Disgusted voters turn to e-petitions

November 24, 2000

The Scottish Parliament's petitions committee yesterday received a 545-signature "e-petition", which was conducted using a system developed at Napier University.

The e-petition, which demands the full implementation of the Cubie report on student finance, has collected signatures via the internet using technology developed at Napier's international teledemocracy centre, in partnership with BT Scotland.

This week marks the first anniversary of the centre. It celebrated its birthday with a reception in the House of Lords to highlight its potential role in strengthening democracy.

Ann Macintosh, the centre's director, said: "What we're trying to do is use technology to reinvigorate the relationship between people and their representatives in that way that furthers the democratic process."

She said the centre was unique because of its combination of expertise and strategies. "It is multidisciplinary in that I have computer scientists, information scientists and social scientists doing research in the centre. Their focus is on electronic democracy, and they are developing the technology as well as evaluating it."

The academics are not only investigating the relevant hardware and software, but also the social and psychological impact of new approaches.

Ms Macintosh said that giving people the opportunity to interact with government, whether local, regional, national or European, was a vital step towards overcoming the growing apathy towards participating in politics.

Work is already being done, notably by the Hansard Society, on electronic consultation using new technology to help people respond to government.

Earlier this year, the centre designed a website for a six-week online consultation for 11 to 18-year-olds, giving them the chance to give Scottish ministers their views on topics ranging from drugs to homelessness.

"But there's also the case, as witnessed in the road haulage dispute, where people want to lobby government and parliament, and my centre is looking at how technology can be used for both," Ms Macintosh said.

The centre has developed an e-democracy toolkit and web-based tools for electronic consultations, petitions and elections. The e-petition system allows users not only to create the petition, but to give background information.

Ms Macintosh said that e-petitions increased access to the democratic process, aiding those who would find it difficult to mobilise a traditional petition.

"With an e-petition, you don't have to rush to decide whether you want to add your name. You can sit back, read the background information and make a much more informed decision."

This summer, Downing Street accepted its first e-petition, from the global conservation network WWF, which used the Napier technology to call for action on marine protection.

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