Government petition websites: A lost cause from the start?

24. November, 2014

With the rise in popularity and influence of global petition web sites, those launched by state institutions have remained out of the spotlight. Such sites could be seen as praiseworthy initiatives that nevertheless lack the necessary punch. However, the story behind them is a bit more complicated and worth spending a little time on. The way that We the People in the US and e-petitions in the UK have developed highlights a couple of crucial insights into democracy.

In 2011 the White House launched We the People that was meant to reignite the connection between the government and the people of the United States. Yet after its initial popularity the site ran into foreseeable problems. The low signature threshold that entailed the petitioner to an official government response (5,000 signatures) meant that the White House ended up responding (in quite an amusing way) to petitions demanding NASA to construct a Death Star spaceship or declare Sasquatch as an endangered species. After the subsequent increase in the signature threshold to 100,000, the website has experienced a drop in popularity, and the White House has been criticized for being slow and too general in its response to popular petitions, such as one on reducing gun violence.

Some would argue that a static website such as We the People cannot compete with, which attracts signatories through social media. Moreover, a government-run petition website is fundamentally restricted in its ability to gather support – the government itself cannot really send out reminders to support a petition against itself. As succinctly put by J.H. Snider:

“This is because the interests of the public and elected officials differ. The public is inclined to ask politicians to take controversial stands that politicians have no rational self-interest in taking.”

But this doesn’t mean that the state itself cannot institutionalize petitions as a way of enhancing democracy. Perhaps, we need to look across the Atlantic to a somewhat different political system whose ‘debating chamber’ type of parliament can provide the right conditions for such sites to reach their intended potential.

UK’s e-petitions website was launched around the same time but has recently taken a somewhat different direction. Initially the website was criticized for suffering the same malaise, namely, the government being in a position where it effectually restricts the diversity of petitions. With a previous average rejection rate of 47%, the UK now seems to be inclined to reach an institutional compromise. New plans aim to keep the petitions serious and hold petitioners to account while limiting the government’s discretionary powers to ignore the people. Starting with the next parliament more power would be given to the House of Commons through the creation of a Petitions Committee which would coordinate successful petitions and e-petitions would be brought directly to the Commons. In addition, petitioners would be called to present their case thus creating a reasonable requirement from the people, which could help to filter out trivial petitions with a lot of support (such as the Death Star request).

The US and UK sites have taken different routes after facing quite fundamental challenges, yet UK’s experience gives hope that a direct link between the people and their state can be institutionalized in the form of such state-initiated petition platforms.

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia. raksts

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