The news this morning is that the official No.10 petitions website, mothballed during the general election as part of the political purdah period, is going to be killed off rather than restored.
When it was first launched, the petitions website was an impressive initiative that was well ahead of what many other countries and other parts of the British public sector were willing to do. However, it is a site that has not moved with the times.
The static nature of the site – you signed a petition and possibly months later you got an email response from the government – makes it look very staid compared with the more lively and interactive options available elsewhere with social media. It may have been quick and free to create a petition on the official site, but it is now quick and free to create a Facebook group, to take just one example. Moreover, a Facebook group more easily taps into the network of people you already know and offers a much wider range of functionality. It also, like the petition site, offers the opportunity of mainstream media coverage if the topic or size of support catches the media’s interest.
But it’s not only that the petition site has felt increasingly irrelevant in the face of other services. It has also unwittingly played into the drawbacks of ‘drive-by democracy’ where taking part and expressing your views gets dumbed down to a simple process of hitting a web page, clicking to agree and then departing never to hear, think or do much about the issue ever again.
Had the petitions systems evolved into something which let people build communities around their campaigns, so drawing people into greater involvement, and allowed a richer debate back and forth with the government over its response, then its demise would be regrettable.
As it is, its likely demise will simply mark the closing of one chapter. It was a worthy site in its time, but now we could and should expect more than the passive, brief interactions the site never got beyond serving.