Can you make a difference when you sign an e-petition?

CLBCristina Leston-Bandeira 

E-petitions have become extremely popular over the last decade. They circulate freely and quickly, with most people at some point having signed one. But there is a perennial question associated with them: what’s the point of e-petitions, do they achieve anything? In my recent Policy & Politics article, I approach this issue by exploring the different roles petitions can play, focusing on petitions to parliament. I show that petitions systems perform roles beyond enabling participation and policy change, depending on the types of processes in place to evaluate them. I demonstrate that the processes through which petitions are considered are crucial in shaping the role(s) they perform. 

The evaluation processes used tend to shape the roles performed by petitions systems. Petitions are a hook for further action: they are meaningless on their own. What matters is how they are considered by parliament and what results from this, if anything. So evaluations of whether petitions achieve anything need to be developed within the context of what happens to them beyond just the collection of signatures. Linked to this, it is also important to take a long-term view to understand the effect of a petition. The effect of a petition doesn’t finish with the collection of signatures, nor with, say, a debate. Just as with any other political process, in order to evaluate the impact of a petition, one needs to consider its effect on the actors involved and any subsequent actions, which can take place within days but may also last years. Such is the nature of affecting change in politics.

My article presents a historical and comparative analysis of different parliamentary petition systems and identifies four types of roles performed by petitions: linkage, campaigning, scrutiny and policy. Each of these types include a wide range of roles from fire-alarm, safety-valve to changing policy (see table below).

Roles performed by parliamentary petitions systems

Types Roles
Linkage
  • Legitimacy;
  • Safety-valve;
  • Grievance resolution;
  • Education;
  • Public engagement;
  • Political participation;
Campaigning
  • Mobilisation;
  • Group identity strengthening;
  • Dissemination;
  • Recruitment;
Scrutiny
  • Fire-alarm;
  • Agenda-setting;
  • Evidence gathering;
  • Questioning;
Policy
  • Policy review;
  • Policy improvement;
  • Policy influence;
  • Policy change.

 

The extent to which a parliamentary petition system performs any of these roles is dependent on the process used to evaluate it. My article develops an empirical analysis of the roles performed by the UK Parliament’s e-petitions system in its first parliament, 2015-2017. This empirical analysis is based on interviews with petitioners, parliamentary staff and MPs, ethnographic observation of parliamentary sessions and analysis of petitions data, amongst other.

Our analysis shows that the UK Parliament’s e-petitions system has performed a variety of roles, namely in terms of scrutiny and campaigning, but that its main role has been in public engagement. The process used to evaluate the petition submitted is crucial in shaping this role.

The system was introduced in 2015, collaboratively with the UK Government, with the intention of redressing problems with previous Government-led e-petitions systems. A core part of the new system was the establishment of a Committee that managed and oversaw the e-petitions system. The existence of a Committee of MPs, led by a Chair, and supported by a team of staff, was found to make a significant difference to the new system. This has enabled those e-petitions that have attracted the most signatures to be followed up where appropriate. The Committee can lead inquiries, debate petitions and initiate any other activity which enables it to better understand the arguments surrounding a petition. Simple methods, such as emailing all signatories of a petition every time an action is taken, has meant that signatories stay informed about their petition beyond signing. Additional activities, such as deliberative workshops, digital forums and surveys, have all helped the Committee to understand better the reasoning behind petitions, and to draw on this insight during parliamentary proceedings. The regular communication with petitioners has had another effect: petitioners feel someone is listening to them. In interviews, petitioners repeatedly talked of their surprise when the Committee got in touch with them. Regardless of whether they had achieved what they were after, petitioners were positive about the experience of petitioning if they felt they had been listened to. It was the processes that followed the submission of the petition that made a difference to the potential roles their petition could play.

We conclude therefore that any analysis of petitions systems should go beyond the point of collection of signatures, or even a single instance of a debate in parliament (often seen as the only output of a petition). It is the longer-term consequences of raising specific issues through a petition, and how this is taken forward through formal evaluation processes and actors, that enables our understanding of the extent to which a petition does make a difference.

This blog post was originally published on the Discover Society – Policy and Politics blog  on  4 December 2019.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Leston-Bandeira, Cristina (2019) ‘Parliamentary petitions and public engagement: an empirical analysis of the role of e-petitions‘, Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15579230420117

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

When the people speak – and decide: deliberation and direct democracy in the citizen assembly of Glarus, Switzerland

Beyond radicalism and resignation: the competing logics for public participation in policy decisions

Citizen participation and changing governance: cases of devolution in England

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