Virtual governance undermines democracy and weakens public accountability
Feature Image Alexis Wright/The Pointer

Virtual governance undermines democracy and weakens public accountability

Early in the pandemic, the Town of Caledon decided to facilitate public participation in monthly council meetings by using technology to broadcast live monthly meetings. The idea in principle was to permit the general public to observe and participate in legislative sessions and to send in questions to be discussed as part of the process of governing.

Directives from Queen’s Park required all public organizations to mitigate risks to public health, as employers were told to allow staff to work from home. 

Since the threat receded most institutions and settings where daily life plays out have returned to the structures and informal routines that were disrupted.

Participation in some local governments, however, has continued through hybrid processes that allow attending in person at council, or virtually, for both residents and elected officials. Caledon and Brampton are among the municipalities still largely relying on virtual participation.

Virtual participation is controlled by the technological framing of the engagement. This is controlled by bureaucrats, who serve at the pleasure of elected officials.

Delegates who once stood toe-to-toe with politicians, with nowhere for them to go, are now at the whim of the monitor, squeezed in small squares on a screen, their participation and visible appearance controlled closely in a way that removes the fundamental function of democracy—direct representation.

When your screen time is up, unlike those who demand an answer standing at the lectern and refuse to leave until they get one, the mute button can now take care of such inconveniences. 

When the option of virtual participation is offered, more and more stakeholders who live demanding lives, eschew in-person appearance and the collective force that only a group of voters gathered together wields. Many politicians who used to cower at the sight, now sleep much easier knowing such confrontations, in certain municipalities, are far less common. 

Even if taxpayers unite and gather in force, their intended audience of council members can easily avoid accountability while sitting in their remote home office, far away from their constituents.  

There is no body language to pick up on. The use of persuasive speech is rendered ineffective by screens. And it can be next to impossible to follow up on critical points during a debate when the flow of information is determined by those who control the technology.

Unscheduled responses and remarks are less possible via virtual sessions. 

In the “old days”, municipalities were expected and required to enhance public in-person participation by having agendas available a few days before council meetings together with relevant documents. This allowed the stakeholders directly impacted by the particular matter ample time to inform themselves prior to any decision. 

While these requirements have not changed, if fewer and fewer members of the public participate virtually, uninterested in being at the control of technology and those who control the controllers, the effect removes real power from the people and hands it to those who can instead use an entirely different set of considerations to make their decisions.

Democratic participation is eroded in this technologically controlled feedback loop. The screen is not a legislative chamber. It is not where governing was supposed to be done. The virtual realm might be apt for many societal functions; it is no place to gather, sometimes in masses, to show politicians what the power of the people looks like, unfiltered, unmonitored and in their face.

Virtual participation can be somewhat seductive, with advantages that claim to make participation more convenient, but “democratic participation” shouldn’t be convenient or less personal. When so much is at stake, what our society needs is more in-person dialogue, authentic confrontation, not manipulated appearances and behaviour made more expedient by technology.

With the rise of artificial intelligence the potentially destructive consequences of virtual representation will only sharpen arguments for authentic representation in the decision making arena. 

Democracy is an imperfect, messy system but it only works when we are more aware, accountable and involved. We do not need one-way communications and “democracy” via scripted screen appearances. Public engagement will continue to decline the further removed we feel. We want to be the director of our own life, not an extra standing in the background of the screen. That’s what some politicians want us to be. To them, virtual government should have happened long before the pandemic, when they feared the voter who looked them right in the eye, and dared them to make the wrong decision.


Joe Grogan has lived in Bolton for 49 years. He is a retired OPSEU member and Humber College professor who taught in the School of Business and School of Liberal Arts for 34 years. He is a longtime community advocate and keen Town Hall watchdog.

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