Internet, Politics, Policy (II). Political Participation and Petitioning

Notes from the Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment conference, organized by the Oxford Internet Institute, and held at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, UK, on September 16-17, 2010. More notes on this event: ipp2010.

The political click: political participation through e-petitions in Germany
Andreas Jungherr, Otto-Friedrich-Universität, Bamberg Germany

A platform where anyone can create a petition and invite others to follow, diffuse and, of course, endorse it. The difference is that several ways of participation are allowed and their evolution can be tracked.

Several examples are portrayed, being the “No indexing or blocking of websites” the more popular, but not all of the topics were Internet-related and they still got a lot of signatures. Notwithstanding, the number of signatures per petition does follow a power curve, that is, there is a long long tail of petitions thata get very low attention, while a few of them get highest rates of attention. And same happens with the users: a very small number of users signed a large amount of petitions, while most of the users just signed a few of them [curious because users could only endorse a petition, not vote for or against it].

Typologies of users (number of users):

  • New Lobbysts (269): vote intensivelly and in a long period of time.
  • Hit and Run Activists (235): voted many related issues, but in just a couple of sessions.
  • Activist Consumers (80,278): voted several issues that were not related amongst them.
  • Single Issue Stakeholders (414,829): voted just a few issues.

Broadening participation through E-Petitions? Results from an empirical study on petitions to the German parliament
Ralf Lindner, Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI), Department of Emerging Technologies, Germany

The research aims at analysing different e-petitions and see how e-petitioning affects citizenship participation, after the Bundestag’s e-petition system was set up in 2005. The reform of the petition system has six key elements: the introduction of online submissions, the creation of public e-petitions, co-signatures online, online discussion forums associated with each public e-petition and obligatory public meetings of the petitions committee with petitioners who collect more than 15,000 signatures.

The system has been growing in usage since 2006 and now reaches almost 25,000 e-petitions and public e-petitions, and with more than 3,000,000 of signatures supporting e-petitions and public e-petitions.

Results show that e-petitioning does not seem to change a lot the habits of citizens, as those who participated online were also the ones that used to participate offline, that is, the participants in the e-petitioning system were the ones politically more engaged than the general public. Thus, it failed to attract underrepresented groups. Indeed, gender and socio-economic biases are exacerbated.

e-Petitioning and Representative Democracy: a doomed marriage? – Lessons learnt from the Downing Street e-Petition Website and the case of the 2007 Road-Tax petition
Giovanni Navarria, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster

http://petitions.pm.gov.uk to allow people to create new or sing up for existing petitions addressed to the Primer Minister’s cabinet. The Road Tax petition was created by Mr. Peter Roberts in November 2006 and was sent just to some 30 friends: 3 months after, it had raised 1.8 million signatures.

Once the petition was closed, it got major media attention and by the end of 2007, the then Prime Minister decided to listen “to its constituents and ditch the national road pricing scheme”.

Lessons learnt:

  • To host the service within its official website gave the new service a public seal of recognition, increasing the political weight of the petitions submitted through the site. And once the people spoke, media used that “legitimacy” of the site to push more on the Government.
  • New e-petition systems have to be integrated in the whole government-citizen dialogue structure, and e-petitions cannot “go on their own”.

Engaging with Citizens Online: Understanding the Role of ePetitioning in Local Government Democracy
Panagiotis Panagiotopoulos, Department of Information Systems and Computing, Brunel University

Potentially, e-petitioning (and petitioning in general) aims at engaging the citizen, should help in bringing more information to the citizen and in a quicker and more direct way, etc. But what is the reality like? And how does the system adapt to it?

A data collection of 13 semi-structured interview with key informants, and supported by informal contacts and documentary analysis was performed with the aim to examine the interactions between IT-related innovations and organizational changes.

The complexity and novelty of e-petition systems end up with the system being participated by many more stakeholders than usual: citizens and local organizations, the government, IT systems departments and providers, academic institutions, etc.

One of the problem that now raises is how to combine (offline) petitions with e-petitions, to decide the number of signatures that validate an e-petition (the same as offline? more? less?), etc. As a general conclusion, it seems that it is not the technological artefact the one that determines engagement and its impact, but the organizational/democratic backup it has.

Discussion

Q: How do people find the e-petition that interest them? Jungherr: Most of the times the e-petition is discussed in mainstream media, sometimes even being the story created in mainstream media, thus driving people to the site to endorse the e-petition. Panagiotopoulos: No doubt social networking sites help a lot in heating the debate and, over all, in distributing the link.

Q: Did people that initiated e-petitions had already exhausted other ways, or they directly “shopped around” the e-petitioning website? Linder: Data seem to prove that people that are active online are active offline too, and people that are active online they were already active offline.

[The discussion was rich and difficult to summarize here. Though, a personal recap of the session: online engagement is highly correlated with (prior) offline engagement; mainstream media (can) boost e-petitioning, crossmedia communication strategies might make a (huge) difference].

More information

Papers:

Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment (2010)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “Internet, Politics, Policy (II). Political Participation and Petitioning” In ICTlogy, #84, September 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=3500

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