Comment: E-petitions are coming to a parliament near you. Finally.

The government's new e-petitions proposal is a step forward, but as ever the devil is in the detail.

By Dr Andy Williamson

Last week the government launched a new e-petitions system that allows the public to set up electronic petitions and then encourage others to sign them. There's nothing new in this, Downing Street launched a similar system in 2006. It was quietly turned off at the end of last year although there were some successes along the way. Not perhaps the 'Jeremy Clarkson for PM' petition but certainly the one that led to Gordon Brown's apology for the way the late Alan Turing was treated. And in 2007 it caused a government U-turn when a petition against road pricing got over one million signatures.

Despite supporting the concept of petitions, I remained uncomfortable with the Downing Street petitions site. Not the concept, more the location. Downing Street was never the right place for this. It is after all parliament that has, since 1669, been the traditional recipient of public petitions. With its heyday in 1843 when over 33,000 petitions were received, petitioning declined rapidly during the 20th century and is now seen as largely ineffectual by MPs.

Westminster lags well behind Scotland, Wales and Brussels (not to mention Berlin, Canberra and many others!). It's not for lack of trying; the procedure committee recommended such a system be developed and the then leader of the House, Harriet Harman, announced it would happen back in 2008. It didn't because of outmoded thinking and attempts to gold-plate an overly complex IT solution. Downing Street, Berlin, Canberra and now DirectGov show this isn't necessary. Is this new solution an admission that government has had enough and doesn't trust parliament to do the job so it's doing it for them?

It's not just parliament; local government, particularly in England, has done e-petitioning for a long time. And civil society groups are using them as part of their campaigning toolkit too. The most exciting is the relatively new, internet-based 38 Degrees. They've already had success with a campaign to rethink the forestry sell-off and now have online campaigns to save the NHS and stop the badger cull, the latter attracting over 15,000 signatures in less than two weeks.

DirectGov's new system offers one unique chance to the public; your petition could be debated in parliament. Although the exact process is unclear, the promise is that petitions will be reviewed by the backbench business committee. Those with more than 100,000 signatures will be 'eligible' for a debate. Based on the German Bundestag's experience, that could mean around five petitions a year. Based on Downing Street's experience (which is not entirely comparable), it could be a lot less. More of concern is that there is no explanation of what makes an active petition worthy of debate, or of rejection for that matter.

This highlights a problem with e-petitions. Whilst useful, trying to measure their value simply by counting signatures is flawed. It's easy to get signatures for populist causes. Despite the noise generated in some quarters around capital punishment, polls show that the public are not by-and-large in favour of it. Politicians even less so. Yet the first e-petition we're likely to see on the new system could be a call for just that. And given the vocal minority it is quite likely to meet the threshold for debate.

The problem comes because the barriers to signing an e-petition are very low. Some experts dismiss it as 'slacktivism' – token engagement with democracy from your armchair. This is perhaps a little unfair as signing a petition is the second most likely democratic act after voting. Petitions do though tend to lack any kind of conversational or educative focus and they seldom provide an opportunity to engage in a reasoned debate. 38 Degrees is a notable exception to this as it provides additional background information and discursive spaces.
We have also seen from the Welsh experience of e-petitions in particular that quality is important. The petition might lack the stadium-filling number of names but that's because what it's asking is specialised, localised or of limited public interest. That doesn't mean it isn't sensible, important and something that parliament should be looking at.

I'm generally a fan of e-petitions. They are a valuable part of the democratic toolkit and, because they are easy to engage with, can be an on-ramp to further engagement. To work though, there are a few things that need to happen. The process has to be meaningful for participants; when I sign a petition I want to know what is going to happen to it, what the rules are and who gets to decide. I want to hear back about what happened and I want to know what difference it made. On the other side, the process must be designed so that parliament can not only debate a petition but it can refer one to a minister and have a right to expect an answer. The new proposal is a step forward but the devil is in the detail. A well-designed, transparent and accountable process (to both the public and parliament) could be a chance to engage a wider public in the work of parliament.

Dr Andy Williamson is director of the Hansard Society Digital Democracy Programme.

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