Say "e-petitions" and most people think of Number10.gov.uk, where petitions range from the popular "rethink plans to scrap [...] childcare vouchers" – nearly 94,000 votes) to the obscure ("introduce a £15 note to UK currency" – one vote so far).
Yet, with nearly 5,000 petitions currently open on the site, only a few are likely to eventually be debated in Parliament.
It's therefore unsurprising that e-petitions haven't proved to be a runaway success. But the local democracy economic development and construction bill may change things.
Local authorities need to start considering the options now and put in place an online solution to respond to views of residents and local businesses, ahead of the bill's December 2010 deadline.
Add to this David Cameron's commitment to allow members of the public who secure a million e-signatures to introduce a bill and sanction a debate on any petition that secures 100,000 signatures, and it becomes a more urgent proposition.
Cost of public consultations
It's tempting to view e-petitions as yet another central government box-ticking exercise, but the wider potential benefits of implementing an e-petitions solution are impressive. After all, the cost of a public consultation can be up to £90,000; gathering opinion and responding to petitions online could cut this cost dramatically. It will help many local authorities to think of their residents as customers and put processes in place to encourage debate. Having online petitions at a local level will be vital for local authorities to gain support and trust, as well as better insight into public opinion.
However, if an e-petitions facility is to be a success, it needs to made accessible to all. Few local governments currently offer the kind of website that their customers want. Local governments continue to work silo fashion, with different services run by completely separate departments. Their websites tend to be process-specific, so citizens have to log onto different areas to check council tax, bin collections or planning applications.
What is required is a one-stop-shop so that each individual can treat their local authority website as a single window through which to access all services relevant to them. That remains a work-in-progress for many councils, but some are making headway and the ones making that progress stand to gain the most from e-petitions.
Choosing the right technology will also be crucial in making e-petitions a success. It must be easy to use to encourage residents and local businesses people to debate issues and interact with the council. Cloud-based solutions should create economies of scale to reduce set-up costs, and allow systems to be easily scaled up in line with demand, in a secure and stable environment.
If rolled out correctly, an e-petitions system could help create more community engagement and literally bring power to the people at a more granular level than ever before.
But in order for it to work, it needs to be done with the bigger picture in mind and not just seen as another tick in the online box. Providing that single window into the world of local government, through which citizens can debate and interact on local issues as well as access services, will be a key factor in the future take-up of online services.
Brett Husbands is chief executive at Firmstep