Local government is entitled to feel ahead of the game on handling petitions, online and off. The Government’s e-petitions portal, launched with a fanfare the other day, would be nothing new to many local authorities.
The Government’s site launch was marked by a high-profile right-wing blogger starting an e-petition for the restoration of the death penalty. Although petitions to Councils and Cabinets may be more frequently about the parking arrangements on Livingstone Street rather than bringing back the noose, the participants feel just as strongly about the issues.
In fact, it seems people feel even more strongly about parking bays than about judicial execution. Very much to my surprise, Guido Fawkes’s pro-hanging petition hasn’t yet got close to a hundred thousand signatures, for all the passionate support of the readers on his blog.
It was interesting to see that Guido Fawkes’s petition prompted an instant response – a separate petition not to reintroduce the death penalty, which at the moment has more signatories.
In fact, the first successful petition was a lightning-fast campaign around the (dubiously legal) proposal to strip rioters of their right to benefits. Even so, with 100,000 signatures out 48 million voters, as a percentage of population basis, the parking petitioners are still miles ahead.
The likely illegality of retrospective punishment, and the back-and-forth on separate death penalty petitions show up two of the main problems with petitions: they only allow you to express an opinion on one side, and there often isn’t a way of getting reliable information on what you’re being asked to support. These are the same for e-petitions and paper petitions. If someone you know comes up to you in the street and waves a clipboard in your face, it can be pretty hard to say no, even if you don’t really understand the issues, or agree with the point of view.
Petitions and council consultations have this in common: they are great tools for campaigners who know what they want, and they can create an apparent groundswell of opinion (even if not strongly-held and based on “clicktivism” rather than real activism). However, neither are good at allowing for opening up discussion and involving more people in the debate and trade-offs that councils have to make.
If we start from the view that greater involvement is a good thing – and I’ll be examining that view in a post next week – what does that more balanced discussion look like, and how do we create it in our councils? Here are some starting points:
- It has to be well-informed: that means that information has to be presented in accessible ways that participants can understand quickly and easily.
- It has to include all voices: that means that it has to be a discussion that’s distributed around all the different places, online and off, where people talk about their locality.
- It has to allow people to participate quickly and easily: because complexity and barriers to entry filter out those with mild preferences, and leave behind only the loudest voices.
- Councils have to be participants not controllers: councils should not seek to create a single approved space where discussion happens. If you build it, they won’t come. Instead, they should go out and engage with people where they are, as partners and participants in the discussion. Officers and councillors should get into the discussion as much as they can, not – metaphorically or literally – stand at the back with their arms folded.
What would you add to that list?