E-petitions: 'prat' doesn't go far enough

25 February 2007

An unnamed minister dismissed the person behind Number 10's e-petitions website as a 'prat'. Having looked through the site and what it is doing, it's hard to find any reasons to disagree. The road-pricing petition has demonstrated what a disaster this kind of site is, not just for the government but for democracy. I can't think of something better placed to convince the voting public that their views don't matter to politicians. All that's happened is that 1.8 million people found out they can't sway the decision simply by putting their email address on a form. This will, naturally, lead them to conclude that the political process is broken.

When interviewed by the BBC about the e-petitions website his organisation implemented for Number 10, Tom Steinberg defended the idea, saying: "Academic research shows people are more willing to sign a petition than engage in any other kind of political activity."

Well that's great. But what good has any petition done in the past, either to influence politicians or make people think about what their request means? They are a publicity stunt, although you kind of lose a lot of the effect by not having people take a wheelbarrow full of paper to the door of Number 10. They are not a reliable lever for influencing political decisions. They are about as effective as writing a letter to Santa Claus, because that is what most petitions are: a wish for something to happen, not something that is even close to being implementable as policy.

Take a look at the e-petitions website and you will find all manner of wishes for change: each one a self-contained demand that does not bother with the implications of putting any of the decisions into action. Some of the petitions are reasonably well though-out or are limited enough in scope to form the basis of a simple legislative change - consider the one put together by saynoto0870.com, for example. The others are like hopeless prayers to a deaf God.

One petition demands that the restaurant mark-up on wine to be restricted. Another wants the recognition that rural areas are different to London. Then there is the person who us to stop killing animals or kill them more humanely. Make your mind up, please.

The various wildfire debates on unrelated discussion boards that sprang up around road pricing demonstrated the problem remarkably well. You would have people write in to say: sign this petition now and show the Government what for. Others would interject with opinions on how it's all about taxing the motorist off the road or just another stealth tax. Let's face it, it's hardly a stealth tax if 1.8 million people notice it enough to sign a petition. But, when challenged on what they would do about congestion, they rambled on about spending more money on roads or how great hydrogen vehicles will be (quite what they do for congestion, I'm still unclear).

Questions like "where would you like your taxes to pay for these roads?" would draw little more than a hostile response. Pointing out that demand for roads is elastic - that is, build more and you get more cars driving down them - was similarly dismissed.

The format of a petition does not confront people with the reality of the choices that have to be made to alter any piece of policy. It's just "sign this and something will happen". It's an infantile approach to influencing government, although it has been encouraged by the willingness of recent administrations to announce 'radical' new policies every time something bad happens. There is this idea that there is a piece of legislation to solve everything without any adverse consequences. All it does is create new and ever more impenetrable legislation that does nothing but invoke the universal law of unintended consequences.



Just a quick question:

"The format of a petition does not confront people with the reality of the choices that have to be made to alter any piece of policy."

This is true. I'd love to know about some good ideas for internet enabled systems that did do what you describe - it's exactly the sort of thing mySociety should be doing too.

Can you describe any particular ways in which this could be done?



If I do, do I get a prize?

Seriously, this has to be the Holy Grail of online participative politics. I'm tempted to float the idea of a kind of thinktank-wiki-thing, assuming nobody has done so already.

You couldn't do a conventional wiki because it would be trashed by opposing sides within minutes. But, when you consider how much policy comes from professional, funded thinktanks, it strikes me that there has to be some kind of public-participation model that resembles the research/analysis/proposal model used by thinktanks and similar NGOs. In principle, you would use a wiki-style system to capture desires and ideas, and then use the critiques of others to find holes and workarounds, detail on likely cost or conflict with existing regulations.

The obvious danger would be the tendency for the individual policy areas to be highjacked by pressure groups able to deploy large numbers of members and therefore game the system. It is also potentially very high cost as, ideally, you would have some experts on hand to provide advice on how to cost policy suggestions - however, you would hope that such a job would be largely down to participants themselves.

That's a real quick and dirty partly baked idea.