e-Participation: helping citizens engage with politics and policy making in the 21st century

By Steven McGinty

Last week, more than half a million people signed an e-petition to block controversial US presidential candidate, Donald Trump, from entering the UK.

These signatures were gathered using the UK Parliament’s official e-petitions website, which allows any British citizen or UK resident to create or sign a petition. The website, which was launched in August 2011, provides a direct route for the public’s voice to be heard. Most notably, if a petition collects 100,000 signatures, it’s required to be considered for debate in parliament.

In its first year, the website received a total of 36,000 petitions, attracting 6.4 million signatures. And although it has beencriticised for rejecting almost half of petition requests, millions of people are continuing to use the service.

e-Participation

The UK Parliament e-petition website is an example of an initiative that encourages ‘e-participation’. According to the European Commission,

e-Participation helps people engage in politics and policy-making and makes the decision-making processes easier to understand, thanks to information and communication technologies (ICTs).”

However, it’s important to note that e-participation is not all about the ‘e’. This is the view of Ella Taylor-Smith, Research Student at Edinburgh Napier University’s Institute for Informatics and Digital Innovation, who explains that challenges to participation are usually associated with the social side of projects. This is why she recommends that e-participation should be integrated into the wider work of participation.

The ‘active citizen’

According to the Hansard Society, citizens are moving away from having a passive, broadcast only relationship with their MP, and are seeking a relationship were they can ‘contribute to the democratic debate’. That’s why, as digital technology is becoming more prevalent, MPs are becoming expected to use digital tools to communicate directly with their constituents. Recently, we have even seen guidance published by Parliament on how politicians should use Twitter.

Pirate Party UK

In 2009, Pirate Party UK was founded and introduced a new concept to British politics. The party, which has been inspired by the Swedish party of the same name, takes a collaborative approach to the development of policy, allowing anyone to make a contribution (with members ultimately deciding what the party stands for). They explain that:

At the heart of Pirate Party politics is the right for everyone to share knowledge and take an equal part in society.”

In practice, this means that anyone can put forward their views on the Party’s online discussion forum. They highlight that this allows them to run on the UK’s first ‘crowdsourced manifesto’.

NHS Scotland

E-participation is not just about contributing to policy and holding elected representatives to account.   For many people, e-participation is at its best when it empowers peoples and gives them a say in the issues that affect their daily lives.

In 2013, NHS Scotland published a report on their e-participation work. The report emphasises that the technical barriers to citizen involvement and co-production of services have now gone, thanks to the increased use of digital technology. It also highlighted that 71% of people are now accessing the internet for health-related information.

The report outlines some of the main e-participation activities that NHS Scotland’s boards are involved in. These include:

  • distributing health information
  • facilitating discussions on health issues
  • gathering positive and negative experiences from patients and public
  • engaging with staff

e-Participation in the Netherlands

In 2014, the United Nations E-Government Survey ranked the Netherlands as a top performer (jointly with South Korea) in e-participation.  This is not too surprising, considering the Netherlands already has a long tradition of open and transparent government.

The Dutch approach to civic engagement has led to a number of e-participation initiatives, including:

  • eRepresentation – a tool used by the official Environmental Council for Schiphol Airport to collect the conflicting interests of economic development, spatial planning and environmental protection.
  • Citizenlink – an initiative which sets out to improve the performance of the public sector by introducing quality standards and measuring citizen satisfaction.
  • TrackYourCouncil – a voting assist tool which provides a comparison of political parties on the basis of 30 main issues during election time.
  • WeEvaluate – a national website which allows citizens to evaluate public services.

Finals thoughts

The increased use of technology provides a greater opportunity for citizens to participate in the decision-making that affects them. Yet, e-participation is still in its infancy and even Dutch politicians have responded to greater citizen involvement with some resistance. In addition, the Scottish Government has, on occasion, overlooked the democratic element in their definition of e-participation, preferring to focus on the access to technology aspect, such as in their Digital Participation Charter.

Therefore, although the technology is available to support citizen engagement, policies will have to be introduced to ensure that participation via technology is part of the normal process. Otherwise, citizens may find their own channels for engagement, which bypass politicians or policy makers.

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