A paean to petitioning…..

I took part in an Petitions round table last week run run by the consultation institute. The round table format means you really get chance to talk through specific points and the group was all very fired up about what the new Local Democracy Bill will mean – and specifically what it will mean for every council to have a petitioning scheme and for that to of necessity include ePetitions. Now – the topic is a lot more interesting than that sentence makes it sound so let me see if I can describe some good bits:

  • People get petitions and petitioning – even David Cameron is planning to use one to get a general election (though the labour party might just manage that all on their own). The simplicity and immediacy of the process both in terms of signing and in terms of outcomes means its a mechanism that gets used and ePetitions have been really brought to people’s attentions by the 10 Downing Street system

  • One of the other reasons for that is what I can the Magna Carta effect – British people really feel they have a right to sign some parchment and get a man to ride for days to London to hand it to the Prime Minister – and this cultural belief in the process gives it relevance for all citizens. You feel this especially acutely when dealing with other cultures around petitioning as we are in the Europetitions project – to them its just signing a form!

  • One of the problems you face with the nagging concern that you know that facebook etc has huge potential to get people’s attention is deciding what you will do with that attention. Its not enough to get people to join your facebook group or follow your tweets – if you want to make formal democratic decisions then you need to lure people into a formal democratic process. Epetitions can help hugely in making that transition as they are the smallest formal piece of democracy that we have – its very alluring

  • What’s more, by using epetitions you have the chance to build a democratic mailing list of people who have, to even the smallest extent, actually participated in democracy. It may not be much but if you want to break the inertia of non-participation then you need to start somewhere….

Ultimately I think what I most appreciate is the elegance of the petitioning process(yes – I do have a fondness for elegance). Its such a simple idea which can become integral to your whole engagement strategy.

BTW – to anyone interested in how the gadget angst is going I am currently considering an iTouch rather than an iPhone. It seems like a more obvious replacement for the PDA and as I have never really been a fan of the phone it would make it easier not to talk to people!! However – I would imagine that you would find it rather restrictive not to have that always on-ness and there is something very tidy about convergence. Ah well – lots more musing to be done…..and we still have the palm pre and a potential new iPhone to consider this month!

  1. Paul Evans

    June 13, 2009 at 11:27 am

    At the risk of sounding slightly dogmatic, I’m opposed to the very idea of encouraging petitions or allowing them to be taken seriously, and I’d suggest that people who believe otherwise should be shot.

    The reasons for this won’t be a surprise to you, I suspect – that they…

    – cede an enormous amount of power to unelected individuals with convening power (currently, newspapers, celebrities or, to a lesser extent, prominent bloggers)
    – trump rational policymaking processes with assertions of opinion
    – allow a small number of time-rich people with strong (often self-interested) views to out-shout the vast majority of people who don’t really get too involved, feel too strongly, or have the time / resources to get involved.

    I’ve never seen any credible argument why petitions shouldn’t be actively discouraged by anyone who cares about democracy or good government, but the bloody idea just persists.

  2. curiouscatherine

    June 15, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    Sorry for moderation delay – am on holiday in Florida and for those of you who know me I can promise there will be a picture of me in mouse ears……

    paul – your views on petitions do not suprise me! But I do think they show a lot of faith in a representative democratic system. I think it needs all the help it can get and a well run petitioning scheme can give some help.

    But I do mean a well run scheme – and I agree that we are not talking about one run by a tabloid newspaper because they can’t afford decent journalism. There are huge dangers in badly run petitions – the ‘wildfire’ effect where the speed of support overwhelms sensible decision making. But this is avoidable with a proper scheme and then you have a tool which, in a non-confrontational way, provides a voice for the citizen in between elections.

  3. Peter

    June 17, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    Paul – I can also see where your concerns are coming from. The CLG report on public participation covers this subject to some extent. From my cursory read (it’s over 200 pages!) is careful to distinguish the different ways petitions are run. The successful ones seem to be the ones which are designed for engagement with the political process, rather than as platforms for people with too much time or money.

    I had to do a presentation on a related subject last week – my current thoughts on this area are over on my blog

    Catherine – looking forward to seeing the pic(s). How were you persuaded to partake?!

  4. Paul Evans

    June 26, 2009 at 10:06 am


    Petitions will support representative government, but only in the way that a rope supports a slender neck. It’s simply not possible to stop newspapers from initiating petitions, or getting time-rich / convening citizens from ‘gaming’ them.

    Peter, I saw your post, but there’s a really fundamental problem with petitions, and using technology to make them easier to sign, or coming up with intricate mechanisms to ameliorate the more obvious problems with the concept just makes the problem worse – not better.

    Now, if you want to crowdsource information to make representative government work, you’d be a lot better off getting people to collaboratively describe a problem or collaboratively author a detailed proposal to solve a problem – one that forces them to acknowledge trade-offs.

    Petitions do pretty-well the opposite of that. They promote single issue demands from unrepresentative groups.

  5. Peter

    June 26, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Hi Paul. We’ve obviously got different opinions on this. I think that relying on purely online techniques like crowdsourcing etc are guaranteed to only give a voice to the techno-elite, while simulanteously undermining representative democracy.

    There are of course other forms of deliberation that address the concerns that we share about hijacking of the process etc.

    The point I was trying to make about a *well designed* petitioning process[*] is that by the single-issue people having to go through the elected assembly (which is design to do the trade-off thing), you have built in a mechanism to avoid hijacking of the agenda by a vocal minority, while also increasing the visibility of the democratic process.

    Wish I could be down for the PICamp event to have it out wiht you in person!

    [*] We should not be hung up on the channel used.

  6. Peter Cruickshank

    June 26, 2009 at 11:07 am

    PS Since my first post, I’ve posted an (academic style) overview of petitioning too – here

  7. Paul Evans

    July 4, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Peter – I always enjoy your blog and I’d look forward to talking to you about this more.

    My problem with petitions linking into parliamentary processes is that they start are essentially a form of mandate (or a threatened one) and the absence of mandates is the essential pre-condition to any representative democracy. They’re like oil-and-water really – the more a parliamentarian feels obliged to suspend their judgement in the short term the poorer the quality of representation (and the more they betray those that haven’t turned up to stamp their feet on the issue in question).

    Whichever way you cut it, there will always be a higher percentage of working class people that won’t get involved (Labour always used to say that ‘the rain votes Tory’) and the result will generally be regressive and populist.

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