Council e-petitions

Just after Christmas I wrote a quick post about the prospect of e-petitions for Parliament.

Of course, local councils are also supposed to have their own e-petitions systems and processes.

My own local council, South Holland, has a system in place (the MySociety one) but sadly it doesn’t look like anybody has created a petition on it just yet. We must be a very content lot in south Lincs!

On the Communities of Practice, there’s a dedicated group for e-petitions, ably facilitated by Fraser Henderson. In a recent blog post (sign in required), Fraser notes that quite a few authorities don’t provide an e-petition facility on their website, despite encouragement from central government (it’s no longer a mandated requirement).

He also notes that there is an independent study going on to assess how e-petitioning is being used – it will be interesting to see the results.

In the meantime, Team DavePress (ie me and @davebriggswife) are quickly scanning the web for e-petitioning activity. We’re collating what we are finding in this Google spreadsheet.

At the time of writing, there’s not much data in there yet. However, it’s apparent that e-petitioning hasn’t exactly set the local democracy world alight just yet. Many councils have apparently not had a single petition submitted!

Why might this be?

One reason is that even when councils are providing an e-petitions facility, they aren’t exactly promoting it that heavily. In a number of cases, the e-petitions page is hidden in the website navigation. So people aren’t using the facility because they don’t know it’s there, or they can’t find it.

I suspect though that the bigger issue is that petitions, e- or otherwise, are not not that great a way to do local democracy. It’s a fairly blunt instrument, and of course they tend to identify and problem and provide a solution in one go. What if you agree there’s an issue, but think the proposed idea in a petition sucks?

I’d have thought something a bit more deliberative would be of more use. E-petitions strike me as a bit shouty, and as we all know, the web is all conversational these days.

12 thoughts on “Council e-petitions”

  1. I think your last comment about agreeing with the issue but not the solution is an interesting one.

    What would be great is for people to agree and sign up to the issue be escalated but supported by a conversation space to identify which solution(s) might be best for particular communities…

    My thinking on this was that ePetition + Online Conversation space or Hub + Simpl (futuregov) would provide an excellent approach…but didn’t progress my thinking further…


    1. Hey Carl

      Good solution to the issue. Referendums are the same – take the voting one. You might want to get rid of FPTP but not support the particular type of AV identified in the vote, so you vote ‘no’. Doesn’t mean you support the status quo though.

      I’ve said before that I think e-petitions are a good example of doing the wrong thing righter. It’s sticking the web onto an existing practice and process rather than rethinking the whole thing to see if a better process might be possible.

    2. I think Carl has the right idea here and certainly the system we implemented in Lincoln could, in theory, support this as it’s built on WordPress (although we’ve chosen to use comments as signatures, I’m sure WP3 with it’s flexible taxonomies would be a good platform). Sure, petitions in principle are a blunt tool, however add some interwebs magic and they can evolve and become something useful.

      However, I think the key issue behind this is the argument I hear far too many times “We don’t want to create any more work for ourselves”. I’ve heard this in relation to the publishing of spend data and I continue to hear it as other online systems come into play.

      But this isn’t going to go away and we (those who appreciate why this change is important) need to strive to make that change happen.

  2. I don’t disagree with the idea that you need a collaborative space to agree the petition wording, but let’s be honest, it’s not the factor holding things back. Anyone wanting to start a popular petition will find others with whom to discuss the wording. And even if it is not perfect, if the sentiment is right, it will get signatures.

    What is the bigger problem?

    When was the last time you went to the council offices to start or sign a petition? Hell, when did you go anywhere to sign a petition? They come to you, on the street-corner, in the supermarket, at the school-gates.

    If councils want e-epetitions to succeed they need to offer it as a take-away product. People should be able to take the petition away and host it on their own site. It should be a product that the council offers to citizens. Too often it looks like something the council controls and that doesn’t always sit comfortably with campaigners.

      1. Or even to create a plug-in that allows a site owner to create a petition that has the necessary standards for the council to accept. It could create a tag that councils could look out for alerting them to new petitions.

        This might be a little far for some, so yes, let campaigners embed their own petitions on their own sites.

        Councils will argue, quite rightly, that they add value by discussing the wording of a petition before it goes live. However that doesn’t mean that a campaigner should have to discuss it with the council. Many won’t want to.

  3. How about an abstain option for tackling the “yes something needs to be done, but not this” response? With a binary choice of Yes or No, whichever you choose you are accepting the opposite. “Abstain” says “I don’t want either of these solutions”.

    In fact rather than being petitions (“so and so wants x – second it or say no more”) these systems should be polls. One person proposes something, everyone else is given the choice to say “I agree” or “I disagree” as well as the option to add comments.

    Counter-petitioning should be available, with those displayed along side the original petition. For example, Bob petitions for “bin collections to happen daily instead of fortnightly” and then Sue counter-petitions for “bin collections to happen weekly instead of fortnightly” followed by Gemma who petitions for “bin collections to maintain their quarterly collection but carried out by rats riding on the back of cats”.

    All three would clearly link to each other so that potential signatories can see the different options available to them.

    As for taking petitions away – I would have though embedding, sharing and the like would have been a given, not something that ends up as an after thought.

  4. Hi Dave,

    As you probably know, mySociety has provided a bunch of councils with their ePetitions systems. You’re totally right to draw attention to the numerous sites with zero petitions on them (too many!) but it isn’t true across the piece. To help you populate your spreadsheet, why not go through the history of this RSS feed, which aggregates the new petitions on the majority (but not all) of the sites we provide:

    To me there’s no great mystery as to why so many sites are empty – nobody knows about them! Most councils have done zero PR. But when they do, well, just see what has happened in Hounslow, where there has been publicity: <– currently open <– finished over the last few months

    So, I would say don't over analyse the lack of petitions, when there has been no concerted effort to tell citizens about them. We should take the lesson that goes back to FaxYourMP, which is "Build a single site and point people to the right place". I've wanted mySociety to do this for a while, but we've just been too busy on other things.

    However, taking Dave's blog post as inspiration, I've finally asked one of my colleagues to register – is anyone up for helping us make it work?

    1. Hi Tom – thanks for stopping by and for your thoughts.

      I certainly don’t see the issue here as a technology one, as you say it’s almost always down to a lack of promotion by the local authorities.

      We certainly spotted Hounslow as being a bit of an outlier both in terms of the use of the facility, and the marketing of it by the council – which are of course both related!

      petitionyourcouncil sounds like a good idea – anything that makes it easier for residents to make something happen!

      I think Shane’s point above is a good one though – is it possible to make MySociety petitions embeddable?

      1. Quick challenge: can anyone see (without using a search engine, view source or other cleverness) how to get from the regular navigation on the South Holland council homepage to the e-petitions page? “Notices” isn’t a natural or permanent-looking home and “Get Involved” linked to a page on waste management for me!

        Still, credit to South Holland: I can’t tell if North Somerset have e-petitions yet. It’s not in their A-Z under E or P.

        1. I cheated and used google to find pages linking to it.

          Your Council > Petitions > Create a Petition

  5. Hi Dave, Shane,

    Yes, of course it would be possible to make petitions embeddable – as it is with nearly anything online these days. The question, as so often is life, is where the money to do it comes from …

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