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Wired: The Kremlin's hands-on e-gov approach

Dmitri Medvedev Holding Laptop ComputerRussian President Dmitry Medvedev has been in cyber contact with the general public for quite a while now. By now his team, and mere observers alike, have all understood that he is very much an IT man and that he will use the most advanced technology available in fulfilling the duties of president.

Medvedev holds nationwide online question and answer sessions twice a year. The latest such conference took place this Monday, November 22, and proved the most popular to date. Internet points to link up members of the public with the president's office in central Moscow were set up in all of Russia's 83 regions. The sheer scale of the event was unprecedented: never before has it been technologically possible for the president to talk with such a vast number of people all across Russia in just one day.

The subjects raised during this session were quite predictable. People voiced their complaints and in reply the president promised to look into their problems and sort them out. He passed some complaints on to the heads of the relevant government agencies, off-line. Admittedly, Russia's political life is still based on face-to-face contact, and even the most sophisticated technology is unlikely to change that centuries-old practice.

There is no suggestion that government officials ought to respond to public complaints only during these online Q&A sessions, held a couple of times a year. This was a point President Medvedev emphasized as he took questions from the public on Monday.

The Russian leader made his position clear: "Many people criticize the authorities' formal approach to complaints and letters from the public. Regional and municipal leaders should ensure such enquiries are scrutinized closely. If officials refuse to respond to public complaints or try to drag their feet on them, then maybe they should face disciplinary action."

"Even if there is no instant fix for a particular problem, those in charge should never brush it under the carpet, but try instead to explain why things cannot be resolved right away," he added.

President Medvedev believes this is perfectly in line with the authorities' ethics of conduct vis-a-vis the public in a modern democratic society.

Under the traditional, autocratic model, all criticism "from the bottom" is viewed by the powers-that-be as unacceptable pressure. So much so that any positive response to public protests is equated with succumbing to public pressure, and inaction is often chosen as the best "face-saving" tactic.

Medvedev stated his adherence to the alternative, democratically-oriented model at a recent meeting with some famous rock musicians, who raised the controversial Moscow-St. Petersburg highway project. This is what he said: "One very important lesson about power can be drawn from this story, regardless of what solution we opt for in the end. There's a sense that this issue is creating too much public resonance for us to be able to just turn a blind eye and say, 'We have made the best possible decision'."

And he backs this talk with action on this issue and on other controversial cases. He tends to listen carefully to all that is critical in public sentiment before responding as promptly as he can. This can be seen in recent high-profile controversies such as the trial of anti-drugs activist Yegor Bychkov in the Urals region, the construction of a Gazprom skyscraper in St. Petersburg, and the brutal attack on the investigative journalist Oleg Kashin in Moscow. In each of these instances, President Medvedev immediately responded by instructing the relevant officials to investigate all the circumstances in great detail and find adequate and fair solutions.

This isn't to say, of course, that the public is always right while the authorities tend to get things wrong. Yet, if a controversy is generating widespread resonance among the public, those in power should never turn a blind eye, they should at least try to discuss it openly. The public response will then perhaps be less sharp, and conflict will give way to meaningful dialogue.

Over the past couple of years Q&A sessions using the latest in information technology have become an important part of this dialogue between the authorities and the general public. But they should by no means be the only way the government reaches out to people, if it really seeks to make good on its declared course toward comprehensive modernization.


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