Headlines: February 1st, 2008

Scottish style e-petitions should be used by all local authorities to engage people in local politics according to a report from the New Local Government Network. Its paper says allowing local people to petition councils to debate and review spending and policy commitments would give citizens direct influence over the way local services are delivered.

The think-tank believes e-petitions could help to create an ongoing dialogue between communities and their elected representatives between elections and could engage voters, particularly young people. The report points to the success of the formal e-petitioning process in the Scottish Parliament.

The British Government, it says, has explored e-petitioning, notably through the Number 10 website which allows users to upload and support petitions. That model, however, does not include any formal system for debating the petitions in Parliament to give a Government response.

The NLGN recognizes advantages for councils of bringing in e-petitioning such as widening participation to include people who appear to be more disengaged such as young people and the less well-off. E-petitions would establish methods of ongoing engagement, giving people the ability to voice their opinions and to see the impact this has. They would also ensure that there are methods of accountability and direct dialogue with representatives and they would in addition, provide a way through which information is readily available and accessible.

The report also argues that e-petitioning should be a formal mechanism within the local authority “Community Call For Action”, which gives local people a chance to raise concerns about persistent or serious problems with councillors having a duty to respond. The NLGN foresees the petitioning system being based on establishing a minimum number of signatures needed to support a petition, which could then trigger a formal council debate on the issue being highlighted.

It calls, too, for the Audit Commission to reward councils which show commitment to and innovation in e-petitioning through the new Comprehensive Area Assessment and for councils to use their websites to encourage greater e-participation.