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.

Parliamentary online petitions

So, online petitions for Parliament?

In an attempt to reduce what is seen as a disconnection between the public and parliament, ministers will ensure that the most popular petition on the government website Direct.gov.uk will be drafted as a bill. It is also planning to guarantee that petitions which reach a fixed level of support – most likely 100,000 signatures – will be guaranteed a Commons debate.

I haven’t read much online that is particularly in favour of this idea. I suspect it’s one that can be filed in the ‘doing the wrong things righter’ cupboard.

Glen Newey on the LRB blog is particularly scathing:

Now the coalition plans to outsource law-making as well. On Tuesday it signalled that it meant to bring in ‘X Factor-style’ online petitioning for new laws. This latest wheeze hails from the same stable of Mutt and Jeff populism as John Major’s cones hotline and Tony Blair’s ‘Big Conversation’. The Gould-era Blair government was hexed by the popularity of Big Brother and saw political dividends in pretending to smile on government by mouse-click. So, after the focus-pocus of the early years, in 2006 Blair launched interactive petitioning on the Number Ten website. Not much happened, apart from a little ministerial consternation when petitioners gave Douglas Alexander’s road-toll scheme a mass thumbs-down. But in general the demos itself seems to doubt whether it needs more chances to vote. John Prescott’s proposal for a North East regional assembly in 2004 drew an impressive 78 per cent ‘No’ vote.

This time, 100,000 online signatures will win a debate on the floor of the House. A new era of democracy beckons: you name it, we’ll go through the motions of considering it. Safeguards will be installed to stop the virtual parthenogenesis that, for example, allowed Christian zealots to inflate their numbers when browbeating the BBC over its screening of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Petitioners won’t be able to clone themselves, impersonate the dead, or give the dog a vote. But this won’t be enough to insulate the process from fruitcakes and jokers in the population at large, let alone in the blogosphere. Adherents of the Jewish religion registered by the 2001 UK census were easily outnumbered by some 390,000 self-confessed Jedis, a figure bloated by online gerrymandering. Hartlepudlians repeatedly elected H’Angus the monkey as mayor after he had committed an act of indecency with a blow-up doll in Blackpool.

Paul Clarke covers some of the issues around identity with his customary élan.

I’ve noticed that a few councils are now starting to go live with their own online petitioning systems, including my local council, South Holland District, with what looks like the MySociety system.

Not sure if any readers have experience of either using or administering such a system, and are keen to share them?

I spent many an unhappy hour moderating petitions on the Number 10 system, which was a generally very depressing experience, with the petitions submitted bearing a very direct correlation with the headline in the dailies Mail or Express that morning.

Bookmarks for March 30th through April 5th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

  • The Collapse of Complex Business Models « Clay Shirky – Awesome stuff from Shirky.
  •   Reflecting on my MSc research by Michele Ide-Smith – "By researching the attitudes and perceptions of authorities and citizens I hope to gain a better understanding of perceived barriers, threats and opportunities of using social media for community engagement"
  • Cinch – "Cinch is a free and easy way to create and share audio, text and photo updates using your phone or computer. Cinch enables you to capture and report on your experiences in a way that simple text just can't do. Using a simple interface, you can make and broadcast your content creations through Facebook, Twitter, CinchCast.com and more."
  • The State of the Internet Operating System – O’Reilly Radar – "Ask yourself for a moment, what is the operating system of a Google or Bing search? What is the operating system of a mobile phone call? What is the operating system of maps and directions on your phone? What is the operating system of a tweet?"
  • Penval’s Digital Inclusion Manifesto – Well done Paul Nash. This is what the digital inclusion debate needs – proper, thought through ideas. Genuinely constructive contributions. Not just people bleating about the problems.
  • tecosystems » Forking, The Future of Open Source, and Github – Is the future of open source going to be based on communities such as Apache and Eclipse or will it be based on companies that sell open source? Neither.
  • Dr Dennis Kimbro & his views on recruitment – Really interesting and thought provoking piece on talent management, and attitudes to it, in local government.
  • In quest of simplicty – "We expect IT to be complex and costly, but the lesson of the past 5 years in IT – where we’ve seen the consumerization of enterprise IT (“enterprise” is often a coy way of saying “this has to be complex and expensive – no questions!”) – is that IT can be both simple and cheap."
  • Law and social media – dull but important – "Social media throws up issues of privacy and identity which are far more complex when you have a complete record of someone’s time online and a also a need to balance the personal with the professional roles of an individual. "
  • Powerful petitions with real teeth set to bite – "Local people can now demand their councils take action on underperforming schools and hospitals, drink disorder, anti-social behaviour and other concerns under new rules giving real power to local petitions, announced Communities Secretary John Denham today."

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Local e-petitions

Headstar reported the other day about the progress of the piece of legislation that will mandate local authorities to set up systems allowing residents to create e-petitions, and to respond to such petitions.

Under the ‘Local democracy, economic development and construction Bill’ (http://bit.ly/1nEC4Z), councils will be obliged to provide an e-petition facility and publish schemes for both electronic and traditional petitions, to acknowledge any petition to its organiser, and to offer a response, all of which should be published online.

I’ve got quite a bit of interest in e-petitions, not least as a result of spending time helping moderate them for Number 10 during my time there. I’ve seen how these things can work, and how they can be frustrating.

Learning Pool have been keeping an eye on the development of the need for e-petitioning by councils, and already have an e-petitions platform in development which we will soon be looking to engage local authorities in testing. As always with Learning Pool’s stuff, it will be based on open source technology and will be easy to use and very cost effective. If you’re interested, please do get in touch.

In a related development, Andy Gibson is going to be working with Dominic and Fraser to develop a data standard for e-petitions.

From next year, it’s probable that all local councils will be required to provide electronic petitioning tools to their citizens, and we want to make sure they all do it the right way, and in a form that means they can all talk to each other.

I’ve put my name down to get involved, and will ensure that Learning Pool’s e-petitions system fits in with any agreed open standards.