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The Parliament Petition Site – a missed opportunity

At the time of writing the petition to Prevent Donald Trump from making a State Visit to the United Kingdom has reached 1,500,000 signatures – and I’m sure by the time you read this it’ll have grown further.( This site is a nice for tracking how quickly they’re growing).

And while it’s great that people are finding out an outlet for their anger at the policies of Donald Trump, every time I see a House of Commons Petition get shared I’m always frustrated that it’s probably not directing people’s views in the best way.

For me, the site feels as much as an attempt to dissuade people from emailing their MP than a real tool for change. That’s a missed opportunity.

From the launch of the petition website in 2010, I’ve been critical about it’s purpose, and while it’s improved under the guidance of the Petition Committee, watching the numbers tick up today on the Donald Trump petition has once again reminded me of some of the limitations of the site.

1 – The can create a debate but do they change policy? While any petition that get’s over 100,000 signatures is considered for a debate in Parliament, not all do end up getting debated (46 have since the 2015 election), and even then the debate almost always takes place in Westminster Hall (which is seen as a secondary debating chamber).

So while they debates can be good opportunities for MPs to put their views on the record, the outcome is unlikely to change government policy, there are a few examples of the opposite but they’re rare when you consider the number of people who’ve signed petitions in the last 12 months.

While those of us who run campaigns on other platforms might not see that as ‘our’ problem, its bad for all of us, because it undermines our claims that taking action can deliver change.

2 – They don’t channel energy productively. The petition on Trumps visit is a great example of try to harness stop energy but because the petition site has no function to develop a supporter journey that energy doesn’t go anywhere else. If you sign a petition the only other email you’ll get it as notification of if it’s been successful or not. It’s hardly a way of turning people into engaged citizens.

3 – I can’t see any evidence that the petition signatures get noticed by MPs – I know that some of the petitions get debated (46 so far, with another 300+ getting a response from Government) so will be picked up by some, but the way that the information is expressed on the site (with the exception of this map) doesn’t do anything to show specific MPs what their constituents think about an issue.  It feels like a missed opportunity.

Now the site isn’t going to go away and as I’ve suggested before with MPs growing tired of ’email your MP’ actions it could be an effective way to channel views of constituents.

So what could be done to make it more user friendly? Here are a few suggestions;

1 – Make it easier to connect MPs with constituency level information – while data is available on a constituency level, it’s not easy for any MP to find out how many people are signing in their patch. To address this, it could be a tool that displays the number of signatures on a petition per constituency, or ranks the most popular petitions in a constituency. It’d be a dynamic way to help MPs see what their constituents actually think.

2 – Find ways of getting real Parliamentary champions to back the petitions – although petitions that go to debate get an MP allocated to it (normally a member of the Petition Committee), I’ve not seen any real evidence that those MPs are really passionate about ensuring that the demands of the petitions are actively pushed – for some doing that would go against the position of their party. But many MPs are passionate about issues, so why not connect those MPs with the issues they’ve long worked on event if they’re not on the Petition Committee.

3 – Ensure any petition that gets over 100,000 signatures get raised directly with a Minister – rather than just a Westminster Hall debate, the most issues raised in the most popular petitions could be raised in the relevant Ministerial Question Time. Taking that a step further, when the Prime Minister comes to the Liaison Committee could they be asked about the issues raised in the top petition in that period.

4 – Allow third party sites to submit petitions – at the moment you can only submit your petition, but what about working with Change.org, Care2 or other digital providers to allow for petitions signed on those sites to be submitted. It would incentives organisations. In the US, the White House under Obama worked to develop an API that allowed people to contribute to their petitions site via third party sites.

 

Comments

4 Comments

CB

You can actually see the constituency level signature count on a petition, it’s just hidden away. If you look at the JSON data for a petition you can find this data. It’s not particularly readable, but can be pasted into any online JSON to CSV converter.

mrtombaker

Thanks. Agree that it’s there but as you say it feels very hidden. It can’t be easy for any MP to say to a member of staff – can you tell me the 10 most signed petitions in our constituency and easily get an answer.

Ross Bailey

Nice blog Tom.

I’m stealing from a sector colleague here but I would also suggest that it could be improved through a country or even constituency thresholds. Getting 5% of each constituency would be hard (and hard to track) but would really incentivise meaningful campaigning work and could be rewarded with a higher level of debate perhaps. Would also make it harder for papers very popular in England to get petitions up and running without truly UK wide support.

More widely, I think it’s more evidence of the need for citizen education. Loads of super smart people have signed this and then said to me “I know it won’t work but I didn’t know what else to do”, whilst not even considering a letter to a local MP or an appeal to their friends to contact theirs. Petitions can be useful but they must not become our only mode of civic engagement

Ross Bailey

Oh just to add, I mean a literal “letter to an MP”. The following is meant with glibness

One of the side effects of the Bake Off is that every time there is a crisis in the world, I see people baking cakes to raise money. Don’t get me wrong I like cake but we need better responses ! Perhaps if we took the time spent baking and applied it to sitting down and writing a meaningful letter, we’d make more impact. I blame Mary Berry!


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