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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 September 2005, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
Petitioning parliament by mouse
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News technology reporter

Protesters outside Scottish parliament
Protests can now be born online
If e-government seems to be mainly about doing tax returns online, then e-democracy is its more exciting cousin, promising to put citizens at centre stage of the political process.

E-democracy projects are springing up all over the UK. They range from online surgeries for councillors, to e-enabled citizens' panels and local government information via text message.

The BBC has joined the throng with its own Action Network website, an open forum inviting people to start campaigns in their local communities.

Doing its bit for e-democracy is the Scottish parliament which has been running an e-petitioning system for a year now.

It has begun a very new type of political debate.


The Scottish Parliament building
The Scottish Parliament has embraced e-petitioning

The system allows ordinary citizens to raise the issues affecting them. Unlike a traditional query or complaint which often becomes buried in paperwork, the progress of the petition once it is in the hands of government must be fed back to the petitions website.

E-petitioning was the brainchild of Professor Ann McIntosh, of Napier University in Scotland, who set up the system with the help of BT.

"We wanted to show that technology can do a lot more than just support e-voting. It can actually allow participation in decision making," she told the BBC News website.

"It is an example of democracy operating from the ground up. It has improved the way people can interact with government."

While other e-democracy schemes tend to be initiated on an ad-hoc and temporary basis, the newly formed Scottish parliament was prepared to give e-petitioning a solid two-year trial.

Petitioning of the Scottish parliament is a well-established tradition. Since 1999, the public has been invited to submit petitions on any issue they chose and there have been notable successes.

One petitioner who was severely scalded at home as a child has petitioned successfully for a change to Scottish building regulations.

Any new house now built in Scotland must be fitted with a water-regulating device to ensure temperatures cannot rise to dangerous levels.

By contrast, anyone in England wishing to bring an issue to the attention of parliament must first find an MP to take up their cause.

Burns in Bolivia

A third of all petitions are now submitted to the Scottish parliament electronically and the e-system has distinct advantages.

Rather than just sign their names to a cause they agree with, people are invited to join an interactive forum to discuss their views in more detail, offering insights, web links and background information on a particular topic or even express opposition to an idea.

It is a two-way process at all times and anyone in the world can contribute to our government
Michael McMahon, Public Petitions Committee
Current e-petitions cover a whole range of issues, including the threat to rural schools, affordable housing, world poverty and the Scottish haulage industry.

Each one will go before the Public Petitions Committee, and what the government does with it, which department it is sent to and which experts are consulted, are published on the website, along with any eventual changes to actual legislation.

The system has global reach and the Scottish Parliament has received comments on petitions from around 35 different countries, including a response from Bolivia on how best to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of Scottish national poet Robert Burns in 2009.

Michael McMahon, convener (chair) of the Public Petitions Committee, thinks its global reach and the fact that it creates a dialogue are the two main benefits of the e-petitioning system.

"It is a two-way process at all times and anyone in the world can contribute to our government," he said.

It is not just citizens from other countries who are getting involved. An adapted version of the system is currently being adopted by Germany, which has one of the biggest parliaments in the EU.

It is also being used by Kingston-Upon-Thames and Bristol councils and is in line for a prestigious European Union e-award.

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