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e-Petitioner for English Local Authorities

E-petitioning was implemented and piloted by the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames who led the project, and Bristol City Council. The development of e-petitioning in the National Project stemmed from the experience of the Scottish Parliament and both Councils acknowledge how their use of the system has been derived from the Scottish Parliament’s guidelines. The project had two main aims:

The ITC worked alongside the Councils’ e-Democracy project managers to localise the e-Petitioner tool and embed it in their processes for handling petitions, while ensuring it remained sufficiently generic to be easily adapted to the needs of other Councils. In Kingston this work was coordinated through the IT Department, and in Bristol through the Corporate Consultation team. As well as deploying the system and developing procedures to handle e-petitions, the Councils’ role included promoting the system internally (to Council Officers/Councillors) and externally (to members of the public).

The first task in establishing the e-Petitioning System within a Local Authority is to formally define a petitions process that is suitable to their context. In Kingston, developing the e-petitioning process entailed a need to publish guidelines for the first time, and to put in place a mechanism for managing new e-petitions ie. contacting the principle petitioner and the key council officers responsible for the matter raised, as well as updating the site and publishing the Council’s formal response to each petition. The addition of a new ‘channel’ for petitioning and the associated need to guide website visitors on how they might use it, established the case for publishing Guidelines on petitioning in general.

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The main effort in transferring the system lay in meeting the need for easy to use administration functions, and in providing a more modular architecture suited to the need for the software to be tailored to the varying needs of local authorities. The Scottish Parliament e-Petitioner System is maintained by ITC as a ‘managed service’, an arrangement that could not meet the needs of the National Project tools to be sustainable beyond the life of the project. Kingston and Bristol required facilities for their own officers to administer their respective systems.

At the end of the pilot period (17 March 2005) there were 7 e-Petitions for Kingston, and 9 paper petitions were presented to the Council in the same period. In Bristol there were 9 e-petitions and 22 on paper. The total number of e-petition signatures was 173 in Kingston and 890 in Bristol. Citizens, Officers and Members who took part in the evaluation were almost unanimously in favour of e-petitioning. It has enjoyed strong support from Councillors in both Kingston and Bristol, particularly Kingston, and from the departments who are directly involved in the day-to-day servicing of representative government. The issues raised through e-petitioning are unarguably issues that are important to citizens, and are evidently addressed through local authority decision-making. E-petitions were raised on, for example, road crossings, telecoms masts, and Post Office closures.

The website and its associated guidelines on petitioning makes both the process and the petition outcomes more visible. The added visibility applies to paper as well as e-petitions, since paper petitions that are presented at Council meetings are also listed on the e-Petitioner page. The evaluation states:

“The evaluation found much had been accomplished in both Councils. Over the one year project lifetime staff were recruited, the supplier contracted, e-Petitioner implemented, working practices and processes examined and the tool launched to be used by the public. E-Petitioner was used by hundreds of citizens in each Council area, and showed early signs of impacting on decision-making.”

The success of the ePetitioner system is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that both councils are committed to continue to use the system after the end of the pilot funding. Bristol worked with ITC on amendments and having the system hosted on the ITC server until January 2008.

Both local authorities recorded their experiences of using online petitioning, the resulting documents providing valuable insights to other councils who might be considering adopting such a facility.

Feedback has been largely positive, as the following quotes from the main actors in the petition process demonstrate (ICELE: ePetitions - the benefits):

If you are in full-time work, and if you have a small child, ePetitioning makes it easier to get involved in the local community. It gives a voice to those in such a position, who would otherwise be silent on local politics -Maria Samuels, principal petitioner

ePetitions can provide another way for people to raise matters with the council if they want to...it's a matter of extending choice...I'd expect developments like this to become more and more important over the next few years -Stephen McNamara, Head of Legal Services, Bristol City Council

One of the roles of the councillor is to provide help, and mine is an ethnically diverse ward and there are certain groups and organisations - ethnic and religious - that find it difficult to get accurate, adequate representation. And as they get access to technology, this presents a chance to give them that representation - it is much more inclusive. - Councillor Sue O’Donnell

As an illustration of how effective an e-petition can be, consider the one raised by a Bristol resident in response to a pedestrian fatality in February 2007. His e-petition prompted the Council to improve safety along the stretch of road concerned. The petitioner was encouraged by this response, saying: I’m pleased on both fronts – the e-petition has been listened to and we’ve made improvements to the safety of the area (From BBC news, 2007)

From these comments, it appears that the early promise detected by the evaluation is being sustained.

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