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Rowntree Charitable Trust Assessment of Electronic Petitions

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust funded research between October 2000 and March 2001 to monitor and assess electronic petitions. The deliverables of the project were:

From the report

This investigative project has been undertaken by The International Teledemocracy Centre at Napier University in Edinburgh. The project focuses on a specific case study of the introduction of technology to encourage public participation in governance through the use of on-line electronic petitioning to the Scottish Parliament. The central question is: how and to what extent might e-petitioner make a contribution to e-democracy? The research has been designed to monitor and evaluate the development and use of electronic petitions by groups and individuals, and to develop a framework to investigate the significance of electronic participation tools for democratic processes. The electronic petitioning system, called e-petitioner, is at It is an internet based tool, designed to support the collection on-line of names and addresses, and generally gather people's views about a petition. A special arrangement with the Scottish Parliament allowed the Centre to host petitions on-line for the Parliament and submit the names and addresses electronically to the Public Petitions Committee. Research began on 2nd October 2000 and lasted 6 months until March 31st 2001.

During the course of this research, three new e-petitions were created and hosted on the e-petitioner system. These were Globalisation and Health Issues raised by the World Development Movement; Tackling the Digital Divide, raised by the Craigmillar Community Information Service; Investigation into Scottish Football, raised by East of Scotland Supporters Association. There was one on-going e-petition, Cubie, raised by Napier Students Association and the National Union of Students. To broaden knowledge of e-petitioner, collaborations were formed with civic, professional and community organisations; specifically with the Scottish Civic Forum, the British Association of Social Workers, Craigmillar Community Information Service and Communities-Internet, a voluntary organisation now managing 33 community web sites in Scotland. Also, the Centre collaborated with the Scottish Parliament to design a brief detailing each e-petition, and assisted them to formulate section 18 of their guidance on the submission of petitions, produced on-line and in hard copy by the Parliament.

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In this research, the effectiveness of e-petitioner was measured through evaluation research. The main methods used for field research were semi-focused interviews and participant observations. A central aim throughout was to conduct well organised research, while remaining flexible enough to obtain explanations and rounded understanding on the basis of contextual data. During the course of the study, care was taken to ensure that methods used remained sensitive to the social context in which data was produced. Data was subsequently extracted from observations, interview transcripts and from on-line evaluation questionnaires which are part of the e-petitioner system. In line with the principles of triangulation, findings from one area were checked against data in other areas.

Interviews were conducted with all e-petition sponsors . They indicated that they viewed e-petitioner as a useful tool in influencing politicians and complimented more traditional methods of petitioning. The ability to access at a convenient time and reach wider sections of society alongside the slower more deliberative processes made possible by e-petitioner were considered inherently more democratic. Sponsors realised they would have to consider a range of different ways of promoting their petition to highlight its existence and garner public participation. In making a number of suggestions, e-petition sponsors highlighted the need for organisations and people to develop a new culture of use and establish new routines in organising e-petitions.

Participant observations were conducted in a variety of public access settings with a range of users. It was possible to watch what people did with e-petitioner, and conduct conversations with participants to take account of people's experience of use and their perceptions of e-petitioner and its function as a tool to support democratic participation. Indications are that all participants had acquired the technical and communicative skills to navigate and sign an e-petition successfully. However, observations also highlighted frequent hesitation in providing addresses on-line, at least until reference to the disclaimer on the site pointed out that addresses would not be used for any other purpose without the express permission of the signatory. Observations also showed many signatories did not access all the pages on the e-petitioner site. Many remained unaware of the separate sponsor's background pages, information about why the e-petition was raised, and the comments pages. Re-designing the e-petitioner web-pages with these observations in mind can help address this problem. Generally speaking respondents found e-petitioning easier and more efficient than traditional petitioning. Ability to comment was viewed as an important democratic opportunity, however, it was suggested that the system needs to be re-designed to make ability to comment more prominent. Ability to 'deliberate' on issues in a self-regulated timescale was considered an important advantage. The accessibility, openness and transparency of e-petitioner was highlighted and welcomed. Respondents believed they were now more generally aware of the possibilities of e-democracy after using e-petitioner. The need was identified for a similar e-democracy system to operate locally to deal with local issues. Another insight suggests need to acknowledge and deal with social involvement deficit.

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All petition signatories were given opportunity to complete an on-line evaluation questionnaire. Data indicates that those who signed an e-petition and went on to complete the questionnaire felt confident in using electronic technology and did not require or want help to do so. It is possible to conclude from this data that different petitions raised by different sponsors can generate different public use patterns, as the increased number of signatories from community centres signing the digital inclusion petition indicates. It is also possible to conclude that respondents believed information and communication technology (ICT) designed to support democracy was both necessary and effective.

Findings indicate considerable support for the e-petitioner, with signatories applauding various advantages, in particular the opportunity to be included in what was viewed as more democratic interaction. There was, however, some marked concern that security and confidentiality may yet be problematic. Interesting data was gathered indicating how signatories found out about e-petitioner. This is likely to prove very useful in relaying best practice to sponsors about to promote and publicise new e-petitions. The evaluation questionnaire also provided opportunity for signatories to make suggestions for improving the look and operation of e-petitioner, and these comments will be closely scrutinised and taken into consideration when re-designing the system.

Semi-focused interviews were arranged with Mr John McAllion, MSP, Convener of the Public Petitions Committee and Mr Steve Farrell, Clerk to the Committee to take account of their views. These interviewees indicated that the Parliament were happy to liase with the Centre in the on-going development of e-petitioner. Advantages of an electronic petitioning system over traditional petitioning had been noted. In particular, ability to add a comment to an e-petition was highlighted as providing scope for future development. The interviewees also believed the brief, which had been devised by the Centre, provided a useful summary of each e-petition, supporting the work of the Committee. The Centre's collaborations with civic and professional bodies was considered very beneficial in informing people and improving the mode of communication supporting the democratic process.

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The research into e-petitioner has illustrated some of the benefits and limitations of e-democracy. In particular, the research has highlighted scope for developing e-petitioner locally. Further research needs to be directed to clarifying the role of e-petitioner locally, and working with other partners, ensure that new possibilities for local development is closely scrutinised.

Close attention is drawn to the character of e-democracy at the local level. While many community networks and other community-based organisations now provide access to ICT and operate as learning centres to promote skills for the information age, there has been very little involvement so far of local people in planning, designing and participating in democratic issues using ICT. It is likely that if people are not included at planning and design stages, they are less likely to participate later when they are suddenly expected to do so. No structured consultations so far have been carried out with local people to establish what they want, specifically to gauge what type of issues they would want to be involved in, the extent to which they would want to participate in local, regional, national and global issues, and how they could contribute democratically to those issues at the local community level using new technologies. An action research project is required to work with local people to assess the democratic requirements of a cross-section of communities, and to enable appropriate design and development of ICT supported democratic community systems. Also, new insights from this study highlight need to address social involvement deficit - the focus here is on e-democratisation. There is a need to stimulate cultural change by disseminating information, encouraging community involvement, and illustrating how individual people and groups at the local level might use electronic tools in democratic ways in their community.

In conclusion this study has highlighted a large number of comments and recommendations to take electronic democracy forward.

Download the whole report .pdf version (562kb)

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