I remember checking the site in December when this particular petition had still only around 50,000 supporters but it gained momentum with some news coverage early this year and when even the Sun finally stumpled upon the story it must have been become apparent to some people in government that they’ve got more than they’ve bargained for.
Apart from the official statement of Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander which Bill reports in his post, the Guardian alleges that there was also a less supportive response from Mr Alexander:
“Whoever came up with this idea must be a prat” (Guardian, 17.2.).
It highlights that there are more than enough people in the government that actually are not happy with having this way of getting direct feedback from the public – and I’m not talking here about the inevitable share of abuse (ie. bogus petitions) the site receives but about the hundreds of people who actually bother to voice their opinion and the millions of people signing it. Who did care about road pricing before the petition site? No one. This site now has given citizens an easy and convenient opportunity for raising their concerns and bringing them to the attention of the government. Whoever sees that as undesirable has in my mind some fundamental problems with his understanding of democracy. Or in the words of one commenter on the BBC site:
“It says it all about the Labour Party that they’ve finally found a channel for listening to what the people want, and branded it a “Public relations disaster!” (Steve Sutton, St. Albans, UK on the BBC website)
There is however the issue of what effect these publicly raised concerns have or indeed should have. In December last year we’ve hosted a workshop together with the Cabinet Office on “Engaging the ‘Google Generation’” (I guess the final report will be available soon) and some people who should know it admitted that there hasn’t been a fixed plan of how to deal with the public response (something like that would never have happened in Blair’s early days…) as the site was seen as an experiment (notice it’s still a beta version).
There is likely to be public over-expectation on the impact the petition (or indeed any petition) can have. After all, matters should be decided in parliament and for good reason. But now that the public ’s opinion is there measurable and for everybody to see, it is more difficult to dismiss the protesters. It is this that will have sparked the outrage of the Transport Secretary who now has to deal with this.
For the time being it was Tony Blair’s turn to respond to the petition which he did by sending out an email to all 1.8m petitioners. It is a noticeable design feature of this system that was developed by mysociety.org (by now a force to be reckoned with in British politics) that it only allows the email addresses of petitioners to be used twice before it will delete them – in this way preventing the government from using the site as a means to harvest email addresses for propaganda purposes.
It seems somehow ironic that something as old a tradition as petitioning government, simply transformed to take advantage of modern technology, is now the pinnacle of British e-government efforts – and even this comparatively simple tool already causes such an outcry among some politicians. Who can image what happens if some real Web 2.0 style web applications would be used, for example to discuss and rate politicians or NHS hospitals (more ideas welcome – feel free to comment!).
However, to end on a more optimistic note, maybe this shows how much potential there really is in leveraging the power of people and technology (call it Web 2.0 or whatever) to really revive the political process if this little can already make such a difference. On this we will have to thank the road-pricing opponents who in their fight to keep Britain’s roads congested made the site so popular in no time.
UPDATE: Hitwise (which I mentioned earlier here in that blog) have done some analyses on who actually used to access the e-petitions site (above average use from 55+ year old people) and where they come from (Daily Mail features 4th). Interestingly, according to their data, the petitions site currently is the most popular UK government site (in UK visits). thanks to Heather Yaxley who pointed me to this.
Since October 2006 I am both a DPhil student as well as a research assistant at the Oxford Internet Institute and here I share with the accidental reader my musings on different aspects of the Internet and society. Feel free to comment or simply ignore :-)
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