Official e-petitions site on the way out, but does it matter?

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.


3 responses to “Official e-petitions site on the way out, but does it matter?”

  1. Mark,

    I’m probably not as keen as you are on petitions in the first place, but I’d be interested to see if HMG will persist with the obligation that local authorities were given by Hazel Blears to offer a similar service to the now-mothballed one?

  2. The trouble with the petitions site wasn’t one about communities, Facebook groups could back up the petitions, and often did. No, it’s failure wasn’t anything to do with social media, but more to do with the lack of ACTION.

    It’s one thing to be open and “listening”, it’s another to actually do something about what you’re getting told. The sad reality is that you’re more likely to get something changed by starting a think tank and getting the opinions of a few dozen people in the national media, than if you’re one of thousands that signs a petition on that site.

    Every time the government capitulated through a petition it was due to it already being a planned change, or a quick and simple win… a non-consequential action. Every other time the government line was reiterated, frustratingly for those of us that knew exactly what the government line was…why else would we petition to change it?!

    The problem is that along with the inclusion of public say, accountability on policy, you also need to give up a little bit of your total control and be willing to explore new policies. This isn’t to say any petition should have meant an instant change in law on controversial subjects…but if they were popular why were the subjects never brought to the House? No movement was made…and if you don’t appear to be willing to compromise after listening, then it is plain as day that all this whole exercise can add up to is a PR management system.

  3. My problem is far more to do with the tension between this and representative democracy. I worked for politicians in the past – anything that looked like a petition was largely ignored – you can get loads of names underneath almost any statement of opinion – so what?

    If a million people believe that you shouldn’t have a road pricing scheme, what about the other sixty million who’ve said nothing? And what if road-pricing is the best policy in the first place? Just because a newspaper or a bunch of celebs can whip up a tide of opinion.

    I’ve no problem with inclusive policymaking – why has so much energy gone into crowdsourcing strong opinion when so little goes into crowdsourcing judgement and mild preferences (advisory participatory budgeting or co-design, for example, both can yield actual data or evidence while involving large representative numbers of people)?

    It’s not even as if politicians, for the most part, even have convictions that are *that* strong on a lot of the issues that public opinion plays into. Where they do, it gets well-tested by the daily political bunfight. I doubt if many politicians wouldn’t welcome some of the insights that intelligent crowdsourcing brings them – it’s probably save their parties something on their focus-group budgets.

    The civil service though, are another matter entirely… 😉

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