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The term refers to democratically elected members of representative bodies that represent the interests of their constituents in collective decision making processes; synonyms depending on context: parliamentarians, delegates, or councillors.

Theories and Results

On the one hand, elected representatives have to represent their constituents in collective decision making processes. Therefore, they have to select, aggregate and translate different societal interests into collective decisions. In this regard, they have to act responsively towards the interests of their constituents. On the other hand, in their role as ultimate decision makers, they take collective decisions and can be hold accountable for them (see also representation). They have to explain their decisions to their constituents and have to gain support and legitimacy for those decisions. In this respect, they also act as mediators between citizens and governments respectively administrations.

As the ultimate decision makers in representative democracy, representatives have a crucial role regarding the integration of public participation and its outcomes. They are confronted with growing expectations concerning their responsiveness while facing many different stakeholders with different conflicting interests. A basic discussion in Political Science is how representatives should fullfill their representative role. The most famous and classical approach (that goes back to the famous speech of Edmund Burke "Speech to the Electors of Bristol" from 1774 and is still widely cited) distinguishes between "trustees" that act in their own will in what they believe to be the best for the electorate, and "delegates" that act on the explicit orders of the electorate (Dudzinska et al. 2014;Rehfeld 2009; Wahlke et al 1962; for more on representative roles see under role perception).

Representatives and Online Participation

The attitudes and behavior of representatives are crucial regarding the acceptance and future prospects of online participation as they decide about its introduction and the translation of its results into binding political decisions. Online participation may lead to a change in the scope of action of representatives and their duty of representation (Firmstone und Coleman 2015; Kersting 2016).

Research regarding the question what representatives think of and how they deal with online participation to this date is merely qualitative and/or often concerned with one special case of e-participation, for example participatory budgeting (###). As those studies reveal, there is a variety of notions amongst representatives of what it actually means to engage the public (see e.g. Firmstone/Coleman 2015; Neunecker 2016). That leads to contradictory results regarding their attitudes towards online participation.

However, research provides clues that representatives often understand participation rather as a one way means to inform citizens about political issues and to gain their acceptance than as a form of dialogue or cooperation. Representatives generally seem to be afraid of losing power to other actors and want to hold on to their role as ultimate decision makers. They are also skeptical towards more binding forms of participation in general and online participation especially Gabriel/Kersting 2014). Moreover, representatives are concerned in terms of the representativeness of participants and their motives of participation.