We had the second meeting of the UK ePetitioning cluster for the Europetition project this week – and who can fail to have enjoyed a meeting with a group of people who are prepared to work the word lustre into an EU project meeting??
The aim with the cluster is to get a group of Council’s using petitioning at a local level and to share best practice and ideas throughout the cluster. We can then work together to try and encourage petitions which may have relevance in the other EU countries which are part of the project. As the cluster sites are all fairly different we should gain some wider experience of the best ways of getting the petitioning process set up and of adding an ‘e’ element to existing processes. To help with this we are trying to define a project methodology (as we have with other projects) which can be used for other new sites – as with the Citizenscape work this will not just look at the technology aspects of the project but also at the internal process, marketing and democratic implications. We hope to get some early research findings published on this so that we can see how that methodology is shaping up. And finally – we’ll then try and use the experience we are getting here in the UK to help the other clusters in the project also get up and running.
But why petitioning?
Obviously the heart of this project is the petitioning process. I am fairly fascinated by petitioning (sorry – I can’t help it) for a number of reasons:
- Its just so simple! “Sign here if you agree with this statement and we will try and do something about it” – everyone understands the process and the underlying promise
- Its the smallest action you can take and still be part of the democratic process – lets not underestimate the power of a group of people being prepared to put their name to something.
- It can connect online and offline processes up – its very easy to run a petition in parallel which increases the reach and the inclusiveness of the campaign.
Now I know there are a lot of downsides to petitions as well – of course – the risk of them being hijacked by campaigners, the risk of them forcing the debate to be oversimplified in the sense of people either being for them or against them and the undermining of a truly deliberative democratic debate. However these are risks which exist for any political conversation and at least petitions bring with them the chance to bring that conversation to a place with government can react to it – what’s more if you decide to doing petitioning online then you are creating a mailing list of people who at least have a passing interest in local decision making.
If we are looking for ways to reintroduce citizens to the democratic process then petitions are an obvious starting place – and you have to start somewhere.
PS That last point – “you have to start somewhere” – clearly this is a massive assumption! We could all just let democracy gently crumble around our ears with facebook-like cultures leaping up to take its place with decisions made on the basis of ad revenues – but probably best not to don’t you think??