Parliamentary online petitions

So, online petitions for Parliament?

In an attempt to reduce what is seen as a disconnection between the public and parliament, ministers will ensure that the most popular petition on the government website Direct.gov.uk will be drafted as a bill. It is also planning to guarantee that petitions which reach a fixed level of support – most likely 100,000 signatures – will be guaranteed a Commons debate.

I haven’t read much online that is particularly in favour of this idea. I suspect it’s one that can be filed in the ‘doing the wrong things righter’ cupboard.

Glen Newey on the LRB blog is particularly scathing:

Now the coalition plans to outsource law-making as well. On Tuesday it signalled that it meant to bring in ‘X Factor-style’ online petitioning for new laws. This latest wheeze hails from the same stable of Mutt and Jeff populism as John Major’s cones hotline and Tony Blair’s ‘Big Conversation’. The Gould-era Blair government was hexed by the popularity of Big Brother and saw political dividends in pretending to smile on government by mouse-click. So, after the focus-pocus of the early years, in 2006 Blair launched interactive petitioning on the Number Ten website. Not much happened, apart from a little ministerial consternation when petitioners gave Douglas Alexander’s road-toll scheme a mass thumbs-down. But in general the demos itself seems to doubt whether it needs more chances to vote. John Prescott’s proposal for a North East regional assembly in 2004 drew an impressive 78 per cent ‘No’ vote.

This time, 100,000 online signatures will win a debate on the floor of the House. A new era of democracy beckons: you name it, we’ll go through the motions of considering it. Safeguards will be installed to stop the virtual parthenogenesis that, for example, allowed Christian zealots to inflate their numbers when browbeating the BBC over its screening of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Petitioners won’t be able to clone themselves, impersonate the dead, or give the dog a vote. But this won’t be enough to insulate the process from fruitcakes and jokers in the population at large, let alone in the blogosphere. Adherents of the Jewish religion registered by the 2001 UK census were easily outnumbered by some 390,000 self-confessed Jedis, a figure bloated by online gerrymandering. Hartlepudlians repeatedly elected H’Angus the monkey as mayor after he had committed an act of indecency with a blow-up doll in Blackpool.

Paul Clarke covers some of the issues around identity with his customary élan.

I’ve noticed that a few councils are now starting to go live with their own online petitioning systems, including my local council, South Holland District, with what looks like the MySociety system.

Not sure if any readers have experience of either using or administering such a system, and are keen to share them?

I spent many an unhappy hour moderating petitions on the Number 10 system, which was a generally very depressing experience, with the petitions submitted bearing a very direct correlation with the headline in the dailies Mail or Express that morning.

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Comments

  1. says

    I like the ‘doing the wrong things righter’ description, that seems like a good way of putting it. ePetitions are a pretty limited form of participation, and it is difficult to see much by way of actual change coming out of the parliamentary mechanisms outlined in the Guardian article.

    The paradox of focusing on big petitions is, I guess, that you’d like to think that if an issue can generate 100,000 signatures hopefully Parliament should already be aware of it without the need for the petition in the first place! Still, I guess we know that isn’t always the case.

    But maybe the possibilities for the system lie in shifting it along the scale from participation to engagement. I was pondering on my blog last night what that might mean.

    Imagine a petition signed by say 10,000 people about school sports. Not big enough to merit a Commons debate and potentially at risk of sinking without trace. But what if the petitions site allowed signatories to opt into a forum where they could discuss the campaign and perhaps get emails about the latest posts. As they all share an interest in supporting school sports then those who already do so could provide others with information about how to get involved themselves.

    When you have users coming to your site with the express purpose of telling you what they are interested in, and helpfully grouping themselves, it would be a shame not to make a bit more use of all that self-selection, and maybe do a bit of Big Society promotion into the bargain.

    I agree that might be a bit less likely with the typical Daily Mail-inspired headline though!