Published on October 12, 2011

E-petitions: the how, why and who

By Annie Quick

Annie Quick is Researcher and Team Coordinator. She has a background in different methods of deliberation and participation and in youth democracy.

e-petitions screen grabWhile much could be done to improve the process of the government’s e-petition site, will petitioning ever really inspire widespread participation? 

It’s been a good summer for e-petitions on both sides of the Atlantic. The UK re-launched their e-petitions site in July, with the additional commitment that any petition over 1000,000 signatures will be considered for debate in the House of Commons (though debate is not guaranteed). Shortly afterwards, the US White House launched We The People, a similar system of e-petitioning but with a current threshold of 25,000 signatures.

Reactions, however, have been mixed. While some have disregarded it as largely a waste of time, an interesting conversation is also taking place about how the process could be improved. A consortium of American democracy campaigns have launched a new forum to consider how to improve We The People. They are calling for it to be ‘democratic, deliberative, and meaningful’ and are asking for ideas about how to make this happen. Although they haven’t made it explicit, the forum itself seems intended as an example of how such processes could be done better; there are three stages, where participants i) brainstorm, rank and discuss responses, ii) collaborate on the drafting of a petition about how the e-petition process could be imporved, and iii) sign the final petition which is submitted through WeThePeople. There are only a few suggestions in the first week, but if it takes off it could produce some food for thought for both the US and UK.

At Involve we’d be the first to agree that such a system needs to include methods for deliberation and dialogue. I won’t list off the reasons here – they are the same reasons why I’ve called for deliberation online or during the AV referendum.

However, while e-petitions could be designed to encourage a more deliberative process and thereby ‘better’ results, the real barriers seem to rest on the who participates in e-petitions and why they do.

Some commentators have held up Germany which, ‘with its culture of petitions finds them a valuable barometer of political and public feeling.’ However, recent research in Germany has found that even where petitioning is a much more established form of public life, they attract predominantly highly mobilised and politically active individuals with a disproportionately high socio-economic status. The figures suggest that the shift to e-petitions, beyond attracting a slightly younger audience, has in fact increased this bias. At its worse then, petitioning has the potential to amplify existing inequalities with a potentially damaging overall impact. This challenge can be levied against a number of participation exercises and is not a reason not to do it – it’s a reason to broaden it and make it more inclusive. But if you look back at the Pathways through Participation research on why people get involved (p5), it will be a challenge for petitioning to appeal to a broader set of motivations. While petitioning might tick the boxes of ‘having influence’ and perhaps ‘exercising values and beliefs’, it less naturally fulfils peoples’ desires to help others, develop relationships, gain personal benefit or feel part of something.

Methods such as petitions can be helpful in maintaining some direct ways outside of elections in which our politicians are accountable to the people they serve. (On a slight tangent: this plays out very differently in China where there are many fewer means by which to directly address government. The launch of a new e-petitions site has therefore attracted massive interest, but often for very personal issues). But unless petitions somehow attract more than a subset of relatively vocal and powerful people, their results will only offer one aspect of what the public have to offer.

5 Responses to “E-petitions: the how, why and who”

  1. October 13, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    Nice post! Thanks very much for getting the word out about the AmericaSpeaks/DDC/IAP2 USA/NCDD collaboration to review and improve the US e-petition site. Would love to see comments based on your experience in the US to date.

  2. Annie Quick
    October 14, 2011 at 8:49 am

    No problem, Tim. We’ll be looking out.

  3. Ian
    November 13, 2011 at 12:52 am

    It is true that e-petitions only need to gain the attention of a very small percentage of the population to reach the needed number of a 100,000 people to be considered for debate in the house of commons and it’s also true that often the people who sign these petitions have very strong feeling on a subject and do not necessarily represent the feelings of the general public on a whole, but I would like to comment that in some places of the world such as Switzerland that petitions are only used to gauge if there in enough interest in a issue and if so to trigger a referendum, in which then the true feelings of the majority of are population are listened too. And if necessary to change laws that the voters do not conform to. So petitions on there own have limited use but if used in conjunction with other ways to assess public feeling they can be very powerful and give a voice to anybody and everybody that wishes to involved in there countries decision process.

  4. Annie Quick
    November 14, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Ian, thanks for your comment – I think you’re absolutely right that e-petitions could be powerful if used in conjunction with other methods, particularly more deliberative ones. However I’m not sure that a referendums, as they are now, do necessarily encourage widespread deliberative participation either (see my other blog on this ). E-petitions and referendums are both important mechanisms for people to hold government to account if and when they want to, but so far they don’t seem to have been useful tools in building levels of participation, or encouraging more people to participate. What you’ve highlighted for me is that we need different methods for different things.

  5. December 25, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    People these days use e-petitions cause they are easier and more effective. I remember when We were trying to build a skatepark in our town. The e-petition had a major impact that time. Great post

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