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UK Local Government Uses Web Chat to Foster Community Engagement

UK Local Government Uses Web Chat to Foster Community Engagement

The Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames set up online chat rooms to help young people engage with their local politicians as part of the UK Local Government Association's Local Democracy Week last month.

The Borough, in partnership with the Hansard Society, ran three Web chat room style "online surgeries" to allow local youth to engage in one-on-one discussions on topis ranging from local issues such as graffiti to careers and the Iraq war with local councillors, MPs and Greater London Authority representatives. Staff from the Hansard Society developed the online forums and acted as moderators, fielding questions from young people and putting them in touch with the appropriate representative.

"Online chat rooms provided an alternative space for young people to engage with their political representatives - in some cases for the first time," said Holly Robertson, e-democracy project manager at Kingston Council, quoted in Thames News. "This was an environment they were comfortable and familiar with, and they could use their own language to express themselves." Robertson said the politicians also enjoyed the informal discussions facilitated by the online surgeries and that the council plans to repeat the exercise.

The Kingston Council is becoming a champion of e-democracy. In September it launched a new online petitioning service at epetitions.kingston.gov.uk, in a move to help bring local democracy into the Borough online.

e-Petitions lets Kingston petitioners to publicise their petition online in addition to traditional methods like door-knocking for signatures, and is intended to empower people who can't access paper petitions to have their voice heard online.

To start an e-Petition, petitioners enter its details through an online form on the Council's Website. Details are checked against the petitioning guidelines, and then the e-Petition is published online to collect signatures. An e-Petition can run alongside a paper petition on the same topic, and the two combined before being submitted to the Council.

All visitors to Kingston's e-Petitions will be able to view current e-petitions and track what's happened to a closed e-Petition, or sign up to receive email updates of progress. Paper petitions submitted to Council this year are also published on the site, and include topics have included fireworks restrictions, parking and road improvements.

The service encourages principal petitioners to publish background information about their petition to help people understand the issue at hand. Online debate about each petition is also encouraged, giving people the chance to weigh up the arguments before deciding whether to support the petition or not.

Councillor Mary Reid, Kingston Council's e-Champion and Executive Member says: "e-Petitions are a way in which people can use the internet to get their voices heard. They are an important part of a range of new services in which we hope to show that the internet can bring people and local democracy closer together."

Kingston is leading this trial with the International Teledemocracy Centre at Napier University, and is one of only two British local authorities to trial the online system which was originally developed for the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

The trial is being funded through the Local e-Democracy National Project which is chaired by Mary Reid. This project that is investigating online channels to encourage citizen participation and help councils and elected representatives work more effectively.

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