Electronic petitioning and modernisation of petitioning systems in Europe


Background and central aspects of the topic

Electronic petitioning, i.e. using the internet to submit, publish, co-sign, and discuss petitions addressed to parliaments and ombudsmen, is an important element in the current modernisation of petitioning systems. They promise comfortable access to the petitioning procedure as well as more transparency and enriched political discourse. In the context of e-democracy and e-participation, electronic petitions (e-petitions) are currently high on the agenda and attract considerable attention.

In 2005, the German Parliament (Bundestag) initiated the pilot project "Public Petitions" on the internet, which was scientifically accompanied by the TAB (Office of Technology Assessment at the German Parliament) in the context of the project "Public electronic petitions and civil participation" (2006-2008). Meanwhile the pilot has become a routine service.

The task of the former TAB project was also to analyse developments in petitioning beyond the German Parliament and to conduct case studies on e-petitioning abroad. The results of the project have been published: Riehm, U.; Coenen, Chr.; Lindner, R.; Blümel, C.: Bürgerbeteiligung durch E-Petitionen. Analysen von Kontinuität und Wandel im Petitionswesen. Berlin: edition sigma 2009,

Initiated by the Petitioning Committee and according to a resolution of the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment of the German Parliament a follow-up technology assessment project was set up entitled "Electronic Petitioning and Modernisation of Petitioning Systems in Europe". It continues the former project's investigation of petitioning systems and adds a new focus. Basic assumptions and key issues of this study are:

  • Technical modernisation of the petitioning system through the use of the internet correlates closely with institutional changes and transformations in petitioning procedures. Scrutinising this correlation is one of the central issues of the new project. The use of the internet for enhanced publicity and transparency of the petitioning procedure and thus increased political participation play a significant role.
  • The increasing differentiation of the petitioning system finds expression in new procedures (e.g. traditional and public petitions at the German Parliament), new institutions (e.g. authorised representatives, ombudsmen, arbitration offices, private petitioning platforms) and a more diverse media use (e.g. television, telephone, internet). One assumption is that this differentiation leads not only to more opportunities for citizens to submit petitions but also to stronger competition between petitioning and ombuds institutions. The way parliamentary petitioning agencies in Europe react to this increased differentiation and competition is an additional central research issue of the project.
  • In the context of debates on e-democracy and e-parliament, petitioning systems seem to be an appropriate field for use of the internet to promote and facilitate political participation. This is particularly true as there are strict rules in the petitioning system for handling citizens' petitions: the system is well adapted to the procedures of representative democracy, and, in contrast to other e-participation activities, it is characterised by a high degree of obligation.

As the results of several years of experience with e-petitioning at the German Parliament and in other countries are now available, it is possible to investigate empirically the effects of e-petitioning systems in many respects.  Has the use of the internet made petitioning accessible for new groups of the population? Did the number of petitions in general increase and has mobilisation for collective petitions been facilitated? From the point of view of petitioners or the petitions committee, does transparency of the petitioning procedure change the efficacy of petitions? How do the reforms in petitioning fit into broader trends of political and institutional change?

Objectives and approach

It is anticipated that the study will focus on the following issues:

1. Follow-up study on public petitions at the German Parliament

Basically, the aim here is to clarify whether the introduction of a new software system and the routinisation and improvement of procedures will confirm or contradict the results of the investigations carried out in 2007/2008 in the context of the pilot project "Public Petitions". Among the important issues to be analysed are:

  • the performance, user friendliness, and accessibility of the software system;
  • changes in work organisation of and work load for the administration of the German parliament as a result of public petitions;
  • the quality of discourse and the usability of online forums as well as the possibilities to effectively integrate results of the online discussions into the petition procedure.
  • social background of petitioners, their habits regarding media use and their social commitment;
  • the general development of the usage of the e-petitioning system.

2. Concept of a platform for citizens' complaints

The TAB's investigations showed an increasing level of differentiation of petitioning and ombudsman systems. In the course of these developments, the German Parliament is beginning to compete with other petitioning agencies, while citizens are finding it increasingly difficult to choose the petitioning agency that is best suited to their need. In order to strengthen the position of the German Parliament as a central petitioning authority, to relieve it from the load of petitions for which it is not the proper addressee and to better support citizens to choose the most appropriate petitioning agency, the TAB proposed a discussion of whether a central platform should be set up for citizens' complaints, which could be located at the German Parliament. The task of this platform would be to advise and provide orientation to citizens in choosing a suitable petitioning agency. Such a platform will rely on the internet as well as other information and communication media. The need for such a petitioning platform will be explored, experience with similar platforms will be evaluated and an initial assessment of the feasibility will be undertaken.

3. Review of e-petition systems and other trends to modernise petitioning in European Parliaments

Currently there is no systematic and up-to-date overview available of the current status and developments of parliamentary petitioning agencies in the member states of the European Union. In addition, there is no overview of planned or already implemented procedures for e-petitions. When performing such a stocktaking activity, particular interest will be directed towards institutional embedding, different procedures (e.g. with regard to public access and transparency), the use of parliamentary petitioning agencies, differences between traditional and electronic procedures, and the evaluation of past experiences with electronic petitions. Of interest are also further measures to facilitate access to and increase knowledge about petitioning (for instance using a multichannel strategy or different PR strategies).

4. Case study of current developments in petitioning in the United Kingdom

The petitioning system at the Scottish Parliament, which relies strongly on transparency in the public sphere and uses a comprehensive internet-based approach, is one of the global pioneers in the field of electronic petitioning. In the United Kingdom, it triggered discussions and activities to reform petitioning and to introduce e-petitioning systems at Downing Street No. 10 and at Westminster, further in Wales and Northern Ireland and at the local level. A case study of the United Kingdom is particularly interesting due to the different institutional settings at the various levels of government and the diversity of parliamentary concepts that exist across these levels, the competition between the executive and legislative branches of government and the extensive activities in the area of e-participation.


In the Bundestag

Further publications on the topic

Online-Bürgerbeteiligung an der Parlamentsarbeit. Stakeholder Panel TA
Oertel, B.; Kahlisch, C.; Evers-Wölk, M.; Henseling, C.; Nolte, R.; Odenbach, J.; Sonk, M.
2018. Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB). doi:10.5445/IR/1000133425Full textFull text of the publication as PDF document
Online-Bürgerbeteiligung und parlamentarische Arbeitsweisen. Erfahrungen aus der Arbeit des Deutschen Bundestages
Oertel, B.; Kahlisch, C.; Albrecht, S.
2018. Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB) 
Online-Bürgerbeteiligung an der Parlamentsarbeit. Endbericht zum TA-Projekt
Oertel, B.; Kahlisch, C.; Albrecht, S.; Odenbach, J.
2017. Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB). doi:10.5445/IR/1000103101Full textFull text of the publication as PDF document
Online citizen participation in parliamentary work. TAB-Fokus
Oertel, B.; Kahlisch, C.; Albrecht, S.
2017, March. Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB) Full textFull text of the publication as PDF document
Online-Bürgerbeteiligung an der Parlamentsarbeit. TAB-Fokus
Oertel, B.; Kahlisch, C.; Albrecht, S.
2017, March. Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB) Full textFull text of the publication as PDF document
Electronic petitioning and modernization of petitioning systems in Europe
Riehm, U.; Böhle, K.; Lindner, R.
2014. Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag (TAB) Full textFull text of the publication as PDF document