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e-Petitions: the good and the bad

Mark Say Published 01 February 2011

e-Petitions: the good and the bad

Efforts to get the best out of e-petitions depend more on the broader processes than the technology, writes Mark Say

Between Christmas and New Year is usually a dead week for politics; but this time around the government kicked off a potentially radical plan to give electronic petitions a stronger role in the political process.

It announced that the most popular e-petition on the central system which will be moved from the 10 Downing Street website to Directgov will provide the foundations of a parliamentary bill, and that any receiving 100,000 signatures or more will be debated in Parliament.

It is also going to look at how they can be converted on to Facebook and other social networking sites, so petitioners can keep in touch with one another as they campaign for a particular issue to be taken up either by ministers or backbenchers.

Online petitions have been a fixture of government for a number of years: the Scottish Parliament began to use them in 2000 and Bristol City Council and RB Kingston upon Thames pioneered their use as one of the e-government National Projects for local government in 2004. The government's announcement will renew the enthusiasm of activists for the medium, but it also raises questions about how it is used, and the limits of responding to an apparent public clamour for a specific course of action.

Dr Andy Williamson, director of digital democracy at the Hansard Society, says it is an improvement over the use of paper petitions. The latter tend to be very populist or very localised, while an online petition can bring together a widely dispersed community with a shared concern. Also, it is the measure most likely to encourage people to play some part in the democratic process, albeit in a lightweight manner.

"But whether it is effective depends less on the petition and more on the process behind it," he says. "The existing system on the number 10 site is a good example of bad practice, not because of the site itself, but because of the lack of process behind it. It has no formal relationship with the rest of the governmental process."

With this in mind, he provides a cautious welcome for the government's new plan, but also expresses reservations. He would prefer the system to sit on Parliament's website, as with the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly versions (both of which he says have produced good results), although he says it is not for the government to impose a system on the House. He also asks whether the triggering of parliamentary debates will be influenced by the quantity of signatories or the quality of the petition.

"Will they put in the work behind the scenes or only at the front end?" he asks. "It will only work if they are prepared to put in the work behind the scenes."

The Cabinet Office is currently providing no details of how the system will work, saying only that more will be announced as part of its departmental business plan by November of this year.

The question of quality is difficult, but is relevant to any other organisation with an e-petition function as it influences how they should react. As an example of poor quality Williamson cites the call on the 10 Downing Street site that TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson should be made prime minister a flippant demand that won 50,000 supporters.

A much more impressive example was a petition on the Welsh Assembly site calling for changes to a local road network. It was signed by relatively few people, but prompted Assembly members to ask the relevant local authority to look at the issue again. Another petition calling for the reopening of a railway station prompted the Welsh Assembly Government to consider the wider issue of the average costs of doing so.

These also provided lessons on how it should fit into the democratic process. "It's absolutely key to make it clear to the people who initiated and signed the petition what has been done in response," he says. "There has to be a transparent process as to what occurred and why. When it just appears to go into a black hole you start to have doubts about the process."

Williamson also emphasises the need to provide solid guidance on how to ensure a petition will be taken seriously, suggesting that an official of the organisation could advise on the wording. This could prompt claims that an authority is trying to control the debate, and there is a need for a balance between providing guidance and becoming over-prescriptive.

"The key is the need for management layers to protect the veracity and quality of the petitioning process, otherwise it lacks credibility. But it can't be stifling," he says.

While local authorities now have a legal obligation to provide an e-petition facility, he says the record on making it effective is mixed. Others have apparently put in little effort and the petitions have had hardly any impact, but Bristol and Kingston have followed up their pioneer work in providing examples of good practice.

Ann Sweeney, democratic support manager at Kingston, says that in recent years the council's service has attracted an average of one e-petition a month, although over the past year there have been 19. The council still receives more paper petitions, although the electronic versions are taken just as seriously.

The concerns about flippancy or inappropriate demands have not been much of an issue, and while Kingston does not provide any guidance with the wording nearly all of the petitions have been reasonably clear. She attributes this to the fact that most people who make the effort to start one will have thought carefully about the issue and what they want to achieve.

Most have focused on specific local issues, primarily to do with traffic management, while some have covered matters that are not the authority's responsibility: recent examples have been over fares on public transport and tuition fees. But the council does not remove these and passes on the results to the relevant organisations, letting people know what action it has taken. It posts the news on its website and emails any signatories who have been asked to be kept informed.

There may also be occasions on which there is a statutory block on using a petition.

"We've got a fairly clear process on how the different petitions are dealt with," she says. "For example, we get plenty on alcohol licensing, but the statutory process does not allow us to use them in the process. If people insist we will take the petition, but it will not change the way the licensing committee looks at an application."

The number of signatories influences the council's response. If there are less than 50 it will still get the head of the relevant service to respond to the petitioners, although if it is a particularly difficult or sensitive issue it will sometimes take it to the relevant committee.

If there are 50 or more it will go to the executive portfolio holder on the council, and to ward councillors and neighbourhood committees that may have an interest. If there are more than 500 it will go to the full council for debate a level which Sweeney says is lower than for most London boroughs.
She adds that the system has become embedded within the way Kingston carries out its business.

"It's another way through which people can feel they are having say in the way that things are happening," she says. "It makes it possible to show that lots of people agree with a position, rather than someone claiming that they do.

"The only big change we've made over the years is that when we first ran it there was a message board, but we took it off because it needed a lot of moderation. There were some inappropriate comments appearing."

It is notable in the light of Andy Williamson's comment that Bristol, which he cites as another example of best practice, has done some things differently. Its head of digital, Stephen Hilton, says it has not had a formal mechanism for responding to petitions based on the number of signatories, although there has been an expectation that if the number gets to about 500 the issue will be referred to full cabinet or a council meeting.

The government's Localism Bill has now prompted a plan to formalise how the numbers should influence the process.

The council does provide guidance to petitioners through its consultation and participation team before the petition appears on the website. "It's quite useful for the council to have a conversation with the petitioner early on," Hilton says. "Making sure that the way it's worded is right and whether the council is the appropriate body is quite important."

He says that e-petitions have come to be recognised as an established element of how Bristol does its business.

"When we set it up we didn't quite know what to expect. At one end we were worried that we would be overwhelmed with responses, at the other that maybe no-one would bother with it."

As it turned out, elected members of the council gave it some early momentum, especially those in backbench positions who used the system to raise the profile of certain issues. It caught on in the local community, and usage has increased steadily so that the council now receives 60-80 petitions annually.

Hilton says there were difficulties early on in eliciting responses from the council, but over the years officials and councillors have accepted it as a valid route for people to raise issues, and details of responses are now published on its website.

He says there is roughly a two-to-one split between petitions that are reactive to a council decision and proactive in trying to place an issue on its agenda. While it is difficult to put a figure on it, a significant proportion have led to the council taking action. The most high profile example has been in amending its policy on graffiti to preserve work by the internationally renowned street artist Banksy.

He adds that the average number of signatories is growing: more than 10,000 people supported the call to protect Banksy's work, and a petition on controversial plans for a football stadium in the city has pulled in about 30,000 signatures.

The adoption of e-petitions has been quite widespread, but the points raised by Williamson suggest that government as a whole is not yet getting the best from the medium. The recently published Localism Bill will place the pressure on local authorities in England to think about how they can give it a more effective role in their decision making. In most cases there's probably little need for further work on the technology, but more for serious thinking on the process issues.

The Holyrood experience

A legislature rather than an executive is the most appropriate home for a petitions service, according to one of the most prominent researchers in the field.

Peter Cruickshank, research fellow with the Edinburgh based International Teledemocracy Centre (ITC), says the experience of the Scottish Parliament points towards the importance of keeping of keeping it anchored in a democratic forum. The ITC supported the Parliament in setting up its e-petitions service in 2000, and Cruickshank talks of lessons that reflect Andy Williamson's emphasis on quality.

Among these is that, while the Petitions Committee does not regard the number of signatories as decisive, it is more likely to react if the petition covers an issue within the Parliament's remit and it is effectively worded.

"Generally there's an informal dialogue between the clerk of the petitions committee and the person submitting the petition, so it is worded in a way to make it meaningful," he says. "The clerk can't block a petition, but he helps to make it relevant. This is a way of making sure that you don't wind up with trivial petitions."

This approach reflects concerns that, if there was an emphasis on numbers, it would encourage people to create false signatories. The petitions are scanned to see if there are signs of recurring names or IP addresses, and if anything looks questionable there has to be a judgement on whether the numbers should be taken as an accurate indication of support.

Cruickshank says it is broadly the same type of people from the affluent middle class setting up e-petitions as those who are likely to raise the paper versions.

"Online petitions are now seen as a way of channelling people's feelings on issues into the democratic arena," he says. "They get out over a larger distance and help people reach a new audience, but it has to be replicated by work on the ground."

Fergus Cochrane, clerk to the Petitions Committee in the Scottish Parliament, says they now account for the majority of those it receives, and in recent years the number has averaged about 130 annually. Very few have been inappropriate, largely because of the conversation with the clerk prior to posting, and the system has earned a reputation for being a serious part of the democratic process.

"The conversations before posting are an important element of the system," he says. "Often we get people emailing a draft of a petition then work with them, making suggestions on the wording, or providing relevant information, or possibly pointing out that the Scottish Government is already consulting on the issue.

"This has done a lot to ensure it is taken seriously. We want to ensure that we end up with a well presented and balanced petition. When it goes to the committee we want it taken seriously, and it must be clear what the petitioner wants.

"The issues that people bring forward tend to be fairly important. We don't get thousands of petitions like on the 10 Downing Street site, but they have more legitimacy in the Scottish Parliament."

He contrasts it with the Downing Street system in that the committee guarantees it will examine each submission, and if it thinks it necessary it can call Scottish ministers, MSPs and officials to provide evidence at its hearings. In addition, its hearings are open to the public and are webcast live.

Over the years there have been some small changes in the process, the most notable being that members of the Scottish Parliament have been prevented from starting e-petitions a move designed to emphasise that it is a route for the public to influence debate.

There has also been a trend towards smaller organisations, such as charities or community groups, starting e-petitions. Cochrane is happy that this has worked well and there has been no evidence of any large groups trying to hijack the process and exaggerate their level of support.

He says it is difficult to put a figure on how many of the petitions have led to action, particularly as the committee could have a different view to the petitioner on whether the outcome has been successful. But some have led to changes in legislation or Scottish government policy, affecting areas such as healthcare and education.

He adds that there are also less tangible measures of success. "It is still achieving something even if it is only raising awareness of an issue," he says.

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