ePetitions are back but do they deliver?

Oh, hello, this is all a little bit familiar! ePetitions are back. After the quiet late-night euthanizing of the mostly pointless and mis-directed Downing Street ePetitions site we’re back in business. This time the system has been set up in what is more likely to prove the right place, DirectGov. There’s a separate argument about the monolithic proportions of a single government gateway, but that’s for another day. In the context of petitions, it makes much more sense to put the site at the centre of government. So here it is. Nice and simple, easy to find. So far so good.

The new system also dangles the carrot of parliamentary debate in front of budding petitioners. This is perhaps a little bit of smoke and mirrors. First of all, it suggests that the new ePetitions site is connected with Parliament, but it’s not, it’s most firmly a government initiative. You might remember parliament’s half-hearted attempt to look at ePetitioning and the even worse debacle of gold-plating, leading nowhere. There is ever so slightly an overtone of Government getting fed up and just doing it for them.

Based on the numbers we see in Germany, the 100,000 threshold could potentially lead to around half a dozen petitions being debated. But what will that actually do? If the issue is important enough, surely there are existing procedures that can be used? I can’t help feeling the true value of these petitioners is actually to ask Ministers to look at something in their Department. I’m not convinced about the process suggested here at all.

I hope the system works, I’ve said before that I like the idea of ePetitioning with a few caveats and this new system does have potential. If it’s implemented cleanly and openly it will be another plus for our democracy. This focuses more on what happens offline than online: I’m immediately disappointed by the complete lack of transparency in the process. There’s little information on how the system works, who the people checking it are… are they qualified? Are they just filtering out ‘bad news’ (because that is what the public will assume)? What criteria is the Backbench Business Committee to employ in deciding what the public feels is wanting of a debate? From my research on digital engagement I know that the three factors for success are: Accountability, transparency and authenticity. I’m not sure these are present. They are certainly not there in sufficient numbers.


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