How can Local Authorities be sure that eDemocracy works? How can they be sure that they are using the right e-enabled tool for the job and that the use of these tools will result in effective input to the democratic process? And what about citizens? How can they be encouraged and enabled to make best use of eDemocracy? These are some of the overarching questions that Workstream Four of the Local eDemocracy National Project (www.e-dem.info) aims to answer.
Bristol City Council ( www.bristol-city.gov.uk/consultation ), as leaders of this workstream, have recruited Professor Ann Macintosh of the ITC along with Professors Stephen Coleman of the Oxford Internet Institute and Mansur Lalljee, Fellow of Jesus College Oxford to form an Expert Evaluation Team to provide strategic input to the evaluation. They will be working together to assess how technology is being used most effectively to invigorate democratic involvement between citizens, their local council and their elected representative.
The team of three experts, each with a different eDemocracy outlook, are working collaboratively to:
provide advice to Bristol City Council in its lead-authority role, including helping the council to scope and to define in-depth evaluation projects;
offer support and advice to all the workstreams and in some cases, project lead authorities within the National Project on evaluation issues with the aim of developing some consistency of approach;
develop and refine self-evaluation tools that will be made available to all councils in carrying out future self-evaluations of their eDemocracy work.
How can Local Authorities be sure that eDemocracy works? How can they be sure that they are using the right e-enabled tool for the job and that the use of these tools will result in effective input to the democratic process? And what about citizens? How can they be encouraged and enabled to make best use of eDemocracy?
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM)’s Local eDemocracy National Project (March 2004 to March 2005) investigated new channels of participation and piloted various approaches to encourage citizen participation and help elected representatives work more effectively. (More about the National project on the ITC website
Project leaders, Bristol City Council, recruited Professor Ann Macintosh of the ITC along with Professors Stephen Coleman of the Oxford Internet Institute and Mansur Lalljee, Fellow of Jesus College Oxford to form an Expert Evaluation Team to provide strategic input to the evaluation of the National project.
We were concerned to explore the extent to which ICT can contribute to the development of a more inclusive, participatory and effective democracy at the level of local government.
As evaluators we tried to measure the success of local e-democracy initiatives in accordance with the above objectives, but were aware that some of the initial objectives were overly ambitious. In addition, our evaluation was constrained by the very limited time provided for the projects to be designed and developed, which resulted in most of them remaining at formative stages of implementation. Most of the projects did not commence until late 2004 and all were only funded until the end of March 2005. In some cases citizens only began to use projects at the point at which the evaluations were concluding. This was too short a period for these projects to be tested in relation to the kind of socio-political effects set out in the project initiation document.
The in-depth evaluation study examined four case studies of top-down local e-democracy projects. These were:
- Bristol’s use of online forums to complement Citizens Panels in its Ask Bristol website.
- Kingston upon Thames’ pilot of an e-petitioning system in conjunction with Bristol.
- Swindon’s trial of a ‘Micro Democracy’ concept targeting questionnaires at specific sections of the public.
- Wolverhampton’s coordination through partner organisations of online dialogue with citizens through the Wolverhampton Partnership site.
The evaluation found much had been accomplished in the 4 projects we focused on. Over their one-year lifetime project staff were recruited, suppliers contracted, applications implemented, working practices and processes examined and e-democracy tools launched to be used by the public. In three of the four projects the e-democracy tools had been used by hundreds of citizens, and showed early signs of impacting on decision-making. More about this project on the ITC website The local authority e-petitioning pilots