E-petition systems and political participation: About institutional challenges and democratic opportunities
First Monday

E-petition systems and political participation: About institutional challenges and democratic opportunities by Knud Bohle and Ulrich Riehm



Abstract
The implementation of e–petition systems holds the promise to increase the participative and deliberative potential of petitions. The most ambitious e–petition systems allow for electronic submission, make publicly available the petition text, related documents and the final decision, allow supporting a petition by electronically co–signing it, and provide electronic discussion forums. Based on a comprehensive survey (2010/2011) of parliamentary petition bodies at the national level covering the 27 member states of the European Union (EU) plus Norway and Switzerland, the state of public e–petitioning in the EU is presented, and the relevance of e–petition systems as a means of political participation is discussed.

Contents

1. Introduction
2. Petitions and e–petitions
3. Main functions of petitions and petition systems
4. Petitioning parliaments in Europe
5. Discussion
6. Conclusion

 


 

1. Introduction

In 2010/2011 a survey of the parliamentary petition facilities at central state level was performed including the 27 member states of the European Union, together with Switzerland and Norway [1]. In this paper, we pick up the relevant findings on parliamentary e–petition systems and discuss their impact in terms of institutional change and political participation.

The term petition system is used here as a proxy to address the entire socio–technical configuration made up of the communications, interactions and relations of the various actors involved in the petition process. The technical means of communication are part of it as well as the rules and procedures that apply. The general underlying assumption is that technology matters and the empirical question then is how this “technology of democracy” [2] affects democratic institutions and practices.

Based on earlier conceptual work [3] the paper first (2) defines petitions and e–petitions and informs about the usual steps of the petition process. Next (3) the main functions of petitions, among them political participation and control of the administration, are explained. In the empirical part (4) data of the survey are presented showing, which parliaments have already established e–petition systems or are about to do so. In section (5) we discuss the results in the context of political participation and institutional change asking first for the characteristics of those parliaments pioneering the introduction of e–petition systems. Second we discuss if and how public e–petition systems are about to transform the institution and the practice of petitioning. In the final section (6) we present the main conclusion.

 

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2. Petitions and e–petitions

2.1. Defining petitions

There is consensus among scholars that petitions targeting political actors and institutions constitute a form of political participation [4]. Petitions are usually understood as an asymmetric form of communication between individuals or a group on the one side and an institution on the other side. A matter of concern is forwarded by the petitioner to which the addressee may react. The constitutive asymmetry is very clear. In a definition of 1921 it reads:

PETITION, an entreaty, a request, a supplication, a prayer; a solemn, earnest, or formal prayer of entreaty addressed to the Supreme Being, or to a superior in rank and power. [...]. A formal written request or application made to one vested with authority, or to a legislative or administrative body, soliciting a favor, grant, right, or act of mercy ... .” (Collier’s New Encyclopedia, 1921)

This definition illustrates that the word “petition” is not well defined in terms of its precise communication properties. The broad scope of the concept has not changed very much since then. For example, the European Parliament’s definition (3 May 1994) reveals petitions

“as all complaints, requests for an opinion, demands for action, reactions to Parliament resolutions or decisions by other Community institutions or bodies forwarded to it by individuals and associations.” (quoted in Committee on Petitions, 1997)

Also the asymmetry has not changed since then. In the Green paper for the Council of Europe about the future of democracy in Europe, Schmitter and Trechsel give a disenchanted assessment of the limitations of petitioning:

“In almost every European country and at almost every layer of government, citizens can file petitions that neither bind parliaments nor result in popular votes. Such petitions are bottom–up, superficial and non–threatening manifestations of deeper–rooted social dissatisfaction and conflict. They are usually channelled by established political organisations (parties, associations or movements), but they occasionally arise from ad hoc and informal units of collective action. Their primary goals are to attract the attention of rulers and to provoke public debate among citizens. Since the success of such petitions remains entirely at the discretion of those in power, they are merely an upward channel of communication, along with several others offered by modern liberal democracies, such as public opinion polling and public hearings. Presumably, some petitions are more effective than others, but none of them can be described as a regular and effective means for holding rulers accountable.” [5]

The factual power of most addressees of petitions is comparatively weak as they usually lack the formal powers to impose sanctions, repeal administrative decisions or change the law. Nevertheless there are also strengths of petitions to be stressed [6]:

  1. Petitions are initiated bottom–up by citizens (in contrast e.g., to hearings, consultations, and some types of referenda).
  2. The access barriers are comparatively low in terms of the formal requirements petitioners and petitions have to meet.
  3. A petition forwarded to the political institution may not be ignored. The state has no “negative freedom of communication” [7] with respect to a petitioner. The right to petition compels the attention of the addressee.

In most modern democracies, this form of participation is legally enshrined. In the member states of the EU the right to petition is generally anchored in the constitution and in addition often in specific laws and regulations too [8]. The legal provisions also include the protection of the petitioner from adverse consequences of petitioning.

In general the right to petition guaranties direct access to all institutions (head of state, ministries, parliaments, etc.) of the political–administrative system at all levels (state, regional, local). However, in many cases specific institutions have been established, which are responsible for the processing of petitions — think, for instance, of ombudsman institutions or parliamentary petitions committees. These institutions may interpret their task as mediator between citizen and executive power or even as advocate of the petitioner.

2.2. Electronic petitions

For an accurate understanding of what is meant by electronic petitions in the context of electronic petition systems set up by parliaments, the following distinctions [9] are useful:

  • Petitions submitted electronically: In the case of this most basic e–petition type, petitions are also accepted by the addressees if they are submitted electronically, either via e–mail or by using a Web interface. The person submitting the e–petition is usually required to include her/his name, address and other information as part of the identification procedure. Compared to traditional paper petitions, the novelty of this e–petition type merely refers to the initial submission phase.

  • Public e–petitions: Irrespective of the way it has been submitted, a petition is defined as a public e–petition, if the petition text is published on the Internet. The actual petition text can also be supplemented with additional background information concerning the petition issue and/or the different procedural steps related to the submitted petition. Also the final decision, important in terms of transparency, may be published.

  • Public e–petitions actively involving the public: In this case, the public e–petition system is enhanced by functions allowing the participation of citizens. The most widespread function is to support a public e–petition electronically. This can be technically realized in different ways but is equivalent to the traditional co–signing of petitions. Not quite as common are Internet–based discussion forums which allow for public debates on the issues raised by a public e–petition. More functions involving the public are conceivable.

This distinction makes clear that e–petitions are not just a technical innovation to make a petition system more user–friendly by adding a submission channel. The important point is that the petition process goes public and may actively involve citizens.

2.3. Steps of the petitioning process

The petition process can be modeled as a procedure with a sequence of steps and possible loops as shown in Figure 1. The preparation phase covers all activities before the petition is submitted. It covers the wording and phrasing of the petition, the search for an appropriate petition addressee, mobilization and campaigning for the issue at stake and the collection of signatures. The submission phase is next and consists basically of sending the petition to the petition addressee meeting the formal requirements (in some cases e.g., written form, signature, information about address, age, nationality). Once submitted the consideration of the petition begins, which may comprehend a check if the petition is formally correct, the admission of the petition, communication with the petitioner, publication of the petition, gathering of opinions and statements, inspection of files, site visits, public hearings and more. In the termination phase a final notice or decision is formulated, which can be forwarded to the petitioner, policy–makers, the institution complained about, and to the public. The implementation of the decision may then be monitored and controlled. Follow–up activities can for instance be appealing the decision or submitting the petition to another petition body, further mobilisation of supporters, resonance in mass media or in the political system.

 

Steps of the petition process
 
Figure 1: Steps of the petition process.

 

The concrete petition process depends among others on the subject matter and on the regulations set such as the degree of formalization, the investigation powers stipulated, and the control capacities. Further criteria to describe the petition process are the degree of transparency provided and the participation opportunities offered to petitioners and the public.

 

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3. Main functions of petitions and petition systems

Trying to determine the functions of petitions there are at least three perspectives to be taken into account: the petitioner, the petition body, and the political–administrative system. It is widely accepted that the petition system fulfills two essential functions for the petitioners. These two core functions are the protection of individual rights and interests on the one hand and the possibilities of active participation in political decision–making and policy implementation on the other hand.

By and large this goes together with a differentiation of concerns discerning matters of res publica and res privata [10]. While res publica petitions are about political issues in a narrower sense, e.g., initiate new legislation or reforms of legal provisions, the focus of res privata petitions is on individual cases of hardship and the protection of personal rights and interests. The distinction between “political petitions” and “personal complaints” is often used in a similar sense. Parliamentary petition bodies often deal with both types of petitions [11].

This distinction, however, should be treated with caution. While a political initiative is always prospective, a complaint is usually addressing adverse consequences that occurred after the implementation of specific policies. However a political initiative may also aim to reform those regulations that led to adverse effects, especially if they are of a systemic nature. Individual cases of hardship in turn may well point to structural policy deficits that call for legislative measures. The classification of petitions as either a complaint or a political initiative is therefore dependent on the point in time and the stage of the policy cycle.

The two types of petitions also correspond to a twofold assignment of petitioning. To a certain degree it serves as a channel of political participation aimed at influencing policy–making. To a certain degree it also belongs to the highly differentiated complaint system of a democratic society with a focus on the administration. This dualism disappears if we consider the political–administrative system as one with an input and an output side as Scharpf does:

“Democracy aims at collective self–determination. It must thus be understood as a two–dimensional concept, relating to the inputs and to the outputs of the political system at the same time. On the input side, self–determination requires that political choices should be derived, directly or indirectly, from the authentic preferences of citizens and that, for that reason, governments must be held accountable to the governed. On the output side, however, self–determination implies effective state control. Democracy would be an empty ritual if the political choices of governments were not able to achieve a high degree of effectiveness in achieving the goals, and avoiding the dangers, that citizens collectively care about. Thus, input–oriented authenticity and output–oriented effectiveness are equally essential elements of democratic self–determination.” [12]

In the same manner it can be stated that political participation can take place with respect to the input and the output side, and that petitions as one form of participation are able to serve both purposes. Likewise the guiding vision of “responsiveness”, meaning to make the political system more responsive to citizens’ needs and preferences, should again be applied to the input and the output side of the political system.

A further approach to determine the functions of petitions can start from Teorell’s distinction of three different political participation types (with different normative ideas underlying). All of them may modify the liberal model of representative democracy. He identifies “participation as influencing attempts” as the most popular and widespread concept of political participation (as found prominently e.g., in the work of Verba and Nie, 1972). Participation in this sense is an “instrumental act through which citizens attempt to make the political system respond to their will” [13]. In this sense he speaks of the “responsive model of democracy”. While it may cover elections, and election campaigns of political parties, its focus is on activities beyond the standard inventory of representative democracies.

A second concept of participation refers to the “act of taking part in person in the decision–making process” [14] and is related to forms of “direct democracy”. The third concept of participation is related to deliberation and discussion, and focuses on the formation of opinion which precedes decisions. Expectations are a more informed public opinion and by this increased legitimacy of democratic procedures and outcomes [15]. Viewing petitioning through Teorell’s lens it appears in first place as an instrument of the “responsive model of democracy”. Its rationale is attempting to influence the political–administrative system. Traditionally petitions are therefore neither an instrument of direct nor of deliberative democracy.

A further function of petitions for the petitioner should not be neglected: mobilization in the context of political campaigning. If a petitioner or as in most cases a group of petitioners make their concern public and ask for support in the form of signatures, the petition is a means to generate public attention, to initiate a debate, to influence the public opinion and to win supporters. One further aspect which is often neglected when considering petitions is the effect of active participation on the self and consciousness of the citizens. Advocates of “participatory democracy” do stress the importance of self–realization and self–development for democracy [16].

Looking at the petition addressee two core functions and a secondary one can be distinguished. The control function is essential. The petition body exerts a supervisory function in the area for which it is responsible. It is endowed with certain rights to control the political executive and the administration. However, this form of political control is a relatively weak one and only one element among the democratic control instruments. The second function of the petition body is intermediation. Petitions are initiated and submitted by citizens and the petition body receiving petitions must pursue it. This may be done with the intention to reconcile the interests of the citizen and the executive or with the intention to promote and advocate the cause of the petitioner. A secondary function, shared with many other institutions, is the interest of the petition bodies to strengthen and expand their visibility, reputation, competence and power.

By receiving petitions the petition body and further political bodies involved obtain information about the minor and major problems of each area. This function is often called seismographic function and is one of the core functions of petitions for the political–administrative system. This function is sometimes also called information or indicator function. A further function of the petition system is to increase the responsiveness of the political–administrative system, which presumes that the petition system is more than a listener and in conditions to work effectively on behalf of the petitioners. Increased responsiveness due to the petition system could of course be related to further desired goals such as building trust between citizens and state, the increase of confidence in the political system, and further integration of the entire society. Table 1 resumes the main functions mentioned above.

 

Table 1: Functions of petitioning.
Petitioner(s)Petition bodyPolitical–administrative system
  • Protection of rights and interests
  • Political participation
  • Mobilisation
  • Personal “self–realisation”
  • Control of administration
  • Advocate/mediator
  • Strengthen the petition body’s standing
  • “Seismographic” function
  • Increased responsiveness

 

 

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4. Petitioning parliaments in Europe

4.1. The empirical survey of parliamentary petition bodies

The survey of the parliamentary petition bodies at the central state level performed in 2010/2011 included the 27 member states of the European Union, together with Switzerland and Norway. The questionnaire aimed to determine the structure and method of operation of each petition system, the broader institutional environment in which the petition bodies operate, and to examine the current status and further plans of modernization. The questionnaire of the survey was very detailed and demanding, with 41 questions and an additional 31 statements requesting a subjective valuation of each topic. In this paper we concentrate on the findings with respect to e–petition systems and public involvement. Prior to the presentation of the results, a short sketch of the empirical research is given [17].

Completed questionnaires have been received from all of the 21 lower houses that do process petitions. Information is also available from the eight lower houses that do not process petitions [18]. With respect to parliamentary petition bodies the aim of a complete survey with 100 percent return was met [19].

There are of course limitations of a written survey of this type. To name just a few: First, addressing petition bodies unavoidably implies that just one specific view of the petition system is in focus, while the perspective of petitioners is not. Secondly, the description of the petition system and the statistics leave open if the performance on paper translates into an effective and useful practice. Thirdly, as the questionnaire was only available in English and German, some respondents not highly competent in either language may have interpreted one or the other item differently than intended.

4.2. Overall findings

In the 29 countries studied, we find a total of 59 national state–level parliamentary petition bodies and ombudsman institutions as shown in Table 2. In the majority of these countries (19), we find a constellation where both a parliamentary petition body and an ombudsman institution linked to the parliament receives and processes petitions and/or complaints. In most countries with bi–cameral parliaments, both chambers receive petitions [20]. Seven countries do not provide any possibility of submitting petitions to parliament (Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, and Sweden). The parliaments of these countries (with the exception of Ireland) are unicameral systems with ombudsman institutions. Only three of the 29 countries (Germany, Italy and Switzerland) have no parliamentary ombudsman institution.

 

Table 2: Possibilities for petitioning national parliaments.
Note: ● Petition system provided; ○ No petition system; — No upper house.
CountryPetition body/institutionOmbudsman–Institution
Lower houseUpper house
Austria
Belgium
Bulgaria
Cyprus
Czech Republic
Denmark
Germany
Estonia
Finland
France
Greece
Hungary
Ireland
Italy
Latvia
Lithuania
Luxembourg
Malta
Netherlands
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Romania
Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
United Kingdom
Total211226

 

4.3. E–mail and Internet functionality

In the following we take into account only the information obtained about the petition systems of the lower houses in 21 countries. In order to compare the e–mail and Internet functionality provided by the different petition systems, an indicator was calculated from a set of relevant questions [21]. The main points are presented in Table 3.

 

Table 3: Items to describe and evaluate E-petition systems.
Presence on the Web
   ✓existence of a Web site for the parliamentary petition system
   ✓efforts of the petition body to inform about the petition system and further PR efforts
Submission of petitions
   ✓submission of petitions by e–mail,
   ✓submission of petitions via an online form
Publication
   ✓publication of petitions on the Web,
   ✓publication of the decisions related to a given petition
   ✓publication of additional information
Interaction of petitioner and petition body
   ✓possibility for petitioners to request information about the state of processing of the petition via electronic channels
   ✓possibility for the petitioner to add information during the petition process
Involvement of the public
   ✓signing petitions online,
   ✓discussion of petitions in the framework of the electronic petition system (e.g., discussion forum).

 

Table 4 presents an overview of the corresponding survey results, which can be summarized as follows. With the exceptions of Greece and France, all parliamentary petition bodies provide the possibility for petitioners to obtain information on the progress of processing of their petition by e–mail. Eleven countries already offer the possibility of submitting petitions by e–mail. E–mail is therefore by and large a standard feature of petition systems.

The same cannot be said of services on the Web. Including here updated information from Austria and Luxembourg obtained after the survey, we can state that ten petition bodies (out of 21) have their own Web page. These Web pages are always embedded in the overall Web presence of the relevant parliament and always serve to provide information about the petition system [22]. Ten petition bodies publish petition texts and/or final decisions on the Web, but it is not clear in every case to what extent this actually occurs. We know that in Malta, Slovakia and Switzerland only decisions (or information about decisions) are published on the Internet, whereas the other seven petition bodies provide both petitions and decisions on the Web. Slovakia and Malta are planning to make also the texts of the petitions publicly available, and Romania, which to date still does not publish any petitions, intends to do so in future.

 

Table 4: E–mail and Internet functionality.
Note: ●=realized; ○=not realized; p=planned; ●p=realized and further modernization planned; n/a=no answer.
These data depict the survey results as of August 2010. The introduction of an online signing function in Austria later in 2011 and recent changes in Luxembourg towards a full–fledged electronic petition system are therefore not represented in the table. Further the information with respect to Slovakia as presented in the table is no longer up to date, because the former plans are no longer being pursued. The ranking of countries corresponds to the calculation of the indicator items, which is not reproduced here [23].
Lower house petition system of countryOwn Web siteSubmission by e–mailSubmission by online formInformation on the on–going processPublic relations on the InternetPetitions/decisions on the InternetOnline signing functionPublic discussion of petitions
Germany
Lithuaniappp
Portugalp
Czech Republic
Austria
Italy
Netherlandsn/an/a
Romaniap
United Kingdomn/an/a
Luxembourgpppp
Norway
Bulgaria
Slovakiapp●pp
Belgium
Malta●p
Switzerland
Slovenia
Hungary
Spain
Greecepp
France
Realized91141912921

 

Developments in the direction of electronic petition systems and public electronic petitions are almost non–existent. Even the submission of petitions by online form is not widespread, and, according to the survey, is currently only available in Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Romania. Among lower house parliamentary petition systems, only Austria, Germany and Portugal provide an online petition signing function, and the German petition body is the only one providing the possibility for public discussion of petitions on the petition’s Web site. This overall picture will change slightly, once the announcements are put into practice [24].

 

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5. Discussion

5.1. What’s driving the modernization of petition systems?

A central question is of course what the protagonists in favor of a modernization of their respective petition system have in common. The hypothesis put forward here is that those petition bodies whose petition system is already interwoven with the public sphere to a certain extent are more likely to expand the involvement of the public. In order to operationalise this hypothesis we examined whether individual petitions are debated in plenary sessions of parliament — i.e., publicly. Secondly, we asked whether quorums are built into the petition procedure. The assumption here is that petitions that meet a quorum will receive greater attention in the political system in combination with increased public attention. Thirdly, we examined whether mass petitions, i.e., those supported by many signatories, are de facto a relevant form of usage of a given petition system. Petitions and/or a petition report are in most cases debated in a plenary session of parliament. In 10 countries, individual petitions may be debated in plenary session.

Quorums have been introduced in the petition process in Germany, Austria, Portugal, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In Germany in 2005, a quorum of 50,000 signatures was introduced as a condition for debating a petition in a public session of the petition committee, with the possibility for the petitioner to present the matter personally before the committee. In Austria, petitions to the petitions committee of the lower house (Nationalrat) must be submitted via members of parliament, unless the petition is signed by a minimum of 500 citizens. A collective petition that satisfies this quorum can then bypass the MP filter [25] (i.e., a member of parliament is submitting a petition to parliament and not the citizen directly). In Austria, these collective petitions are termed Bürgerinitiative — “citizens’ initiative” [26]. In Portugal, 4,000 signatures are necessary for a petition to be debated in plenary session, whilst 1,000 signatures are sufficient for the petition text to be published in the parliament’s official publication and for the petitioner to be heard by the competent parliamentary committee in a public hearing. In the Czech Republic, 10,000 signatures are required for a debate of the petition in the petitions committee, including a hearing of the petitioner. In Slovakia, petitions with more than 100,000 signatures must be debated by parliament in plenary session.

The possibility and importance of supporting petitions by signatures could not be clearly determined for all countries and the following calculations are to be taken just as rough and weak indications. On the basis of the survey, we can only state that mass signing as a form of public participation plays an important role in some countries. Calculating the number of petitions to the parliament and the number of signatories for the period from 2006 to 2009 we found an average of 1,664 signatories per petition in Slovakia, 2,054 for the Czech Republic, and 4,428 for Luxembourg. For Germany we calculated 57, which correspond to an average of 17,500 petitions per year and ca. one million signatories. In Portugal, a total of 52 new petitions were submitted in 2009. Of these, 30 petitions were supported by more than 4,000 citizens. It is self–evident that public interest in signing individual petitions varies, and mass signings only occur in relatively few cases. The findings of this section about the involvement of the public are summarized in Table 5.

 

Table 5: Involvement of the public during the petitioning procedure.
Note: ●=Criterion met, or implementation planned; —=Feature not in place (following the information from the survey). The countries not listed are those that, according to the data received, do not meet any of the three criteria and are also not planning any measures to meet them.
CountryIndividual petitions discussed in plenary sessionQuorumsAddition of signatures is importantPublication of petitions/decisions and/or online signing and/or discussion forums
Portugal
Slovakia
Czech Republic
Austria
Germany
Luxembourg
Lithuania
Bulgaria
Greece
Netherlands
Norway
Switzerland

 

Portugal, Slovakia and the Czech Republic satisfy three of the criteria, Austria, Germany and Luxembourg two, and Lithuania and further five petition bodies just one. If we take a look at the Internet activities of those petition bodies that satisfy three or two or criteria with respect to the involvement of the public (Portugal, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Lithuania, and Luxembourg) we see that all these petition bodies have also taken measures to include the public via Internet (right column). It indicates that those petition systems with a high interest in public presence and involvement are also more likely to make use of the Internet to serve this purpose. This finding may also substantiate the assumption that the introduction of an e–petition system is not an arbitrary act but an innovation grounded in history, practice and strategies of the respective institution.

This is especially obvious when considering the introduction of quorums, which can be interpreted as a mechanism that encourages public attention and involvement on the one hand and promises a premium of political attention on the other hand. This mechanism can be understood as an attempt of the parliaments to provide petitions with a flavour of a direct democratic instrument or even turn them into a “lightweight” instrument of direct democracy [27].

The introduction of discussion forums could be seen as an attempt to attach deliberate qualities to petitions as a form of political participation. While petitions traditionally were neither an instrument of direct nor of deliberative democracy (see above), in the context of e–petition systems we find early attempts to introduce slight changes. In the next sub–section (5.2.) we go into more depth with respect to the institutional changes of petitioning.

5.2. Do e–petition systems mean a substantial change in terms of political participation?

Most parliamentary petition bodies are not yet determined to establish public e–petition platforms. Nevertheless there is about a third out of the total 21 parliamentary petition bodies we investigated that have started thinking or even acting in this direction. Against this background we recall the dictum of Schmitter and Trechsel “Since the success of such petitions remains entirely at the discretion of those in power, they are merely an upward channel of communication” [28], and we ask if e–petitioning and public e–petition systems provide reasons challenging this low opinion of petitions as a form of political participation. We do not want to overstretch and overestimate the importance of petitioning, but hint to possible changes despite the well known constraints.

First, there are considerable differences among petition systems with respect to the duties in terms of responsiveness of a petition body. The duty to accept submitted petitions exists in 14 of the 21 petition systems investigated, the duty of substantive examination in 11, the duty to produce a decision in nine, and the duty to inform the petitioner of the outcome in 11 cases [29]. Thus in most cases the right to petition compels the attention of the addressee and necessitates a downward channel of communication. The black box model of petitioning (input with arbitrary output) suggested by Schmitter and Trechsel tends to level out these differences.

Secondly, there are considerable differences among petition systems regarding convenience and user–friendliness for the individual petitioner. The continuous communication between petitioner and petition body during the process (almost like client and advocate) might be the most import change at the procedural level facilitated by electronic communication media.The Lithuanian model (only on paper so far) is the most advanced in this respect proposing close cooperation between petitioner and petition body throughout the petitioning process.

Thirdly, public e–petition systems can be designed to turn into a “lightweight” form of “citizens’ initiative” with a potential impact on the agenda of policy–makers. This smooth shift from petition to “citizens’ initiative” within a petition system is not dependent on new technology as the Austrian example shows, but it may become more widespread with e–petition platforms. Even the role of e–petitions as an instrument of deliberative democracy could be strengthened, if e.g., the debate of petitions taking place in discussion forums would be taken into account by the petition bodies during the petition process and when it comes to the final decision. Today this is still not the case.

Fourth, the Internet creates opportunities which are comparable to the shift that happened to traditional mass media. When complemented by Internet offers, their convenience increased, e.g., by time–independent consumption of content, meta–information, interaction with listeners and spectators, discussion forums, and an archive. Likewise, traditional petition systems may turn into a specific form of social media (at least at the front end) on the Internet, with all the dynamics and implications this entails.

If public e–petition platforms were installed on the Internet with the properties mentioned above a structural change of the petition system would be likely. The black box mode of petitioning would become transparent and observable for the public (not only for the petitioners). This in turn would impel the petition system, so our assumption, towards increased accountability.

The petition system, one of whose main functions is to control the administration, would become controllable by the public, and this would likely reduce the arbitrariness of its outcome. Every bilateral asymmetric communication changes its patterns if there is a third party observing it. A communication of this type is no longer entirely at the discretion of those in power, as the process and its outcome can be monitored, scrutinized and eventually controlled by the public. As long as petition systems of this type are rare and not fully featured, this remains of course nothing but a theoretical reflection.

In this line the appropriate perspective to observe and understand the emergence of public e–petition systems are changes of representative democracies taking place through the last decades, which are being reinforced by the structural change of the public sphere related to the Internet. The public sphere always implies a certain deliberative quality that transforms public communication into public opinion and formation of political will [30]. We agree with Beckert, et al. that the Internet “permits communicative spaces to be organised, where citizens and civil society groups discuss and forward their opinions on ongoing policy–making processes directly to governmental bodies. The Internet is being widely used for communication between politics and the public, and routines have developed at various points” [31]. But we would like to add and elaborate that the change also concerns policy–controlling.

The general argument is that “democracy” is based on the idea of self–government, which as Scharpf has pointed to (see above) is not just about collective decision–making, but also about effective state control. Scholars of the transformation of democracy have come up with different concepts: “contestatory democracy” (Pettit, 1999), “advocacy democracy” (Dalton, et al., 2003), “responsive democracy” (Teorell, 2006) or “monitory democracy” (Keane, 2009). They all contain elaborations of the basic idea that political control in democratic societies is changing with a new role set for citizens and civil society organizations who engage in advocating, monitoring and contesting — and the Internet serves as an agent of this change.

In this sense van den Hoven writes referring to Philip Pettit’s contestatory conception of democracy:

“Public decisions are acceptable to the extent that collective decisions are capable of withstanding individual contestation in forums and procedures acceptable to all. [...] Pettit’s conception of contestatory democracy is congenial to ICT’s potential for freedom of expression, voice, coordination, communication and information and suggests the crucial importance to E–Democracy of what I would like to call ‘E–contestation’. [...] The Internet provides citizens with resources to monitor and contest.” [32]

Keane, who coined the term ‘monitory democracy’, states more or less the same, when he writes:

“My opening conjecture is that monitory democracy is a new historical type of democracy, a variety of ‘post Westminster’ politics defined by the rapid growth of many different kinds of extraparliamentary, power scrutinising mechanisms. These monitory bodies take root within the ‘domestic’ fields of government and civil society, as well as in cross border settings. In consequence, the whole architecture of self–government is changing. [...] All institutions in the business of scrutinising power rely heavily on these [electronic] media innovations; if the new galaxy of communicative abundance suddenly imploded, monitory democracy would not last long. Monitory democracy and computerized media networks behave as if they are conjoined twins.” [33]

 

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6. Conclusion

The most interesting finding is that some petition systems — by leveraging the potential of the Internet — further the involvement of the public considerably. This happens in two ways: first by nudging e–petition systems in the direction of lightweight instruments of direct democracy and second by making the institution itself more open, transparent, accountable, effective, and responsive through the involvement of the public. Both development paths might also lead to expectations that eventually cannot be complied with by the petition body without more substantial transformations of the institution. This or that might happen. Empirically, we ain’t seen almost nothing yet.

Empirical research today tells that e–petitioning is well received in general and even able to reach and attract young people [34]. It also reveals, however, that it does not help so far to overcome the political participation divide (including the “digital divide”) based on socio–demographic characteristics. The high hopes that e–petitions will increase political participation of underrepresented groups in the petition process have not been fulfilled [35].

Comparing research on the e–petition systems of Germany, Queensland and Scotland we found that — at least for the time being: “[T]he typical user of the German, the Scottish and the Queensland systems tends to be a middle–aged male with an above–average level of formal education” [36]. End of article

 

About the authors

Knud Böhle is senior researcher at the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS), Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Karlsruhe, Germany, which since 1990 also runs the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag. His main focus of research is Technology Assessment of information and communication technologies including among others Internet and e–democracy issues.
E–mail: boehle [at] kit [dot] edu

Ulrich Riehm is sociologist, performing and leading Technology Assessment projects in the field of IST since more than 30 years at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS). Since 2005 he is working at the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag in Berlin, an independent scientific institution created with the objective of advising the German Bundestag, which is operated by ITAS.
E–mail: riehm [at] tab-beim-bundestag [dot] de

 

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank our colleague Ralf Lindner for comments on an earlier version of this paper, and the discussants of a panel on e–democracy convened by Norbert Kersting at the XXnd World Congress of the International Political Science Association, Madrid, 8 to 12 July 2012, where some findings of this paper were first presented.

 

Notes

1. The present paper is an outcome of the research on petitioning carried out by the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (TAB) since the introduction of an e–petition platform and “public e–petitions” by the German Bundestag in 2005. A first project "Public electronic petitions and civil participation" ran from 2006 to 2008 and a second one “Electronic petitioning and modernisation of petitioning systems in Europe” from 2009 to 2011. In both projects the focus was on the German petition system, but e–petitioning experiments and experiences of other parliaments were included for comparison from the beginning. The findings of the first project were published in 2009 (Riehm, et al., 2009), the results of the second one in 2011 (Riehm, et al., 2011a and 2011b; an English version of Riehm, et al., 2011a, is in preparation and will be published this year.). An overview of publications from both projects can be found at: http://www.tab-beim-bundestag.de/de/untersuchungen/u147/u147-i.html.

2. Trechsel, et al., 2003, pp. 7f.

3. In particular, Riehm, et al., 2009, pp. 37–53.

4. Cf. Kersting, 2008, pp. 19–28; see also Kaase, 2003.

5. Schmitter and Trechsel, 2004, p. 55; emphasis ours.

6. Cf. Lindner and Riehm, 2011, p. 3; Riehm, et al., 2009, p. 247.

7. Cf. Hoffmann–Riem, 2004, p. 94.

8. For details, cf. Riehm, et al., 2011a, p. 193.

9. Cf. Riehm, et al., 2011, pp. 28 f.; cf. also Lindner and Riehm, 2009.

10. Cf. Korinek, 1977, pp. 16 ff.

11. Following the survey results (cf. Riehm, et al., 2011a, pp. 216 f.), parliamentary petition bodies always accept petitions addressing res publica matters, and in most of the cases also matters of res privata, while ombudsman institutions always accept petitions of the res privata type, and in most of the cases also of the res publica type.

12. Scharpf, 1997, p. 19.

13. Teorell, 2006, p. 789.

14. Ibid.

15. Cf. Teorell, 2006, pp. 795 f.

16. Cf. Teorell, 2006, pp. 794 f. with further literature.

17. For more details of the survey see Riehm, et al., 2011a, pp. 185–258. The survey providing the basic data was conducted by Nexus in close consultation with TAB (cf. Nexus, 2010).

18. The meanings of the terms for “lower” and “upper” houses of parliament (“first” and “second” chambers) have evolved over time in Europe. In political science today, the “first chamber” (“lower house”) designates the chamber directly elected by the people in free and fair elections, whereas the “second chamber” (“upper house”) is as a rule constituted on the basis of federal, regional, hereditary or other discretionary criteria (cf. Ismayr, 2009, p. 33).

19. Out of the ten upper houses addressed, answers were received from eight petition bodies. Twenty of the 26 ombudsman institutions addressed completed the questionnaire.

20. Only 14 of the 29 parliamentary systems studied have an upper house, sometimes with major differences in composition and competencies. In 11 of these cases, both houses of parliament process petitions. In Slovenia this function is performed only by the lower house, in Poland only by the upper house and in Ireland by neither house.

21. Cf. Riehm, et al., 2011a, pp. 256 f.

22. The fact that more than nine bodies — twelve, to be precise — state that they provide information to the public on the Internet is due to the fact that communicating with the public on the Web is possible for the petition body even without having an own Web site.

23. Cf. Riehm, et al., 2011a, pp. 256 f.

24. Cf. for details, Riehm, et al., 2011a, pp. 204–206.

25. In the U.K., a member of Parliament can read out the text of a petition in plenary session, but debate on the petition is expressly not permitted (Riehm, et al., 2011a, p. 125).

26. Riehm, et al., 2009, p. 45.

27. Cf. pros and cons in Riehm, et al., 2011a, pp. 282 f.

28. Schmitter and Trechsel, 2004, p. 55; emphasis ours.

29. Cf. Riehm, et al., 2011a, p. 198.

30. Cf. Beckert, et al., 2011, p. 10.

31. Beckert, et al., 2011, p. 35.

32. van den Hoven, 2005, p. 56, 57, 58.

33. Keane, 2009, online source without pages.

34. Following Tibúrcio, a scholar of the Portuguese petition system (Tibúrcio, 2010, p. 78, p. 90f), the mere facilitation of an e–mail channel to submit petitions has considerably increased the number of petitions to the Portuguese Parliament in recent years. Considering the popularity of the German e–petitions platform, the proportion of e–petitions to the German Bundestag, rose from 17 percent in 2006 to 34 percent in 2010 (cf. Riehm, et al., 2011a, pp. 6 f.). In contrast to Portugal the overall number of petitions submitted did not increase. It seems to be particularly attractive for younger citizens to submit public e–petitions. Comparing the age of those submitting public e–petitions in 2007 and 2009, we found that while in 2007 only 33.6 percent were 39 years old or younger; in 2009 already 45.1 percent of petitioners were in this group (Ibid., p. 56). These findings are comparable to those of Schlozman, et al., 2010, for the U.S.

35. Cf. Lindner and Riehm, 2009, p. 8; see also Schlozman, et al., 2010.

36. Lindner and Riehm, 2009, p. 8.

 

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Editorial history

Received 27 August 2012; accepted 24 April 2013.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

E–petition systems and political participation: About institutional challenges and democratic opportunities
by Knud Böhle and Ulrich Riehm.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 7 - 1 July 2013
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4220/3694
doi:10.5210/fm.v18i7.4220





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