Headlines: April 22nd, 2005

Supporters of issues as diverse as safety improvements to a local road, the need to work with businesses to control waste, stricter conditions for the control of strip clubs and opposition to identity cards are all making use of the latest high-tech tool to support local democracy – electronic petitions.The e-petitioner system was originally developed by the International Teledemocracy Centre at Napier University in Edinburgh and BT Scotland for the use of the Scottish Parliament. People in Scotland have been able to submit petitions online since March 2000. Two local authorities – Bristol City Council and the Royal Borough of Kingston on Thames – became the first to trial the system in autumn last year.

The system allows campaigners to publicise their petitions more widely than traditional methods of seeking signatures, although electronic petitions can be run alongside paper versions with both being submitted to the council. The authorities believe e-petitions encourage campaigners to publish background information about their issues, starting an online debate that gives other people the opportunity to judge the arguments for themselves before deciding whether to add their signatures.

The trial is being funded through the National Project for Local e-Democracy, which is looking into possible new channels of participation, particularly the roles that can be played by the Internet and mobile phones, as a means of encouraging citizen participation and helping elected councillors to work more effectively.

As with the Scottish Parliament the relevant areas of the authorities’ websites include detailed guides of how the online petitioning system works, as well as allowing people to view petitions and to track their progress through the council. So far the numbers of traditional paper petitions received by the councils far outweigh electronic submissions. Use of the system seems likely to increase, however. It is already possible to submit an electronic petition with 300 or more genuine signatures to the Prime Minister’s office. The tool is also being taken up by campaign or special interest groups. For example opponents to the Newbury by-pass scheme were able to sign an e-petition carried on the Friends of the Earth website.