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Expert Evaluation for the Local eDemocracy National Project

Introduction

Since the publication of the 2002 consultation paper “In the service of democracy”, central government has been committed to encouraging and supporting a wide range of democratic developments that make the most of new technologies. This work has been spearheaded through the development of the Local eDemocracy National Project which investigated new channels of participation and piloted various approaches to encourage citizen participation and help elected representatives work more effectively. The national project ran until from 1st March 2004 the end of March 2005. Bristol City Council led the research and evaluation work stream. The ITC working with The Oxford Internet Institute and Oxford University were commissioned to undertake the overall evaluation and in-depth evaluations of certain projects.

The national project had the following broad objectives:

  1. to encourage all local authorities to consider the ways in which they can use e-democracy tools to enhance local democracy and to develop locally appropriate strategies for implementing such tools where relevant.
  2. to ensure that the knowledge and experience of e-democracy that already exists is systematically exposed and shared across local government to the benefit of all.
  3. to develop new tools that support or enhance local democratic practice both within local government and beyond.
  4. to provide a focal point for democratic innovation and the dissemination of best practice.
  5. to begin a sustainable process of electronically enabled participation and engagement that complements existing democratic structures and processes.

According to the Project Initiation Document, there were nine specific outcomes to be achieved:

  1. to provide tools and advice that will help all local authorities to explore and make the case for e-democracy
  2. to establish a comprehensive and updatable compendium of best practice in e-democracy that will be available to local authorities as a resource to consider alternative developments and a focus for sharing experience across and within organisations.
  3. to enable local authorities to strengthen existing democratic practice by developing tools that will support councillors in their work, enhance the way in which information is made available to the public and provide new opportunities for moderated discussion on policy.
  4. to help local authorities and their partners to use new technologies to democratise policy processes and areas, particularly by focusing upon enhancing transparency and accountability in partnership working and cross-cutting issues.
  5. to encourage local authorities to address the democratic deficit through the innovative use of new technologies to connect communities and to overcome existing barriers to participation. In particular, to use e-democracy as a tool to address the problems of social exclusion and to develop and to provide a tool for purposeful social inclusion.
  6. to support the building of democratic communities through the use of technologies to support the growth and democratic engagement for community groups and other intermediary organisations.
  7. to underpin local government learning and knowledge in the area of e-democracy with systematic and thorough research and experimentation that reflects citizen experience and preference in relation to democratic engagement as well as local government experience.
  8. to ensure that experience and knowledge of e-democracy is widely disseminated and available for wider development within the local government community.
  9. to seek ongoing funding and support from elsewhere, both internally and externally, to build upon the initial outputs funded through the National Project. In particular, to examine ways in which other funding streams can add value to the e-democracy process.

Ten anticipated ‘success factors’ were outlined at the outset of the project and it was suggested that metrics should be developed to measure these.

  1. improved local authority capacity to conduct e-participation successfully;
  2. better quality inputs into the policy-making process;
  3. improved service delivery;
  4. evaluation framework for the impact of technology on local democracy;
  5. better understanding and links between parts of local government, representatives, experts and citizens;
  6. capability and skills to use these tools effectively;
  7. high usage and satisfaction;
  8. more active and engaged citizens;
  9. increased engagement by excluded groups;
  10. better-tailored policies and services to meet the needs of the above groups.

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The Evaluation

We were concerned to explore the extent to which ICT can contribute to the development of a more inclusive, participatory and effective democracy at the level of local government.

As evaluators we tried to measure the success of local e-democracy initiatives in accordance with the above objectives, but were aware that some of the initial objectives were overly ambitious. In addition, our evaluation was constrained by the very limited time provided for the projects to be designed and developed, which resulted in most of them remaining at formative stages of implementation. Most of the projects did not commence until late 2004 and all were only funded until the end of March 2005. In some cases citizens only began to use projects at the point at which the evaluations were concluding. This was too short a period for these projects to be tested in relation to the kind of socio-political effects set out in the project initiation document.

The in-depth evaluation study examined four case studies of top-down local e-democracy projects. These were:

The evaluation found much had been accomplished in the 4 projects we focused on. Over their one-year lifetime project staff were recruited, suppliers contracted, applications implemented, working practices and processes examined and e-democracy tools launched to be used by the public. In three of the four projects the e-democracy tools had been used by hundreds of citizens, and showed early signs of impacting on decision-making.

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