e-Petitions: An Exceptional Experiment in e-Democracy

Downing Street has had the courage to test an innovative application of e-democracy, called ‘e-petitions’. Launched in November 2006 as a test site, it has become a media event not only due to its use, which has been exceptionally high for any governmental site, but also for its specific use to protest a proposal to implement a congestion charge, similar to that used in London, across many other areas of Britain. Close to 1.8 million individuals have signed an e-petition in opposition to this congestion charge. The Minister of Transportation has responded well in arguing that this expression of opinion will lead to a more informed debate.

e-Petitions is currently in a public “beta test”. See: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/

This experiment has generated much handwringing over point-and-click plebiscitary democracy and critics are quick to point out the odd proposal, such as one petition calling for pet shops to be allowed to sell elephants. But legislatures and parliaments make silly proposals as well, and this experiment has real promise. It provides the public a means for expressing their opinions in a way that can be generated bottom-up and aggregated. It is not a referendum. It provides instant impact for citizens, who can see their expression reflected in the tallies. It has already helped shape public policy agenda in the UK.

Congratulations to Downing Street and mysociety generating this debate.

One thought on “e-Petitions: An Exceptional Experiment in e-Democracy

  1. Comment from Malcolm Peltu:

    I agree with the general drift of the positive comments from Bill and Tobias about the 10 Downing Street e-petition site as an experiment of potential value and significance. I also agree with Heather Yaxley’s comments on some limitations in terms of broader democratic concerns.

    My own feeling is that this particular experiment is perhaps most significant in the way it has triggered a greater awareness and discussion of the potential – for better and worse – of online democratic engagement. In this context, I found the Independent’s front page story and related articles today (23 February 2007) especially encouraging as they move away from the focus on one experiment and one particular e-petition towards ‘Web 2.0’ social networking and other e-democracy ideas (see ‘People Power’ links via http://news.independent.co.uk/business/news/article2296831.ece).

    Of course, the high hit rate for the road pricing petition is significant. But without more research, it is difficult to know exactly what it signifies. For instance, Hitwise’s interesting analysis indicates these e-petitioners come from older age groups rather than the ‘politically disengaged’ younger generation for which e-democracy is often seen as a means of building re-engagement. Is this because the topic doesn’t appeal to younger people? Or that young people are less influenced by the Daily Mail and other lobby groups? Or that those who are already disengaged from formal political processes offline are also more uninterested in contacting Downing Street online because they are more cynical about the value of such contacts?

    What weighting should be given to the failure of thousands of other e-petitions that have got no extra coverage, as opposed to the positive praise for the size of the most successful one? If success is taken to mean ‘better informing’ petitioners to help them understand the government’s position, as the pro e-petitioners in the government suggest, what if general scepticism of the government means its responses are rejected? For example, the Association of British Drivers, one of the lobby groups supporting the petition, issued a press release on 14 February stating that ‘Promises from Ministers to listen to the 1.4 million signatories of the anti road pricing petition and debate the issue sensibly have today been exposed as a total sham’ (http://www.abd.org.uk)’. That was before Blair’s e-mail response, but what if this view of the exercise as a ‘sham’ remains among a substantial number of the e-petitioners?

    It would also have been helpful to raise more public discussion about different approaches to e-petitions and other forms of more deliberative online consultation. For instance, the Scottish Parliament e-petition system is directly connected with its formal parliamentary process, including a Public Petitions Committee deciding which are formally presented (see http://epetitions.scottish.parliament.uk/). An assessment of this has been made by Glasgow University (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/business/committees/petitions/reports-06/pur06-PPS-assessment-01.htm) . It will be interesting see how the Downing Street site eventually compares in ‘citizen satisfaction’ ratings as part of the process of understanding how e-democracy can best contribute to overall democratic health.

    In vividly kick-starting the public debate on these issues, this experiment has already achieved much.

Comments are most welcome