Page last updated at 12:56 GMT, Thursday, 26 November 2009

Government e-petitions give power to the people

By Jane Wakefield
Technology Reporter, BBC News

tom steinberg
Tom Steinberg hopes local campaigns will be linked nationally

Government plans to roll out e-petitions across the UK could offer people a real say in the democratic process, a conference has heard.

The legislation to make e-petitions compulsory for all councils in the UK comes into force in April 2010.

It could result in a national e-petition scheme and force Westminster to take more notice of people power, thinks web guru Tom Steinberg.

E-petitions allow citizens to raise issues with government.

It also gives them a chance to have a say in political processes.

It was a hot topic of debate at the Future Democracy conference in London this week.

The e-petitions scheme is being rolled out by the Department of Communities and Local Government.

It has come up with a radical plan to ensure e-petitions do not just live on council websites.

"The legislation dictates that all councils use standardised systems," said Mr Steinberg, who set up the high profile Number 10 e-petitions site.

Standard software

Standardising the software makes it easier to push e-petitions to other platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and mobile applications, meaning they reach a wider audience, thinks Mr Steinberg.

It will also allow for an aggregated national e-petition website which could draw all the local campaigns together as well as comparing how well different councils deal with e-petitioners.

Downing Street e-Petitions
E-Petitions don't always tell government what it wants to hear

Mr Steinberg hopes such a website will be built and that the Number 10 e-petition scheme will feed into local ones.

One of the biggest problems with the Number 10 e-petition scheme is that it bypasses parliament meaning that there is little obligation to follow through on the campaigns raised.

"Whether or not it will get better is down to the government," said Mr Steinberg, who is now a digital advisor to the Conservative party.

Despite criticisms of the Downing Street system, it has proved popular, clocking over 10 million signatures to date.

Parliament is currently considering opening its own e-petition system but there has been one major stumbling block, according to Mr Steinberg.

"They just don't seem to believe that it can be done as cheaply as it can," said Mr Steinberg.

MP resistance

It is likely there is also resistance from MPs, unsure of whether they want a closer relationship with citizens.

Matthew Mannian is democratic services team leader for the London borough of Lambeth and helped roll out its e-petitions scheme.

I can see why councillors are threatened. It takes over their role to some extent. It is also the first time councils will have had something negative about them on their own websites
Matthew Mannian,
London borough of Lambeth

"I can see why councillors are threatened. It takes over their role to some extent. It is also the first time councils will have had something negative about them on their own websites," he said.

Jeremy Cogman is a software developer for Modern.Gov, which offers a range of digital services to councils.

Only about a dozen of its 120 customers have so far rolled out e-petitions but numbers are rising.

"In the last month we have had a lot of people phoning us up and asking us to turn on the e-petition feature," he said.

Political process

While he thinks most councils will comply with legislation, he worries not all will do so for the right reasons.

"It's not just about getting software in place. It is how you process it and whether it is a genuine attempt to get it into the political process or a box ticking exercise," he said.

Examples of e-petition successes are largely anecdotal, from a petition that kept a youth service open in Kingston-upon-Thames to the quick mending of broken fences in Lambeth.

Mr Steinberg hopes the system can feed into another of his web creations, Fix My Street, which allows people to report things such as graffiti, fly-tipping and other environmental problems.

"We have had 50,000 problems reported but half aren't getting fixed. An e-petition could make a difference," he said.

Peter Cruickshank from Edinburgh Napier University's School of Computing hopes e-petitions can have a more general feel-good effect on citizens.

"A successful petition doesn't have to be one that achieves its aim. If people see the issue is being taken seriously then they will be happy," he said.

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