We, the people

As I type, and one week in, the 42nd most popular petition on the government’s new epetitions site asks that our parliamentarians “Don’t listen to idiots signing e-petitions“. Joseph Blurton who posted it states:

We, the people, are idiots. Please, for pity’s sake, ignore us more often.

Currently 117 people agree with him.  I, for one, am not planning to join them, as I happen to think democracy is probably for the best (particularly given the violent alternatives playing out around the world at the moment). However, a scan of the 41 petitions currently more popular than Joseph’s doesn’t seem to be a particularly encouraging demonstration of e-democracy in action – or not yet anyway.

Regardless of the subject matter, it seems that we, the people, are not very organised. In the top 40 there are currently 5 separate petitions calling for a return of capital punishment, and 5 against it. There are 2 petitions calling for F1 to be free to view in the UK, and 2 asking for the legalisation of cannabis/recreational drugs. And there are many more on all of these subjects further down the list.

OK, so it’s only the first week, and the numbers are fairly small (10,621 against capital punishment, and 7,555 for… and only when you add them all up), but it’s a shame that none of the larger more organised campaign groups or charities seem to have taken advantage of the early publicity. Admittedly the Speaker only announced the launch of the site a week ago, but there’s been talk of it for a while, with government giving the project the go ahead back in December.  I would have thought a big campaign group or charity could have galvanised its supporters, particularly those they already engage with online, and made a bit of a splash in this first week.

Daily Mail front page 4th August 2011
Daily Mail front page 4th August 2011

Instead we’ve had a rather hysterical press reaction to the capital punishment petitions – in spite of the fact that the numbers are relatively small, there are repetitions and inconsistencies, and there are actually more people (currently) in favour of maintaining the status quo rather than reintroducing the death penalty.  It’s been given a fair bit of coverage on the BBC over the last couple of days, including on Newsnight (42.30 in), and several papers gave it a lot of prominence (including the Daily Mail yesterday which lead with the front page headline “MPs to vote on death penalty”.)

Regardless of whether you think epetitions, and the UK government’s latest initiative, are a bit of a gimmick, or a genuine evolution of democracy in the digital age, this week has shown that it’s possible to use these tools to grab the headlines and push the debate off the web and onto the front page.  We don’t yet know whether petitions from this site will influence government policy, or change laws, but we have seen that they can raise awareness and spark a debate.

I’m sure there will be more organised and larger scale use of the epetitions site over time, just as there have been on Avaaz. It’s just a shame that none of them were on hand to take advantage of the press hype around the launch.

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