E-petitions became the latest political football last week as both Labour and the Conservatives moved to outflank each other as part of a battle over constitutional reform.
But e-democracy experts and a commons committee have warned that any such move should be considered carefully if it is to avoid tokenism and enact real change.
Recently, deputy prime minister Harriet Harman put down several orders that would introduce a law requiring the Commons to debate a petition – either electronic or offline – if it garnered a certain number of supporters.
David Cameron responded by proposing that any petition with a million signatures should allow members of the public to introduce a bill on which MPs will be required to vote.
“It’s absurd that a tiny percentage of the population crafts legislation that will apply to the entire population. Instead of locking people out of the process, we need to invite them in,” he said last week.
Such ideas have been doing the rounds inside Westminster for some time, but politicians regard them with some trepidation after an e-petition on the 10 Downing St web site signed by 1.8 million people in 2007 killed off road taxing proposals.
The idea behind e-petitions is to increase public engagement in parliamentary proceedings, and restore some power over policy to the House of Commons, widely seen as neutered by an overly powerful executive.
A House of Commons reform committee suggested in 2008 that a petition be debated on the floor of the house if it received enough public support, with signatories being updated on progress. It would then require a formal response from government.
But the committee warned: “Numbers alone, especially in an electronic age and easily mobilised by organised groups, should not be enough to guarantee attention.”
E-petitions have been introduced in both the Scottish and German parliaments as well as for some local councils in England, and laws passed last year will soon require all councils to have some kind of e-petitions system.
All who have experienced the system sound a similar warning on numbers. Mary Reid, a liberal democrat councillor for Kingston-upon-Thames, which has successfully introduced e-petitions, said it is difficult to gauge the importance of a petition from the numbers alone.
“We had a petition from 12 houses in the same cul-de-sac on parking – not a huge number, but it was obviously an important issue for everybody who was affected. Just because you might get a large number of responses on something more generic doesn’t necessary mean it’s a good thing to look at – what’s required is common sense,” she said.
It is for this reason that the Scottish parliament set up a committee to examine e-petitions before they are debated, rather than having a system where any proposal supported by a certain number of people gains attention.
The e-petitions site for Downing St became the subject of some media ridicule after a number of joke petitions gained widespread support – politicians are obviously keen not to be forced to debate in parliament whether Jeremy Clarkson should become prime minister.
But the jokes mask a serious point – e-petitions as a democratic tool are vulnerable to campaigns from well-organised, single-issue groups.
Furthermore, they are “one-way” tools in that they make a single issue of something, offer no dialogue or discussion, and risk becoming a channel for general discontent rather than opinion on a particular issue.
Edward Andersson, deputy director at e-democracy charity Involve, said money being spent in this area could be used in better ways.
“The more interesting projects use a two-way process, opening up discussion between a public body and citizens,” he said.
He cites an example of Melbourne using a wiki edited by thousands to draft a “city vision”.
And to avoid being vulnerable to single-issue groups, the government should take the discussion to other parts of the web such as social networks where issues are already being debated in a more open-minded way, Andersson said.
“It’s a fallacy to assume people will come to you. Better to find out where the discussions are already happening and go to them to engage,” he added.
The chequered history of 10 Downing St e-petitions
The Downing St e-petitions site was introduced in 2007. It was developed by MySociety founder Tom Steinberg – now an adviser to the Conservatives. It was the subject of much controversy after one government minister angry about the anti-road tax petitions described it as an “own goal” thought up by a “prat”. The media has also enjoyed publicising some of the more absurd petitions, such as that for Gordon Brown to perform a circus act, or for Jeremy Clarkson to become prime minister.