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Happy Birthday to the Government e-petition site

The Government e-Petition site celebrated its first birthday last month, and the team at the Government Digital Services released figures about usage in its first year.

In short;

  • 15,600 petition were opened, but a massive 47% of petitions submitted were rejected.
  • 6.4 million signatures were collected from the 13 million unique visitors to the site.
  • Only 10 petitions reached the 100,000 target that allows them to be discussed in Parliament, and all have been or are due to be debated by members of the House of Commons.
  • 97.7% of e-petitions receive less than 1,000 signatures.

I had mixed feelings when the site was launched a year ago, so a year on has the site proven to be a good addition to the campaigning landscape?

Here are a few observations;

It’s got people signing petitions – I’ve not been able to find any figures for the number of individuals who’ve signed a petition and I suspect some significant duplication, but even with that included getting millions of people used to taking action has got to be a good thing.

If you’ve signed a petition here, I think it makes you much more likely to sign a petition sent to you from 38 Degrees or others. Anecdotally I’ve seen a number of the petitions shared on my social media channels beyond those who normally express an interest in campaigning.

It’s provided a clear outcome to those petitions that reach their target. Their was some concern at the launch of the site, that Parliament wouldn’t have time to debate all the petitions that reached the 100,000 signature target, but until the recent rejection of the petition launched by Virgin Trains against the loss the franchise to run the West Coast mainline, it has.

Whatever you think about the topics that have been debated as a result, its good that they’ve been debated by Parliament, and in the case of the petition to get ‘full disclosure of all government documents relating to 1989 Hillsborough disaster’ helped to push an important issue that had been largely forgotten by much of the media back into the public consciousness.

However as the Hansard Society point out ‘the system is controlled by government but the onus to respond is largely placed on the House of Commons’ and many people might be disappointed to learn that the majority of petitions are debated in Westminster Hall, where votes cannot take place and are therefore held on non-votable ‘take note’ motions. As the case of the Virgin Train petition shows, it’s an especially ineffective tool when Parliament isn’t sitting and a petition responding to a current issue gains traction quickly.

It’s disempowering for the majority who have signed a petition. A handful of petitions have been debated, but many more have fallen short. At present there are 12 petitions with between 30,000 – 80,000 signatures on them, perhaps a few of them will make the 100,000 target but most won’t. My Campaigns Totals research has shown that 50,000 actions is a significant number, but the e-Petition site doesn’t provide those who create the petition with many tools to keep those interested in the topic engaged.

They get to send an email at the close but that’s it. I’m concerned that for most they sign a petition hopeful that it’ll actually change something, but that when that doesn’t happen they’ll start to question if other forms of campaigning actually work. As the Hansard Society point out ‘if an e-petition does not achieve the signature threshold but still attracts considerable support (e.g. 99,999 signatures) there is no guarantee of any kind of response at all’. The rigidity of the system means that many are going to be disappointed.

Most campaigning NGOs haven’t launched petitions on the platform, looking through the petitions that have reached the 100,000 target they’ve appeared to have provided an opportunity for individuals or very small campaigns with fewer resources to generate support for their issue . This has often come on the back of an effective social media campaign but the number of ‘failed’ petitions should add a note of caution that this is a high-risk strategy for organisations with limited resources.

Other successful petitions have been those backed by media organisations, for example the ‘Make financial education a compulsory part of the school curriculum’16 was backed by Money Mail, a sister paper of the Daily Mail, and the ‘No to 70 million’ petition on immigration has been heavily mentioned in some parts of the media.

So what next?

The Hansard Society has some good recommendations about how the procedure of dealing with the petitions in Parliament could be improved, for example;

  • The creation of a Petitions Committee with staff which would tasked with sifting petitions that secure lower levels of support to ensure that, where appropriate, relevant petitions are, for example, still tagged to debates, that MPs are made aware of their existence, and petitioners receive some form of feedback.
  • The Petitions Committee and its staff should respond ambitiously and flexibly to petitions, embracing the full range of parliamentary processes for consideration of them.
  • Using petitioner postcode registration data to develop heat maps on the website to help MPs and others identify issues of specific concern to a community.

I’d also suggest that while the site has seen some innovation to it since it was launched, for example the inclusion of a ‘trending petitions’ section on the homepage to help you identify those that have been most active in the last hour, lots of other changes that were suggested at the launch haven’t been included which would help to make the site more engaging for petitioner to use.

Finally, I think as a sector we need to be doing more to help provide those looking to take action with information on if this is the most effective tool to use, this is in part being done by organisations like Change.org and 38 Degrees who allow people to create their own petitions, but others can do more to help inform these decisions and support the many campaigns that don’t actually need 100,000 signatures to deliver change.

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