E-petitions: a vote for the future?

January 27th, 2011 by

microtask_e_petitionsGenerally in life, I’m as upbeat and optimistic as the next guy (as long as the next guy’s another world-weary net geek). But when it comes to government crowdsourcing initiatives, I gotta admit, my cynicism radar starts to twitch. Like an out of control chemistry class, state funded crowdsourcing projects tend to start with a bang and end with a whimper.

Take the UK elections last year. Back in May we covered the embarrassing crush politicians had with online social media. As well as constantly tweeting and setting up Facebook groups, the UK Conservative Party began a scheme to get crowd input on ways to cut government spending. A few months and a few thousand of responses later, what happened? Well, pretty much nothing. You have to give the UK Government credit for trying, but why call on the crowd at all if you don’t listen when they answer?

Digital Debates
Given their track record, I couldn’t help feeling a little skeptical when I read the latest pledge by the same Conservative party: any e-petition with over 100,000 votes on the UK government website will be guaranteed a debate in Parliament. But since it’s a new year, I’m prepared to give the guys in suits another chance and take the idea seriously. It’s actually a pretty exciting concept: 100,000 clicks and the issues people care about most will get aired in one of the world’s oldest (though not necessarily most mature or well behaved) parliaments.

E-petitions aren’t a new phenomena for UK citizens. In fact, they’ve long been part of the official Number 10 Downing Street website (note it’s currently suspended. I can feel my New Year goodwill fading fast…). In 2007 one influential campaign against new road pricing laws got over a million signatures causing a pretty swift (and not exactly dignified) u-turn in government policy. Voice of the people: heard.

The crowbar of democracy?
As anyone who’s ever wielded a charity clipboard knows, petitions suit single-issue, negative campaigning. Critics of the Conservatives’ plan worry that an avalanche of negative petitioning will clog up the work of government. Even Peter Roberts, the man behind the road pricing campaign, has called e-petitions “a blunt instrument”. What if every tax rise and cutback got blocked by citizens? (Refer to the state of California’s finances for answer.) Or if internet-savvy lobbying groups – such as the green movement or the food industry – hijacked the site, pushing their own agendas?

But before we all sink back into the warm embrace of political apathy, let’s remember one obvious but often overlooked fact: an e-petition isn’t the same as a paper petition. A paper petition stops with a signature. I’m not knocking that: it’s simple, powerful, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin politics. But, if governments got their acts together, e-petitions have the potential to be much more. With a well set up, well-moderated site you could create constructive petitions, giving people the chance to suggest alternatives to government policy. Of course, that would mean a whole pile of new data – but why not also use crowd labor to sort it, categorize it, and filter out spam? If that’s too high-tech for the UK government to grasp, even the most basic e-petition site could easily allow citizens to down-vote – registering opinion against, as well as for, petitions.

There’s no technical reason for e-petitions to fail and, as previous campaigns show, citizens are clearly eager for online democracy. It’s basically all down to the politicians. Only time will tell if they have the imagination to make e-petitions work, and the courage to listen – even when the public tells them what they don’t want to hear.

  • Lia Goren

    Thanks!nRun inputs on a distributed network working. As a result: more complexity, more diversity, more creativity and more innovation.