Downing Street has had the courage to test an innovative application of e-democracy, called ‘e-petitions’. Launched in November 2006 as a test site, it has become a media event not only due to its use, which has been exceptionally high for any governmental site, but also for its specific use to protest a proposal to implement a congestion charge, similar to that used in London, across many other areas of Britain. Close to 1.8 million individuals have signed an e-petition in opposition to this congestion charge. The Minister of Transportation has responded well in arguing that this expression of opinion will lead to a more informed debate.
e-Petitions is currently in a public “beta test”. See: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/
This experiment has generated much handwringing over point-and-click plebiscitary democracy and critics are quick to point out the odd proposal, such as one petition calling for pet shops to be allowed to sell elephants. But legislatures and parliaments make silly proposals as well, and this experiment has real promise. It provides the public a means for expressing their opinions in a way that can be generated bottom-up and aggregated. It is not a referendum. It provides instant impact for citizens, who can see their expression reflected in the tallies. It has already helped shape public policy agenda in the UK.
Congratulations to Downing Street and mysociety generating this debate.