public institutions.
e-participation, institutionalization, digital democracy, formalization
Academic research on e-participation has been dominated by forward-looking techno-
optimistic visions of technological solutions that are assumed to lead to citizen-centric
Corresponding author:
Tiina Randma-Liiv, Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance, Tallinn University of
Technology, Akadeemia tee 3, Tallinn 12618, Estonia.
government. Compared with traditional off‌lineparticipation, e-participation has been
regarded as a way to broaden public participation and involve a much wider audience in
the policy process (Macintosh, 2004;Tambouris et al., 2012), increase public trust
(Warren et al., 2014;Wirtz et al., 2018), enhance the legitimacy of democratic processes
(Prosser, 2012), and improve the quality and success of policies (Tambouris et al., 2012;
Wirtz et al., 2018). In general, researchers have been more interested in the potential of
digitalization and the benef‌its that digital technology is expected to produce for open
government rather than studying the actual implementation of e-participation initiatives
(Norris, 2010). This has left its footprint on e-participation literature, which is often
plagued by a normative bias and tendency to present the positive and transformational
impacts of digital technology on participatory democracy as a given (Lutz and Hoffmann,
2017;Norris, 2010;Susha and Gr¨
onlund, 2012).
Recently, more balanced studies have emerged that have critically reviewed the impact
of technology on democratic participation and deemed many claims about e-participation
premature and unfounded. Studies refer to a general weakness of e-participation ini-
tiatives to deliver expected outcomes (Chun and Cho, 2012;Kubicek and Aichholzer,
2016;Prosser, 2012), mobilize a suff‌icient number of active users (Epstein et al., 2014)
and fulf‌ill the democratic promise of engaging disengaged segments of society (Karlsson,
2012). Drawbacks in implementing e-participation are often argued to relate to societal,
administrative, and institutional factors rather than technical aspects (Chadwick, 2011;
Zheng et al., 2014). Although societal characteristics such as the number of Internet users
om et al., 2012), digital divide (e.g., Min, 2010), trust in e-participation (e.g.,
Scherer and Wimmer, 2014), and the socio-economic background of the population (e.g.,
Medaglia, 2007;Williams et al., 2013) are related to the adoption of e-participation, this
paper approaches e-participation from an angle of public administration. This is motivated
by inf‌luential studies (Chadwick, 2011;Norris, 2010;Porwol et al., 2013) that emphasize
the importance of giving due consideration to the complex mix of barriers that exist in the
institutional context in which technology is implemented.
The paper will take a closer look at the institutionalization of e-participation. One of the
key reasons e-participation initiatives have not achieved the expected impact is their weak
integration into existing decision-making processes and routines (Freeman and Quirke,
2013;Panopoulou et al., 2010). In order for digital innovations to transform public
governance, they need to become institutionalized, that is, become incorporated in or-
ganizational structures and processes (Weerakkody et al., 2016). Institutionalization refers
to the process through which e-participation becomes a recognized, routinized, and
sustainable activity. However, a recent literature review on the diffusion of e-participation
in public administrations argues that existing empirical research has concentrated on the
adoption and implementation of e-participation with only a limited focus on in-
stitutionalization (Steinbach et al., 2019; see also De Vries et al., 2016 for a similar
conclusion in the public-sector innovation literature). Unlike in traditional participatory
processes, the development of ICT solutions requires major investments, which implies
there is a tendency that the adoption of a new technical solution is seen as a major
achievement, which may leave its institutionalization process in the shadow (both by
academics and government practitioners). In order to contribute to the existing research,
330 Public Policy and Administration 38(3)

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