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.