What the government got wrong with the new epetition system, and how they can fix it

Today the UK government launched an online e-petition system. You can sign up, create an online petition and if you get 100,000 signatures your campaign could get a debate in parliament.

How epetitions work (from government site)
How epetitions work (from government site)

There are a few provisos: the petition has to be approved (by the relevant department) and the petition can’t relate to appointments – presumably to avoid things like the ‘sack Gordon Brown’ petition which gained lots of names during the last government’s attempts at digital democracy. There are also a few rules about joke petitions, and the slightly catch all “the issue is not the responsibility of the government”.

As someone who does a lot of online campaigning, and has an interest in hacking together ideas for running online petitions, this is potentially really exciting.

But, there are a couple of issues:

  1. It’s a closed system.This is a massive issue. Charities and other organisations rely on online activism to recruit new members to their lists and encourage them to take a more active role in their campaigns (and yes, to fundraise from – but fundraising is activism too – see how the Obama campaign publicised it’s large number of donations as committed support).

    Take for instance a hypothetical example: a small campaigning organisation launches a campaign for the UK government to do something about a UK company supporting a dictator. The petition captures the public imagination, hundreds of thousands of people sign the petition. It has it’s day in parliament, but then the campaign moves out of the public eye. The small campaigning organisation can’t contact the petition signers to ask for help in moving the campaign forward.

     

    One of the big criticisms of online campaigning is that it’s low value ‘clicktavism‘, but if you have no way of capturing the details of the people who sign your petition, how can you get in touch with them and encourage them to be more involved, have tea with their MP and do some high-effort campaigning? Online petitions are often seen as the first step in engaging people with issues, and getting them more interested in politics.

    This leads me to think that a lot of campaigning organisations will ignore the system, and instead it will be used by the likes of the Sun to run campaigns like ‘Lets have the Red Arrows at the Olympics’.

    Worse still, it seems that newspapers like the Daily Mail are intent on using the petition system to launch campaigns like bringing back the death penalty. Given the current structure of the e-petition system it actually favours tabloid campaigns, since they have high circulations and don’t have to think about engaging in long term campaign work.

  2. It doesn’t tackle the big issue of how MPs respond to online campaigning.There is a massive variance in how MPs respond to being lobbied online. Some ignore email completely, others respond just to individual emails, and a few more respond to identical emails in the same way they would to letters. Recently a number of MPs have been very vocal in their opposition to online email petitions.

    Personally I believe that as our elected representatives, MPs have a duty to respond to their constituents, but at the same time appreciate that trawling through a lot of emails that are all the same might tax the resources of the average constituency office, and cause the kind of annoyance that can alienate MPs from otherwise worthy campaigns.

A proper online petition system would enable campaigners to do the things they need to do to work effectively, and at the same time give the politicians reasonable ways to gauge opinion and thus hopefully respond.

So how could it be done better?

  • Involve civil society: Involving the people who write the software that campaigning organisations use would be a good start. The e-petition system was written by a civil servant department bizarrely named ‘Skunkworks’ for £82,000.
  • Build out the e-petition system as an API – an ‘API’ allows other pieces of software to access a system – twitter uses this very effectively to allow all the tools like tweetdeck and hootsuite to send tweets. Organisations could feature the petitions on their websites and recruit activists to their own email and supporter databases at the same time.
  • Create a set of guidelines / protocols for lobbying MPs, ministers and departments and for people wanting to lobby them:

    It could be as simple as specifying something in the subject line of an email e.g. PETITION_mycampaigntitle for identical emails, and
    PERSONALQUERY_mycampaigntitle for individually-written emails. Or perhaps sending an MP a daily / weekly email informing them the number of constituents who have signed a particular petition, and inviting them to respond  (essentially taking over the task of managing the petition).

    This is a two way process: for it to work politicians would have to agree to respond if the ‘rules of engagement’ are met, and online campaigners would need to respect the rules.

  • Give campaign targets a platform to reply on – if it would encourage reluctant MPs to engage with online campaigning it would be worth offering the opportunity to put their views across.

In today’s modern world we carry out more and more of our daily activities online, banking, paying bills, buying insurance, shopping etc. It seems that providing the option to engage properly with politicians on the web is long overdue.

Thoughts? disagree with me completely? leave comments below!

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