In the spring of 1999 a survey was made of around 300 U.K. local government websites (.gov.uk) to find examples of public participation online. The survey looked at the broad themes of environment, planning, governance, and community, with Local Agenda 21 being one of the key areas for exploration. Content, in terms of the amount of information online, was found to vary greatly, and methods of communication ranged from a local authority’s switchboard number on its homepage to online chatrooms and bulletin boards.
To “classify” the participatory nature of the websites, these two features of communication and content were analyzed using Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation . This frequently cited model provides an initial means to contrast instances where the public have a limited say (toward the bottom “rungs” of the ladder) to those occasions where they are given full control, toward the top. The “most” participatory examples in this government-driven/“top-down” setting were placed in the middle rungs of “consultation” and “partnership,” accounting for 13% of those websites surveyed, but with examples from all levels of local government in Great Britain. Below this was a group of websites that provided information (29%), but whose content was limited, or where no evidence of active participatory activities could be found. Equally common were websites that tried to replicate the organizational structure of the authority (28%), typified by “a-z of services” that frequently acted as online telephone directories of service departments or officers. Less participatory still were those websites that appeared to advertise their areas for economic development or tourism purposes (16%). Often graphically intensive, these would have been rated as “good” websites in other surveys, but they did not provide information for a potential participant to become involved. The last two categories included those with very limited content (6%) and those that could not be accessed after several attempts (8%), potentially offering the greatest barrier to digital participation.
To understand the forms of participation taking place in the leading examples, it was important to look behind the “digital fa§ades” of the websites (and associated methods) and to explore the social context of the technology, through interviews with officers in several authorities. Three leading cases were then chosen for indepth case-study analysis that, importantly, included interviews with citizens who had participated online.
The first case occurred at a local policy level through Rushcliffe Borough Council’s interim local plan consultation exercise, where residents were asked to respond to a housing allocation from Nottinghamshire County Council and central government. A leaflet was sent to every household, a dedicated website and an email address were established, and public meetings were held throughout the area. The exercise generated a great deal of public interest compared to previous activities, and there were just fewer than forty e-mails sent as formal responses. Interest also led to residents groups generating a number of petitions and a “standard letter” that residents were asked to add comments to, sign, and send to the authority.