Future of No10 petition site kicked into long grass….again!

So Martha Lane Fox has today delivered her review of digital provision in central government and the future of the No10 petition site still remains unclear.

 

The site, which has seen 5 millions people take action, was taken down ahead of the May general election, and ever since its future has remained uncertain (I’ve argued this might not be a bad thing but it’d be good to know one way or another). For the last few weeks it has displayed the following message;

November 2010 – The overall future of all HMG digital comms and engagement is bound into the Martha Lane Fox review, which will be announced imminently. The future of e-petitions will be part of that review.

But a decision is going to be hard when the report which was released today says nothing about the site, e-petitions or how the government can use digital media to engage directly with citizens on public policy issues.

I might be missing something (another report from Lane Fox perhaps), but it seems that the Coalition Government is keen to continue to kick the future of the site into the long grass.

So much for a ‘new way of doing politics’.

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Are top ministers avoiding meetings with NGOs?

Tom Watson has shared a treasure trove of information about who’s getting meetings with the new government on his blog

Publishing documents previously available only to those with access to the House of Commons library. It shows who advice is being sought and who’s being locked out.

The first few months of a governments matter, because they set the tone, it’s a time when departments are being bombarded with requests for meetings, so only those whose views are really wanted are invited in.

The information from the three of the ministries of state (No 10, Foreign Office and Home Office) makes for unhappy reading for civil society groups, despite the focus on the ‘Big Society’ their hasn’t been a lot of space created for meetings with representatives from CSOs.

The PM has held just one meeting with civil society, a roundtable with 16 organisations to discuss the ‘Big Society’. The only other non-business or media interest was a meeting with the TUC in July and Bob Geldof to discuss ‘development issues’ in June (presumably ahead of the G8) although many NGOs will remember with horror the way the Geldof threw away the script and fell out with many involved in the Make Poverty History after the G8 summit in 2005.

Compare that to meetings with Rupert Murdoch, Phizer, Facebook and Wikimedia, amongst others that the PM has had and it shows more of an enthusiasm to meet with foreign companies and representatives of News International.

Deputy PM, Nick Clegg, seems to have done a little better, attending the same meeting with Cameron to discuss ‘The Big Society’, and also receiving petitions from ‘Take Back Parliament’ and the Maternal Mortality Campaign, along with holding meeting with The Elders, Gates Foundation and the British Overseas Aid Group (a group of the biggest 5 development NGOs).

The same patterns seems to be repeating itself across at the FCO, William Hague hasn’t found time to meet with any campaigning organisations, although he made space for BAE Systems, delegating to junior minister meetings on a whole range of issues including elections in Burma, human rights and Zimbabwe.

The Home Office appear to have done better, with Home Secretary Thresea May holding ‘Introductions’ with Stonewall, Hillsborough Family Support Group, Migration Watch UK and a large group of equalities organisations. Other minister in the department also appear to have been busy meeting with a whole range of campaigning groups, like Refugee Watch, NSPCC and Women’s Aid.

As an aside my favourite entry from the Home Office is a meeting in July that Human Rights Watch held with Baroness Neville-Jones, the purpose of the meeting ‘Discuss report no questions asked’. It raises interesting questions about how the meeting was conducted, and if a cup of coffee was offered to those attending!

Meetings held by other departments are, as yet unavailable, although Tom Watson has promised to publish them if they are. It’ll be interesting to see if the pattern of senior ministers not meeting with CSOs has been happening at other departments, and if this trend continues in the coming months.

Why I’ll be pleased to see the end of the No10 petition site

Third Sector PR is reporting on twitter that the No10 petition site might be a casualty of the new administration. The site, was set up in 2006, and is perhaps best remember for the million plus people who signed a petition about road tax. The creators MySociety suggest that over 5 million unique e-mail addresses have used the site since its inception, but  I’d be pleased to see the end of the site.

Why?

One. Because I think it’s encouraged lazy campaigning. I’ve only once been involved in trying to encourage people to sign a No10 petition (and despite a huge effort we got about 2,000 names), but it seems that often it was an easy way to tick the ‘we’ve done something to target No10 box’. Good campaigning needs to be about thinking about the most effective target and then the most innovate way of reaching them. To think creatively about how you could get the issue to the attention of the right people within government. For some campaigning NGOs the petition site seemed to put a stop to that.

While I can understand the argument that when it was launched in 2006 it was a way of enabling and empowering anyone to raise an issue of concern, the sheer volume of petitions suggests that only those with a mechanism for broadcasting their idea succeeded. Campaigning has moved on and I think the recent examples of spontaneous, decentralised campaigns on twitter show that there are other tools for doing this.

I don’t think that many (any) policies were changed thanks to the petition site, and too many of them seemed to be a reaction to what was in the Daily Mail (close the Mega Mosque, save the Red Arrows funding, etc) on a particular day.

Two. Because I think it led to lazy engagement from the government with civil society. I understand that their were some guidelines about when No10 would respond to a petition, i.e. if it got over a certain number of actions, but placing numerical limits that are required to be met before enabling a response are very arbitrary. It felt that too often the site was a place for people with concerns to directed to and then forgotten.

My hope is that any review of the petition site leads to a better solution for how No10 will engage with e-campaigns.  A proper e-mail address for the PM would help those with embedded campaign tools, while  No10 thinking about how it’ll engage with campaigns that appear on a range of platforms (like twitter) would show that they’re following trends in the way people want to communicate with their government.