Online Petitions go live on Directgov

The Guardian reports:

A new public e-petitions service has gone live on the Directgov portal, replacing the previous e-petitions system on the Downing Street website.

The new website went live on 29 July and is being operated by the Government Digital Service. The government said that public petitions which secure the backing of 100,000 signatures will be eligible for debate in Parliament.

Sir George Young, the Leader of the House of Commons, said: “The public already have many opportunities to make their voices heard in parliament, and this new system of e-petitions could give them a megaphone.

“Of course, parliamentary time is not unlimited and we want the best e-petitions to be given airtime – so we will monitor the site closely over the coming months to assess whether the 100,000 figure is an appropriate target.”

Government departments will moderate the petitions, with oversight from the office of the leader of the commons.

Petitions which are ineligible, such as those deemed libellous or offensive, will not appear on the website, or will appear on a ‘rejected petitions’ page and will not be open for signature.

A petition which reaches the threshold for debate on the website and does not contravene House of Commons rules, or breach its conventions on pre-empting debates or consideration of bills, will be passed to the backbench business committee for further consideration.

This strikes me as a useful template for how the agenda for an allotted chamber might be generated, with the proviso that it would require an additional referendum stage in which the proposals that passed the 100,000 threshold should then be put to the electorate in order to decide which should be selected for the final deliberative/legislative stage. This is because it would be relatively easy for lobby groups to organise the necessary online signatures. Needless to say the fact that the UK government is pushing this agenda is a tacit admission of the failure of elective democracy, as there is no reason to privilege the judgment of elected representatives unless one adheres to a Burkean model of deliberation by a chamber of wise and disinterested trustees. This would be difficult to justify in the UK after the MPs expenses hooha.

17 Responses

  1. This is essentially the same as the signature collection phase of popular initiatives in California (and elsewhere). It is an elitist process that is necessarily dominated by the rich and powerful that are able to command the public’s attention using their resources. Adding a referendum stage to this process will do nothing to reduce this domination.


  2. The past record of e-petitions in the UK has been more cranks and jokers than lobbyists (one key example being “Jeremy Clarkson [the Top Gear presenter] for PM”. I do however agree that now there is a direct link between the petition and the parliamentary debate there is more scope for the influence of professional lobbyists. But if the system is well publicised and leads to some significant debates (or even legislation) in parliament then it could become a genuine public forum — take a look at the portal and see how easy it is for anyone to launch a petition. What I don’t hear from you is what alternative there would be for the agenda-setting function for an allotted legislative chamber that would not contravene democratic norms as you chose not to participate in the thread on this topic. At least the e-petitions system (if backed up with a referendum) would fulfil this function formally, even if in practice it was less than optimal, for the reasons that you state.


  3. PS. Just created an e-petition, took less than 5 minutes. Here it is:

    A People’s Parliament

    Ministry of Justice

    E-petitions should be debated in a deliberative forum randomly-selected by lot from the electoral role (a process known as sortition). Such a body would better represent the nation than political parties. Elected members (and government ministers) would act as advocates, arguing for or against the e-proposal, but the final vote would be in the hands of the allotted members. Successful e-petitions would become the basis of parliamentary bills.

    Hopefully I can count on the signatures of UK kleroterians (system goes live on Thursday).


  4. > what alternative there would be for the agenda-setting function for an allotted legislative chamber that would not contravene democratic norms

    Again, you are covering old ground (here, and on many other threads). An allotted chamber should set its own agenda, or, if you find this more appealing, the agenda could be set by a different allotted chamber.


  5. The normal principle for debate on a discursive forum is that substantive claims need to be refuted rather than simply ignored. In the thread I demonstrated that your suggestion for an allotted chamber to set its own agenda contravenes Pitkin’s argument on the limits of descriptive representation. This argument has yet to be refuted, and until it is it behoves us all to seek alternative methods for agenda-setting. By all means refute Pitkin’s argument and then we can consider your own proposal, but as things stand your proposal is simply beyond the pale — all we get is a repetition of how anything other than sortitive solutions mandates domination by the rich and powerful. Nobody is disputing the truth of this claim but, given Pitkin’s argument, the search is on now for ways to ameliorate this effect via careful institutional design, and it strikes me that the e-petition experiment is a step in the right direction.


  6. I wonder if you have managed to convince any of the readers of this forum that agenda setting by an allotted chamber is not democratic. To me your assertions here simply demonstrate again that your beliefs about propositions you have proven or refuted are wholly without foundation. As I see things, we have been over this ground many times before, and you have never made any arguments that are not transparently self-contradictory, let alone establish what you think you established. Your arguments have not been ignored – they have been rebutted over and over, but you seem to be able to remain unaware of this fact (as of many other rather self-evident facts).

    To recapitulate my position briefly: an agenda set by a group of a few hundred people, each endowed with equal formal power to the others and each with ample resources and motivation to form opinions, express those opinions and influence the outcome, is more democratic (i.e., representative of the interests of the group) than any mass-politics process (electoral, petition-based, or otherwise). I am not sure what exactly would be the democratic ideal that you believe is not met by this process, but even if you did manage to define such an ideal, it would matter little as long as the procedure is clearly more democratic than your proposed alternative.

    Now, if at this point your are going to resort again to invoking the fantastic scenario in which a mythical majority of people are so shy as to be unable to speak up in the chamber but somehow find themselves represented by someone through a mass-politics process, then I think we can spare ourselves the recycling of this fruitless discussion and instead refer ourselves (and anyone who is interested, if there are such people) to past cycles.


  7. 1. The argument is not mine, it’s Pitkin’s.
    2. I’m glad that you acknowledge that the equality of members in an allotted chamber is merely formal (in every respect other than voting, where it is actual).
    3. Given that you are not prepared to engage with Pitkin’s argument (preferring as usual to resort to restating your own view), I’ve proposed an experimental test of the two competing models in the post I submitted to you a couple of hours ago.


  8. > merely formal

    As usual, instead of trying to make sense, you choose to misunderstand simple sentences and to attribute your own falsehoods to others. A good reminder why having a discussion with you is pointless.


  9. Sorry, I assumed that the adjective “formal” was intended to indicate something akin to Bagehot’s distinction between “dignified” and “efficient” power. Clearly you meant something else, I’m just not sure what.


  10. As for agenda setting…I would suggest a sortition meta-legislature that makes no final decisions, but reviews ideas submitted from all kinds of proposers (e-petitions, or whatever), and then engages in “individual speech acts” (deliberation, which Keith suggests is undemocratic based on Pitkin) to narrow the list of ideas on some subject matter, and even refine or merge ideas to generate essentially new proposals of its own. The meta-legislature may even put out requests for proposals to deal with issues that it believes need addressing.

    I think the benefits of deliberation (finding win-win possibilities, etc.) should not be forfeited in the name of collective descriptive representativeness as Pitkin views it.

    This meta-legislature would be the source of raw material to sortition decision making bodies. I agree that these ultimate bodies should NOT debate (to avoid all the negative dynamics Sunstein discusses, and maximize the diversity benefits Surowiecki discusses), but merely listen to pro/con presentations and then vote secretly.


  11. That certainly sounds like a reasonable compromise, but the meta-legislature (or, more accurately, the movers and shakers therein) would be extremely powerful. And, given that they might need to weigh up the merits of a large number of proposals would they really have the time to devote to meaningful deliberation? You would also run the risk of (say) an e-petition that had gained a large number of signatures being rejected and replaced by the pet project of a persuasive member of the meta-assembly. I’m not seeking to claim that Pitkin’s work has the status of holy writ, it’s just that I don’t think what you are suggesting is remotely democratic. I know this is all based on your own bitter experience of the dysfunctional nature of the party-political process, but surely the whole point of e-petitions is that they are an attempt to get beyond this. I agree (with Yoram) that they are potentially vulnerable to excessive influence by the rich and powerful and that they may be populist nonsense, but then they’ll get thrown out after the deliberation in the allotted chamber. The long-term consequence of this should be that people will be disposed to introduce legislative proposals that a) cannot be characterised as partisan/elitist and b) will survive the deliberative process (I think we should have faith in the ability of our fellow citizens to recognise a crock of s**t when they see it). Why go to the trouble of securing 100,000 signatures for a bill that is likely to fail?


  12. Since 2006 Dutch citizens can force parliament to discuss a proposal, provided at least 40,000 citizens have signed the petition and a similar proposal has not been subject of parliamentary debate for at least two years.
    Especially the second requirement proved fatal to two proposals that did get the required signatures. A third proposal was rejected because the signatures were digital rather than physical. That requirement has been somewhat relaxed by parliament in 2008. A fourth proposal passed the two hurdles and was then solidly defeated in parliament.
    So I remain rather sceptical whether this ‘civic initiative’ as it is called here empowers people. Whether it is supported by particular interests or lobbies seems less worrisome to me, as long as the support is given openly and explicitly. Two of the Dutch petitions were organized by pressure groups (Clean Air Netherlands and Friends of the Earth respectively), the other two were apparently private initiatives, but that did not affect the outcome very much as far as I can see.
    If the Dutch parliament had been allotted rather than elected, it would perhaps be less reluctant to discuss citizen proposals, but I doubt if it would be swamped by them, if similar requirements applied.

    Paul Lucardie


  13. Thanks Paul, that’s very interesting. Is it plausible to think that the solid defeat of the fourth proposal in parliament might have been because MPs were able to successfully question its democratic mandate? After all MPs are the only ones who have had to seek support from the whole electorate rather than the small subset who chose to sign the petitition. That’s why I think the e-petition should just be the first step, the second step being the choice (by public referendum) between e-petitions that exceed the threshold of supporting signatures. The third step should be deliberation, ideally by an allotted assembly. But before you get to stage 3, it’s necessary to ensure that the agenda has received broad public support, this is the principal reason that it would be democratically illegitimate for an allotted chamber to set its own agenda. The more steps there are the more opportunity for opening up general public debate — good legislation, as Condorcet recognised, is a long slow process. Whether that debate is plural and open or corrupted by a small media elite is an orthogonal question — in the internet age it should be possible to ensure the former, especially now that Murdoch is up against the wall.

    Hopefully I’ll know today if my e-petition has been accepted.


  14. Keith wrote:
    “The third step should be deliberation, ideally by an allotted assembly.”

    Since the word “deliberation” has multiple meanings, I assume you using the word to mean the private reflection of individuals after hearing pro/con presentations, rather than any sort of give and take or debate by the allotted chamber members.

    Don’t you think there is a beneficial role for the give and take of ideas from diverse perspectives that an allotted chamber can offer, that might lead to a synthesis of proposals to discover win-win possibilities? This consensual process would be absent in the pro/con presentations. The best way forward might ONLY be discovered by this other meaning of the word deliberation.

    I understand that you believe (taking from Pitkin) that such deliberation is undemocratic, since you believe the legitimacy of the allotted chamber comes exclusively from its collective descriptive nature. But if a goal of democratic governance is to find the best solutions for society, it seems to me that you need to provide for this other form of deliberation rather than limit the proposals to those proposed by interests, with the allotted chamber simply voting yes or no.


  15. Jim Fishkin told me (private communication) that the small group deliberations are the most important part of the deliberative polling procedure. However the principal effect of this in the DP is the formulation of questions for the expert witnesses in the plenary sessions, prior to voting on the original proposal, so I’m not sure in what sense he can claim that this is the most important aspect. Would it be acceptable to you for the deliberative forum to conclude with what would be (in effect) a “revise and resubmit” recommendation? I don’t see how they could just come up with another preposal and pass it into law without some additional democratic mandate — otherwise this would be simply replacing democracy with klerotocracy (rule by [the movers and shakers within] a tiny group empowered by an arbitrary process). Also I thnk your emphasis on interests doesn’t fully allow for the fact that proposers will have to come up with bills that will meet the requirements of an allotted group, otherwise the proposal will simply be rejected.


  16. My e-petition for a People’s Parliament is now live at:

    additional signatures very welcome!

    Judging from the current ranking of petitions by signature numbers:

    the public’s concerns are very different from the small elite that signed the Compass proposal, giving me some confidence that this could be the first step in a genuinely democratic process to set the agenda for an allotted deliberative chamber.


  17. […] I argued in Part 1 of this thread, e-petitions would be an excellent way of setting the agenda for an allotted […]


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