Government Digital Service blog, and e-petitions

The new Government Digital Service, the part of the Cabinet Office tasked with taking forward various elements of the digital agenda in Whitehall (and beyond) has a new blog.

Very nice it is too, and anyone with an interest in online innovation in public services really ought to subscribe. Simon has some background on the blog’s setup.

Simon also refers to the first project coming out of the GDS, with involvement from the Government skunkworks team of under the radar innovators, headed up by Mark O’Neill, is the return of e-petitions to central government.

E-petitions were originally on the Number 10 website, where I used to have an awful lot of fun moderating the damn things during my stint there. Now they are on the DirectGov domain.

Interestingly, the e-petitions system is using a new system, developed in the Ruby on Rails framework, rather than using an existing project like the MySociety system, or indeed WordPress which was used by Kind of Digital’s WP guru Andrew Beeken to build a petitioning system for Lincoln Council.

One issue with the e-petitions system I picked up quickly, as did others was the fact that it now requires the user to select which is the relevant government department to deal with the petition. As Stefan writes:

An eager e-petitioner clicks the button to start the process and finds themselves with a simple form to complete. The first task is to give the petition a title. Pretty straightforward. The second is to identify the ‘Department that looks after your issue’. That’s a poser. There is a drop down list. There is a link to a page which explains which department does what. But the list is of ministerial departments and the help page gives little more than mission statements. Many of the bits of government which people have at least some understanding of don’t appear at all – there is no HMRC, no DVLA, no NHS, no Jobcentre Plus. Might a petition be appropriately directed to the Scotland Office, or should it go to the Scottish Government instead?

It sounds like this is being worked on to fix – but I’d argue this is a major barrier to participation and probably needs to be fixed if e-petitions are to have a significant impact.

I’ve written before about my view of e-petitions – they’re a blunt object and the process questions they raise are far trickier than the technological issues. One of the first petitions to be submitted was by the blogger Guido Fawkes, demanding the return of capital punishment for certain crimes.

As Anthony writes:

What will it tell us, and tell the Parliamentarians who have to then debate the issue?

That lots of people support the death penalty? We know that – most polls (though not all polls, as Guido claims) show that a little over half of people still support the death penalty, though the number has declined over the years.

That a hundred thousand people want hanging back enough to fill in an online form? What does that add to the knowledge that twenty-five million or so want it across the country?

And what if Parliament debates the issue and rejects it by a large margin (as happened in the ’80s and ’90s)? Will signers, and Guido, go away happy that the issue has been given a good airing in the democratic forum of the nation? Or will it just be used as another example of the perfidy of elected politicians in refusing to do what fifteen-hundredths of one percent of the Great British People tell them to do?

In which case, what’s the point?

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Dave Briggs

I'm Head of Digital and Design at Adur and Worthing Councils.

One thought on “Government Digital Service blog, and e-petitions”

  1. Good to see the new petition platform emerge but I agree with you that it’s not very smart. It seems there has been no learning from the well established systems, like in the Scottish Parliament.

    Not only will the drop-down make people pause, it fails in other key areas:-

    1. Petition prayer isn’t structured. This helps with both analytics and ensuring that petitions are at least comprehensible for the general public.

    2. No mention of pre-petition phase, possibly the most useful aspect of this instrument

    3. No multimedia in petition details

    4. No integration (or mention of) the proposed European Citizens’ Initiative

    5. Presumably no adherence to the data standard!

    etc etc etc 😦

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