One of the nice things about epetitions was that it never promised to be anything more than a faithful online version of offline petitions. Petitions have been a staple of British political life for 400 years ‐ they are well understood as being a crie de coeur , a simple way of salving a politicial conscience ‐ ‘I must do something to save the unicorns, but i don’t know what else to do other than sign this petition outside the shopping centre or that someone has emailed to me.’
Only a statistically insignificant number of petitions over the last 400 years have led to any form of political change whether presented on parchment or online. Yet tens of millions of people have signed them. As a form of political engagement only voting is more popular. Given this long history, people must think the public very dim if they don’t understand the deal with petitions when they sign them.
Epetitions met a demand for a form of political engagement that fits with modern busy lifestyles. You could set one up in a few clicks and contribute in seconds from the comfort of your own home. And above all they were demand-led by the public, not by lobby groups nor politicians. They put a C21st interface on a C18th political system. I was one of the management team for the Downing Street e-petitions work. It’s easy to forget, but the 1.8m-odd people who signed the anti-road pricing petition dominated the national press for weeks.
For the British government to engage more fully online, system reform is needed to provide the mindset and capacity for mass online engagement. British government institutions have evolved over the centuries based on the postal system ‐ policy engagement by post both chokes the volume of engagement and prevents individuals banding together. When the telephone became a means of mass service delivery the contact centre was adopted by the public services as a means of handling 300million phone calls a year. Sadly this service delivery adaptation has seen only little replication in electronic engagement on policy. Innovation in policy engagement is always firmly on the issues and terms that policy makers set.
The use of the Delib tool in the money saving and liberty exercises illustrated this nicely ‐ whatever the strength and weaknesses of the tool, including some shameful abusive language on the HMT website when moderation broke down, it’s hard to say that the system coped well with the volume or nature of comments. You can keep bolting on new front-ends as much as you like but deep and widespread system reform is needed to take advantage of mass online engagement. This isn’t a problem unique to Britain – the Obama administration when in power hasn’t been able to keep up the pace of its online engagment when campaigning for election.
I was amused that in the Guardian story today someone in Whitehall is briefing against a website. Check that: someone can be bothered to brief anonymously against a website. This of course isn’t the preserve of the current administration. When working on e-petitions in 2006-2007 I was generously labelled as a prat to the national press by an anonymous cabinet minister.
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