Has e-petitioning been ‘useless’?

I think I’ll use my first blog post of 2011 (Happy New Year by the way) for a quick refresher on (e)petitioning.

One of my favourite quotes on the subject of e-petitions is from a letter to the Telegraph of 27 May 2009:

“Can anyone name an e-petition to the Prime Minister that has achieved its aims? Each time I have signed one, I have later received an email telling me why the PM cannot agree.”

And recently, in an interview on Radio 4, Paul Flynn MP branded e-petitions as ‘useless’ – you can read more on his attacks on e-petitions on his blog here and here.

I disagree with this generalisation, as would be expected given that the area I work in is systems for formal, parliament (or local government) run petitions. In fact,  I think petitions’ position can be quite positive (try saying that after a few beers).

Note that I am not saying they are a panacea: they work if they provide a new route for input into the political process; they are dangerous if it is either assumed that:

  • a petition will automatically lead to administrative action or policy changes – allowing for hijacking by small groups of activists
  • or conversely to the sort of situation captured by the letter to the Telegraph where governments  ignore anything they weren’t going to do anyway –  and the charge of ‘vacuous populism’ would certainly hold true.

But, if integrated correctly into the existing political processes, petitions can provide one useful route for citizens to alert their elected representatives of issues or opportunities – as individuals or through civic organisations. I would argue that this works best when the Parliament (or equivalent) owns the petition process and uses it as part of its role for holding the executive to account, and for setting the general political agenda.

Petitioning the old fashioned British way

I’ve not yet looked at the UK Government’s proposals in any detail so I can’t comment on them, though there is an overlap with UK MPs’ traditional (and ever-increasing) constituency casework and the discussion on how many MPs there should be in the House of Commons, and this may be part of the background to the debate in Westminster.

I think that the distinction between ‘petitions’ and ‘e-petitions’ is becoming less useful – the trend is towards a multi-channel approach (eg mixing paper, browser and mobile phone based routes to signing a petition). At the same time, the administration of most system is becoming automated, so at the back end the distinction is also disappearing.

Anyway, to get to the point, here are three examples where politicians don’t think petitions are ‘useless’ (I’ve referred to most of these before):

  1. The Scottish Parliament’s established a petition committee right from the beginning. 2009 marked their 10th anniversary, and they chose to publish a report on their achievements which also looked at how e-petitioning could evolve in the light of their experiences. There’s also a blog post on the associated debate too which you might want to have a look at. Generally the process is perceived as empowering by the individuals involved. Chris Carman’s 2010 paper [*] gives a nice academic review of the subject.
  2. Petitioning has a strong presence in Germany (It was one of the inspirations for the Scottish parliament’s own system).  The Bundestag has its own petitioning process, supporting a mix of private and public petitions. The results of a review of their trials of e-petitioning can be access through an English language conference paper [**] or the original report (German)
  3. The European Parliament also has a petitions committee – its scope is restricted to a few specific areas, but it does act to ensure that EU law is being applied consistently, and to raise issues with the Commission and national governments as necessary.  Their 2009 report is available for download and I’ll post some notes on it shortly. To be fair, the electronic submission of petitions to the EP is currently limited.

One of the aspects of all these petitioning processes that make them so simple is the low verification threshold on signatures since absolute numbers are not significant  – which makes it easier to gather signatures. As soon as thresholds are added, the there is need to improve the verification process since there is an incentive to try gaming the system, faking signature etc. A balance then needs to be struck between tight verification and ease of signing – this applies whether we’re talking about paper or electronic signature gathering.

The bottom line is that unless there is a process to ensure due deliberation of the petitioned matters, the petitions will be ‘useless’ – whether they are slung in a sack behind the speaker’s chair or dismissed by ministers because they don’t fit with the government’s current agenda. I believe petitions work best when there is structured involvement from the elected representatives and the issues of participation and exclusion arise online as offline in petitioning as much as any other political process. I’ve blogged about this before (eg here)  and drawn a nice diagram of how the process should work too.


[*] Carman, C. (2010). The Process is the Reality: Perceptions of Procedural Fairness and Participatory Democracy. Political Studies, 58(4), 731-751. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.2010.00840.x

[**] Broadening participation through E-Petitions? Results from an empirical study on petitions to the German parliament. Presented at the international conference “Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment”, Oxford, England, 16.-17.09.2010 http://www.itas.fzk.de/deu/lit/2010/liri10a.pdf

About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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5 Responses to Has e-petitioning been ‘useless’?

  1. Ella says:

    Hi Peter

    the UK Gov’s recommendation that petitions are sponsored by MPs could be a surviving outcome of 2007 -2008 House of Commons Procedure Committee inquiry into e-petitions….
    It would be nice to think so, as it was something ITC recommended http://itc.napier.ac.uk/ITC/NewsItem.asp?ID=35

  2. Thanks for the reminder Ella! Anything to increase MPs’ and Parliament’s ownership of the process has to be an improvement in my mind. Though of course it needs MPs who are willing to take on national and/or minority issues on top of the constituency work…

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  4. Fraser says:

    Nice summary – and, of course, I agree with this position. The question ‘has ePetitioning been useless for No.10’ is a different beast. The lunacy of the (now dormant) system was that there was no right to a response. However, the petitions lodged, to a satisfactory conclusion or not, are in the public domain as references to issues in question for all time.

    If you ask me the petition as an instrument has been tarnished with the wrong colour brush and the current administration doesn’t like that. Ironic really as the two pioneering councils in the UK were both Yellow.

    My bet is that the new national system will be better in terms of getting a response from the various departmnets but will distance itself from the word ‘petition’ and instead use some sort of hybrid lingo.

    Erm, eCallToActionater?

  5. Panos Panagiotopoulos says:

    Very interesting article Peter and thanks a lot for pointing the Carman 2010 paper!

    The institutional fit of ePetitioning tools seems to be in any case the core of the problem. At the national level, this instititutional fit looks like a real challenge.

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