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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A is for… Accountability

Every Christmas I like to give each member of my family a Good Gift. One of the things which appeals is that I know my money is being used for something very specific. I may not know the name of the villager or village that receives the goat, the beehive or the books, but I am confident that somewhere one of those items has been paid for by me.  I know where my money is going, and I know that the additional handling fee charged by the charity pays for their overheads.

I can’t say the same for the monthly contribution I’ve been making to UNICEF via Payroll Giving. The money has been whisked off into the ether once a month and although they do send a quarterly magazine I’ve no idea which of their many projects I may have supported. I hope it wasn’t all headed notepaper and executive flights.

My point here is not to parade my charitable works, but to pick up on the theme of accountability. It’s something that matters to me when I choose how to give, and to which causes, but it strikes me that there’s less of it about than there could be. It’s also an area where digital technology should be able to have some impact.

My very early thinking on this is that there are probably two main areas where charities and NGOs could (should?) be harnessing the power of the web to achieve and demonstrate greater accountability.

The first is around connecting donors to the causes they are supporting in a much more direct way. Even in fields where contributions can’t be neatly attributed to a goat or a beehive, shouldn’t donors at least know which campaign or project their money is going towards? In addition, wouldn’t it be great to be able to follow the progress of your chosen cause in real time, or receive updates? This is already something that the team at See The Difference are exploring – charities post initial videos explaining the specific project and targets they are raising for, and then post a Job Done video showing the impact of the donations made.  I’m sure there are also individual charities who are doing something similar via their own sites, newsletters or social media updates, but it would be great to see more of it.

I suppose a downside to this model (moving more towards sponsorship than general giving) is that the less fashionable or appealing causes might get left behind.  In a recent Dispatches the WWF came under criticism for only offering “popular” large mammals for adoption – where were the endangered fish and amphibians, many of which are in a worse state than elephants or even the famous panda? Perhaps it’s not as easy to get excited about a cuddly-toy version of a swamp dwelling toad…

And then there’s the issue of all of that headed notepaper, and how that gets paid for, which brings me on to my second point – using the web to publish data about how money is spent. I know charities need to be able to pay their overheads, but personally I’d rather they were more transparent about it. I’d like to know up front “x pence in every pound is spent on running costs” and I’d like to see that number going down over time, or be able to compare between charities.  The Charity Commission does require registered charities to send them annual reports, but doesn’t seem to publish them.  Charities do tend to publish these themselves online, but often as impenetrable PDFs, buried deep in their sites. (In the case of the NSPCC I had to hunt very hard, and found that it’s kept in a separate site altogether!). It strikes me that this is powerful, publicly available, data and more could be done with it.

I think donors in the digital age should hold charities more to account, and that the web could be a powerful tool to enable that.  But there is carrot here as well as stick… being more accountable or transparent could also encourage further giving, along the lines of See The Difference or the mighty Kiva, and should make the whole process more engaging.  And if all of that adds up to more goats and less notepaper, then I for one will be a happy giver.

Picture of a goat