e-Petitions: democracy and participation

Since I’m working on a petitioning related project, and (e-)petitions have been in the news recently, I thought it would be a good idea to put my ideas about the place of e-petitions down as a marker for later reference. Here, I largely look at the area from the view point of government, and where petitioning has a recognised place within the democratic process. It would also be legitimate to describe e-petitioning from the perspective of citizens or campaigners, and (of course) there are many non-governmental online petitioning systems supported by advertising or subscription.

These notes are designed to provide the background context to an evaluation framework that I am currently finalising

Governments’ motivations to support e-petitions

“…with the spread of Information and Communication Technologies, a new practice has come into force, consisting of aligning the practice of petitions and the use of Internet technologies. This has led to the implementation of appropriate technical components… today citizens have more instruments to interact with the institutions, to make their voice heard and, eventually, to take part in the policy-making process” Daria Santucci, 2007

Many advanced industrial democracies have adopted reforms designed to ‘transform’ established representative democracies into more participatory democracies with the aim of confronting a perceived decline in public trust of political institutions and the associated symptoms of disengagement, and e-petitioning has advanced furthest

Petitioning can be placed between pure representative democracy and direct democracy (which bypasses representatives altogether), in a third category advocacy democracy, where the participation activities are directed towards influencing the decisions of elected representatives, thereby mitigating the risks and consequences of weakening existing democratic institutions. Since the policy impact is indirect (mediated by representatives), perceived fairness and openness in the process can be as important as the actual outcome, as evidenced by the following:

“Can anyone name an e-petition to the Prime Minister that has achieved its aims? Each time I have signed one, I have later received an email telling me why the PM cannot agree.” – Letter to Telegraph, 27 May 2009

Raised and subsequently disappointed expectations can lead to increased disaffection with the political process.

As can be seen below, e-petitions can occupy a number of places in the political process, and petitions can be seen as straddling the boundary between formal and informal political processes.

e-petitioning's place in the e-participation continuum - diagram courtesy of Public-i

e-petitioning's place in the e-participation continuum - diagram courtesy of Public-i

Although informal (unofficial) petitions arose first, modelled on previous paper-based processes, the place of formal, legally mandated petitions in the political processes across Europe is now assured, if varying a little in detail, and there is room for further evolution: for instance the opportunities offered by the internet of providing background information on site or through links to external sites are still not generally taken by e-petitioning systems.

Use of e-petitions by government in Europe

Online petitions have now been used for a number of years at national, regional and local authority level, and their role continues to evolve. For instance in England & Wales, online petitions are being further built into the political system, at least at a local level, as part of the “Local Democracy Economic Development and Construction Bill” currently before Parliament. In Spain, petitions have at best a semi-formal role with regions implementing petitions on a pilot basis without a supporting legal framework and Sweden is somewhat in between, with a legal right to petition, but no formal duty on councils to consider the petition. The success of e-petitioning systems has not been uniform: in Norway for example, activity was low when that country experimented with online petitions.

Citizens can already petition the European Parliament through its Petitions Committee (PETI) committee, albeit over a restricted range of subjects limited to:

  • rights as a European citizen as set out in the Treaties
  • environmental matters
  • consumer protection
  • free movement of persons
  • goods and services
  • internal market
  • employment issues and social policy
  • recognition of professional qualifications and other problems related to the implementation of EU law.

From the list, it is clear that the current system is not aimed at supporting a mass expression of opinion or general debate. Rather, it is aimed at the addressing of grievances. PETI is currently oriented towards a paper-based process, but an online form for submitting petition requests is offered.

The draft 2008 PETI report notes that 1886 petitions were registered, compared to 1506 for 2007, which in itself was a 50% increase on 2006; of these, 40% were declared inadmissible, compared to 30% in 2007.

According to the report, “the largest cause of inadmissibility relates to the question of competence and its corollary, subsidiarity” – ie issues that should have been raised nationally. It is possible that PETI could benefit if a method for reducing the levels of inadmissible petitions: as a result of the high level of rejected petitions, it is likely that perceptions of fairness in the process are particularly important but further work is still required to understand the European dimension; this will be explored further as the new Parliament comes into place after the 2009 elections.

Final thoughts

A distinguishing characteristic of these (semi-)formal e-petitioning systems (but not of PETI’s) is the proactive role officers play in both advising petitioners on the wording of a petition to ensure that it is within the remit of the body to be petitioned and in shaping the petitioner’s expectations of the system, however little work has been done in understanding this potentially crucial role.

Finally, some caveats: it is necessary to remember that the participants in the petitioning process and e-democracy generally, have been shown to be generally male, educated and older than the general population (‘the usual suspects’). It also may be that levels of internet access are plateauing in Wester Europe, so furhter widening of engagement may require different approaches.

It can be argued that the accountability brought about by transparent processes is can be a good in itself, and does not require the participation of the whole of society, but even if this is accepted, it would be useful to understand the factors behind the decisions made by individuals (or groups) whether to participate in the political system by creating, or signing a petition.

Related reading

  1. Carman CJ (2007) The process is the reality: Perceptions of Procedural Fairness and Participatory Democracy. Draft paper presented at the 2007 meeting of the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties study group of the Political Studies Association, Bristol, England. http://www.scotlandsfuturesforum.mobi/s3/committees/petitions/inquiries/petitionsProcess/35DrChristopherCarman.pdfn
  2. Linder R, and Ulrich R (2008) ‘Electronic petitions and the relationship between institutional contexts, technology and political participation’, in Parycek P, Prosser A: Edem2008. International Conference on Electronic Democracy (Proceedings), Linz, Österreichische Computer Gesellschaft:116-126
  3. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology postnotre, January 2009 Number 321 http://www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_offices/post/pubs2009.cfm
  4. Rose J & Sanford C (2007) Mapping e-participation Research: Four Central Challenges Communications of the Association for Information Systems (Volume 20, 2007) 909- 943
  5. Santucci D: “Studying e-petitions: State of the art and challenges”. ESF-LiU Conference Electronic Democracy: Achievements and Challenges – Vadstena, Sweden – 21-25 November 2007

About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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