This latest form of democratic engagement was enabled by the Government’s new e-petitions website which went live 2 weeks ago. This democratic innovation allows any member of the public to create a new petition or support an existing petition for debate in the House of Commons. The site has enabled the public to call for debate on important social and economic issues ranging from petrol prices to capital punishment to an EU referendum.
It’s not the first time this government has pro-actively sought the views and opinions of the general public. The coalition has, arguably, gone further than any other government in its attempts to engage people with consultation exercises including the Spending Challenge and the Red Tape Challenge.
But the recent riots provided an opportunity to see whether the new technology could hold up to an unprecedented level of activity. At peak, the site attracted over 12,000 hits per minute. Mark O’Neill, Head of HM Government’s Skunkworks, helps to put this figure into context, by explaining that it is the same number of visits that would be expected from the entire Directgov. The e-petitions site has had over 2 million visitors since launch, over 12 million page views, 12,000 petitions raised, and 700,000 signatures collected. The first petition hit 100,000 signatures in 5 days.
As impressive as these stats are, the hidden story is how a new method of ICT development called ‘agile’ is being exploited in government. At its most basic level, agile techniques are about projects becoming much more flexible, innovative and responsive to change. Development is modular and iterative, based on user involvement and feedback. In our recent report System Error, we outlined how an agile approach can be used to improve the way government uses ICT. By using an agile approach, the Government commissioned the e-petitions project for around £60k and it was completed in 6 weeks.
For too long, government ICT projects have over promised and under delivered. By adopting a more flexible and agile approach, government can exploit the opportunities technology has to offer. The e-petitions site is just a small example of this new way of working in action.
The Government ICT strategy, published earlier this year, committed every government department to trialing at least one agile project over the next 12 months. These are all likely to be small scale, along the lines of the e-petition project (although as this example shows small scale doesn't necessarily mean small impact).
The real challenge for government will be whether they can apply the same approach to some of the really big ICT challenges such as Universal Credit where billions rather than millions of pounds are on the line.