Should we get excited about the e-petition site?

Thursday will see the first petitions go live on the Governments new e-petition website (http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/index.html) which is designed to replace the No10 Petition site that was closed after the last election. On the new site any petition that gets over 100,000 names on it ‘could’ be debated in Parliament. I’ve written a separate post here about how to set up a petition.

Undoubtedly it’ll get some coverage in the coming days as the first few petitions go live and reach the target, blogger Guido Fawkes has already launched a campaign for a vote on reintroducing capital punishment and I’m sure he’ll be the first to get over 100,000 names.

Overall the 100,000 target seems appropriate, although only 8 petition on the old No10 site achieved this. My work on campaign totals suggest that no campaigns in the last 12 months managed to achieve that target, but the numbers that campaign groups like 38 Degrees have been mobilising recently shows that its possible for any organisation that put effort into achieving it.

After over a year of waiting for the new e-petition it appears that we’ve lost a certain amount of transparency.

The old system allowed you to view a list of those who’d signed up and also saw that most petitions that generated a significant number of actions got a response from the relevant department, something that at present it doesn’t look like this will happen with the new site.

The main gain is the opportunity to have the issue debated in Parliament if you reach the 100,000 target, but for me that seems to be about it.

Time will tell how it’ll work out. I’ve written before about why I was pleased to see the closure of the old site, but here are a few early thoughts on the approach that’s being taken;

1. Too Long – Campaigning is increasingly about agility so indicating that petitions will take 7 days to be approved by government departments is going to slow things down and make it hard for organisations to capitalise on public concern about an issue that is in the media.

2. Engaging citizens – It’s a shame that the overhaul of the system hasn’t allowed for more thought to be put in about different ways that individuals could sign the petition. The European Union announced a similar (albeit more bureaucratic) process earlier this year, which allowed citizens to submit their names in a number of different formats rather than requiring everyone to get to a computer (and have an email address).

3. Preventing abuse – The eDemocracy blog suggests that it’s not been possible to provide a system to verify that those signing are from the UK or avoid people add multiple signatures. I accept that this would add another layer of complexity (and cost) but if this is a serious attempt to open up the political debate should more thought been put into this?

4. Control – I’m concerned about the fact that you can opt-in to get a response to the government, but not provision is being made to those who set up the petition to contact those who have signed. I’m not clear what most campaigning organisations have to gain from using a system like this.

5. Scale – While 100,000 is probably the right number for a nationwide petition, it seems a shame an option hasn’t been made for petitions on local issues or concern where getting the current target might be impossible. For example, it’d be nice to have seen the option for 25,000 signatures from a county/constituency on a local issue to lead to debate.

6. Outcome – Say you’ve done all the hard work and got 100,000 people to sign the petition, what do you get from it? A debate in Parliament, it’s not clear if the debate will lead to a vote, or simply a debate similar to the format of a Westminster Hall debate, where a minister is required to respond.

If it’s the latter then is a strategy of engaging interested MPs more effective, while those organisations looking to introduce new legislation would do as well to engage MPs who do well in the Private Members Bill ballot.

As one backbench Conservative MP noted“This scheme is a gimmick. It is vacuous and meaningless. The Government already ignores debates and motions in Parliament that are inspired by backbench MPs. So what notice are they going to take of debates forced by petitions? “

Will you be making use of the e-petition site? Is it a helpful contribution to campaigning?

How the e-petition site works

The process for setting up an e-petition on the new website is simple. Here is a step by step guide adapted from the Governments website.

1. Submit – The title can be up to 150 characters (although if you want to tweet it you’ll want it be shorter) with the petition itself up to 1000 characters. When you write it consider the criteria that it’ll be judged against, including the need for a request for action.

You also need to specify the department responsible for the issue your petition is on and the length of time you’d like the petition to run for (3, 6, 9 or 12 months).

On the next page you’ll need to submit your details (name, address, email) which appear to require an individual rather than an organisation to create it.

2. Petition Checked – It’ll then take up to 7 days for your petition to be approved. During this process, the petition will be considered by the relevant government department to ensure:

  • there’s isn’t already an e-petition on the same issue
  • it contains confidential, libellous, false or defamatory statements
  • it contains offensive, joke or nonsense content
  • the issue is not the responsibility of the government
  • it’s about honours or appointments
  • it does not include a request for action

3. Get signatures – You’ll need to get 100,000 signatures for the petition to be ‘considered’ for debate in Parliament. The petition will be hosted on the e-petition site and submissions can only be made through the site (although a URL will be provided to promote it on social networking sites).

Anyone who signs will need to provide their name, address and email but these won’t be visible to anyone else. Signatories can also ‘choose to receive email updates from the government about the e-petition’. You petition can be open for up to 12 months.

4. Debate (potentially!) – If you reach the 100,000 target, your petition will be sent to The Office of the Leader of the House of Commons will check it against the terms and conditions for e-petition and the rules of the House of Commons.

Petition that pass this criteria will be passed to the  Backbench Business Committee who will decide if your issue will be debated in the House of Commons. The FAQ suggest that reasons for the petition not being debated include;

  • if the subject of the e-petition is currently going through legal proceedings, it may be inappropriate for a debate to be held;
  • if there has just been, or is about to be, a debate in the House of Commons on the same topic as your e-petition
But Leader of the House, Sir George Young suggested in the media on Friday that ‘parliamentary time is not unlimited and we want the best e-petitions to be given airtime’ which indicates another way of stopping petitions being debated.

Five for Friday…..29th July

Slowing down for the summer? Here is a round of up of interesting articles on campaigning to read this Friday.

1. Hands Up Digital with some excellent advice about how charities can get more out of Facebook.

2. Stephen Pound MP has a few issues with 38 Degrees and  the curse of the automated e-mail, while in Washington campaigners managed to overload the Congress system with calls and emails.

3. The Guardian invites some experts to ponder on how we can measure social impact.

4. ConservativeHome asks MPs and journalists which media platforms have the most impact.

5. The Right Ethos is tweeting recommendations of different guides covering campaigning, policy and advocacy for the next month.

Finally, some good advice….(h/t @gavinthomson)

In Praise of…..Avaaz

You’ve certainly made it as a campaign movement when you get a feature in the Guardian….so congratulations should go to Avaaz who featured in the paper last week. Launched in 2007, in the last months alone they’ve had some notable successes on pressuring the government over BSkyB and Murdoch in the UK, corruption in India, stopping the Grand Prix in Bahrain and blocking a mega-dam in Brazil.

So here, to steal another idea from my paper of choice, is my ‘In Praise of….Avaaz’.

It’s a truly global movement – Over 9 millions members in 193 countries around the world. Together having taken tens of millions of actions and it’s a movement that’s rapidly growing in India, Brazil and South Africa.  Plus they’re solely funded by their members.

It’s all about the metrics – The Guardian describes how Avaaz rigorously tests its campaign before launching them to most of their members.

“Campaign ideas are submitted by Avaaz’s members in the first instance. But once an idea is settled on, it still has to pass a rigorous selection procedure. First, a tester email is sent to a random selection of 10,000 members in a particular country. Any “tester” that doesn’t encourage at least 10% to open it is generally discarded.

Test emails that pass this threshold then need to ensure around a 40% conversion rate. Here, they’re testing the email’s contents. If the email’s going to fly, at least two in five of those who opened it need to go the extra mile: to click through to Avaaz’s website.

A campaign with promise will encourage more than 80% of those people to sign the petition. Emails that achieve this ratio – around 6% of the original audience – will then be rolled out to Avaaz’s entire membership in the relevant country.”

They’re not afraid to say it was ‘them that won it’ – I’ve observed that some campaigns exhibit a certain amount of modesty when they win a campaign.

Messages to supports are prefaced with ‘you helped to’ or ‘had an impact on’ as campaigns are careful not to ignore the other factors that can lead to campaign success. That’s not the case with Avaaz take for example from the April Reportback on two recent campaign successes.

“Just days ago, two things were different – questioning the global “war on drugs” was a huge taboo in government circles, and Formula 1 was set to hold their Grand Prix in Bahrain despite a brutal government crackdown on peaceful democracy protesters. Then our community got involved. Within 72 hours, more than 1 million of us joined these two campaigns, and we won!
Formula 1 has, under intense pressure, reversed its decision to race in Bahrain and the UN Secretary-General has agreed to establish a new task force on drugs, with world leaders beginning an historic new debate on regulation and decrimalisation. People power works, and we are seeing it more and more all over the world. Here are two stories of how …

They know what they do well – It’s easy to criticise Avaaz for simply focusing on e-actions and not looking at building a grassroots movement, but that’s in party because they’re clear of the role they play explaining on their website.

“We focus on tipping-point moments of crisis and opportunity. 
In the life of an issue or a cause, a moment sometimes arises when a decision must be made, and a massive, public outcry can suddenly make all the difference. Getting to that point can take years of painstaking work, usually behind the scenes, by dedicated people focusing on nothing else.
But when the moment does come, and the sunlight of public attention floods in, the most crucial decisions go one way or another depending on leaders’ perceptions of the political consequences of each option. It is in these brief windows of tremendous crisis and opportunity that the Avaaz community often makes its mark”

They’re supporting those on the front-line– By raising the money from 300,000 members of the Avaaz community to help work with those leading democracy movements in Syria, Yemen, Libya and more to get them equipment, connections to the world’s media and communications advice to help tell another story of what was happening when governments tried to clam down on internet access.

For more on Avaaz check out this profile of its founder Ricken Patel in the Times or a video of Ricken talking about the movement at a recent Guardian conference.

What would you add to the list? Does the Avaaz model have any drawbacks? What’s its greatest strength (and weakness)?

Campaign Totals – FCO

Total number of actions received between May 1st 2010 and May 1st 2011: 32,731

Unfortunately the FCO was unable to break this down into the format in which they received campaign correspondence.

Biggest campaign: Gaza Flotilla – 17,496

Breakdown by topic and organisation:

If anyone is able to suggest the organisations behind these actions please leave a comment below.

To view the breakdown spreadsheet in google docs click here. Information taken from Freedom of Information request returned on 27 May 2011 and is taken from a list of information provided by Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

More about the ‘Campaigns Total’ project here. Be first to get the information from other departments by subscribing to the site using the box on the right, adding https://thoughtfulcampaigner.wordpress.com/ to your RSS feed or following me on twitter (@mrtombaker)