The e-democracy project with the biggest media and political impact over the past year has been the No 10 e-petitions project ... but we may never know whether it made much difference to democracy.
At the recent e-democracy 07 conference Professor Stephen Coleman was pretty scathing about the system because it isn't clear what happens after people have posted their petition, and collected support online. It disappears into the government machine, but no-one knows whether policies change. Jimmy Leach, the No 10 civil servant responsible for introducing the system, was at the conference, and Stephen pressed him hard on the question of an evaluation study. Jimmy said something was being planned with mySociety, who designed the system .... and it would be independent.
It now seems that any study has been dropped and the whole thing is something of a mystery to mySociety too. The E-Government Bulletin, produced by conference organisers Headstar, reports:
E-Petitions Review Plan Shelved By Downing Street.
Plans for an independent review of the Prime Minister's e-petitions system have been shelved following the departure of Downing Street head of digital communications Jimmy Leach to join a PR agency, E- Government Bulletin has learned.
At this month's e-Democracy '07 conference, hosted by the bulletin, keynote speaker Professor Stephen Coleman of Leeds University blasted the lack of an independent report into the first six months of the e-petition system. The e-petitions had captured the headlines, particularly in relation to road pricing trials, but there needed to be proper analysis of what types of person engaged with the process and what its results had been, Coleman said.
"Has there been a report? If not, it is just a gimmick. If there is, and it is now languishing on the desks of civil servants, then what does that say about transparency and integrity?"
At the time, Leach responded by saying an independent academic report would be commissioned and published in the months to come.
However, E-Government Bulletin understands that such a report has yet to be commissioned, and all plans have been shelved following Leach's departure this week.
The record of the Downing Street electronic petitions system was defended by Leach at the conference as a useful tool among many for gauging citizens' views.
"It had its uses and had its impacts, but it shouldn't and won't be the only solution favoured by government. It is a digital manifestation of a single strand of the constitution."
And while there was no direct line between electronic petitions and Parliamentary debate - just as with paper petitions - he said the triggering of a policy reply from a civil servant to all petitions signed by more than 200 people had already represented a significant cultural shift in government.
"It has been quite a shift, to have civil servants sit down and explain why they are doing something. So far, three and a half million people have received answers. If we were to do that physically it would cost £1 a letter, which would be unsustainable. But we have spent so far £140,000 on this."
Meanwhile, the House of Commons moved a step further to installing its own electronic petitions system this month, with the announcement of a new inquiry into the topic by its Procedure Committee. The committee proposes that electronic petitions to Parliament would have the same status as paper petitions, and is seeking views on how the process could work. For details see: http://fastlink.headstar.com/parl3 .
The question of the evaluation study was raised on the UK and Ireland E-Democracy Exchange, where Tom Steinberg of mySociety says he knew nothing of the plans announced by Jimmy Leach. Message thread here. Tom adds:
We're just starting to conduct an independent evaluation of our own sites, some of which are 3 years old, having systematically failed to find an academic partner willing to take on the cost of doing this before then. So I can't be too holier-than-thou on this front.
Obviously it's a site worth evaluating though, so I'll ask about it.
I was at the conference doing some video blogging on behalf of Headstar, as you can see here. Further specific links below, where I have reposted to this blog.
Interviews with Jimmy Leach and Ann Macintosh on Westminster and Scottish e-petition systems
Stephen Coleman on people's loss of trust in politics and TV
Publictechnology.net provides an overview of the first year of operation of the e-petitions site
Other posts about e-democracy on this blog