I am a big fan of epetitions – I think they have the potential to be a simple and elegant way of plugging citizen concerns into the policy cycle and to open up the agenda-setting process to include citizen-led issues in a more constructive way than through a media storm, which is really the only other way in which the public gets to put something on the table for politicians to talk about en masse. Agenda setting is a hugely significant part of the policy making process and so it makes sense that a more open policy process would have an open agenda setting mechanism at its outset.
However, epetitions have rather fallen out of fashion with local government since the Localism Act removed the obligation on councils to run a petitions system. And, although we have helped a number of clients with our open-source system (as have MySociety with theirs), there is not a huge amount of new activity that we have picked up.
This post is perhaps a suggestion that you have a look and see whether you have a petitioning system languishing somewhere that could be used for more constructive engagement and also to share the learning from a recent Hansard Society Report into the future of the House of Commons system which you can read about here .
The report makes four key findings:
- Ownership and responsibility: The system is controlled by government but the onus to respond is largely placed on the House of Commons.
- There is no agreement about the purpose of e-petitions: Are they ‘an easy way to influence government policy’, a ‘fire alarm’ about issues of national concern, a ‘finger in the wind’ to determine the depth of public feeling on a range of issues? Or should they be used to empower the public through greater engagement in the political and parliamentary process, providing for deliberation on the issues of concern?
- Public and media expectations of the system are consequently confused: People expect an automatic debate once the signature threshold is passed and react negatively when this does not happen.
- There is minimal public engagement with Parliament or government: Beyond the possibility of a debate for those e-petitions that pass the 100,000 signature threshold, little or nothing currently happens with them. And 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.
I think these are useful findings for local government – the last point about public engagement particularly so as it asks whether or not we are actually interested in having the public add issues to the already immensely crowded agenda. The answer is yes, in theory, but does the detail of the process really bring this to bear?
We are of course in a period where local government is undergoing massive change, but that doesn’t mean that everything has to go. Some things, like e-petitions, could be part of a new more open and collaborative relationship between councils and citizens.
There is a massive cultural resonance to a democratic mechanism like petitioning – maybe we could think about using this cultural resonance and familiarity in a more innovative and open way.