What’s Wrong with e-Petitions and How to Fix them

picture by Elvert Barnes on flickr.

Some of my friends have heard my rants about e-petitions before. Most recently, through a conversation on Facebook, Alex Howard asked if my thoughts on e-petitions had changed.

They haven’t changed. But before I explain why, I should underline that except where otherwise noted, these are general observations and by no means do they refer to any specific initiative.

This is merely a first (and sloppily written) attempt to better formulate the reasoning behind some of my skepticism towards governmental e-petition platforms.

SHORTCOMINGS

Among many, I can think of four possible shortcomings of e-petitions when it comes to mechanisms of democratic empowerment:

1) The Gagged Participation Syndrome

While citizens can come to e-petition platforms as a virtual place to demonstrate their support for an issue or policy, all e-petitions that I know of suffer from what I call “the gagged participation syndrome”. In other words, those who take part in petitions are unable to communicate with one another.

If we make a parallel with how protests occur in the offline world, the idea becomes clearer. E-petitions resemble the image of gagged protest, where citizens are free to come and show their positions but where each demonstrator is gagged, unable to talk to one another, let alone organize around the cause that is common to them.

This issue is probably one of the most raised among critics of e-petitions and – to my knowledge – has not been addressed by any national government that implemented e-petitions to this day.

2) Selective Hearing

e-Petitions may be an excellent tool for selective hearing. In other words, politicians may respond to e-petitions by cherry-picking the issues that they had already decided to do something about. Creating the illusion of reactivity to citizen feedback when decisions had already been made and taking credit for it is one of the oldest forms of opportunistic politics.

My perception is that, although there are exceptions, most responses to e-petitions do not survive the counterfactual question of whether the government would have acted differently if the e-petitions did not exist.

3) The Demobilization Hypothesis

I have written about political efficacy before, which refers (among other things) to an individual’s perception of his impact through a given political action. The greater the perception that his action is likely to have an impact, the greater his political efficacy is. And the greater this sense of efficacy, the more likely this individual is to participate. Political scientists often refer to the generation of a virtuous cycle in which participation leads to more participation, and you can find a fun example of this here.

Nevertheless, it remains a hypothesis that the reverse is also true. Citizens who contribute their time and knowledge by signing (or starting) an e-petition and later discover their limited (or non-existent) impact, might have their political efficacy undermined. In such cases, petitions might have a secondary and undesirable demobilizing effect, undermining the willingness to engage and furthering public scepticism towards participatory governance.

4) Empowering the empowered?

Finally, it is always possible to raise the old “empowering the already empowered” issue. That is, through e-petitions participation might be distributed in a way that favors the socio-economically better off, therefore deepening differences of societal influence over government. Some would argue that such an effect might be even stronger in the sense that participation occurs exclusively over the Internet. Indeed, some research [PDF] by Lindner and Riehm on petitions in Germany suggests such outcomes:

(…) the introduction of the e-petition system at the Bundestag actually did attract different parts of society, but probably not in such a way some proponents of the reform had envisioned. The share of women, petitioners with formal educational degrees below college/university level, unemployed, and people with disabilities among presenters of public e-petitions is even lower than is already the case within the group of traditional petitioners. The aim to increase the societal representativeness of petitioning by introducing public e-petitions is only reached with regard to younger parts of the population, while existing biases in terms of gender and socio-economic status are even amplified.

Nevertheless, the external validity of these findings remains an open question, and their generalization to other experiences of e-petitions (or e-participation tout court) is far from being as straightforward as it may seem at first. In other words, more research is needed.

A POSITIVE OUTLOOK 

Bearing in mind the considerations above, a less skeptical position is also possible. For instance, e-petitions may be seen as a valid way of gauging public preferences and getting issues on the political agenda that would otherwise not make it through traditional politics.

Indeed, e-petitions may be a particularly valid argument in countries where politics is organized around models of strict territorial representation (as opposed to PR systems for instance). In this sense, it would be valid to argue that e-petitions may facilitate the emergence of “ideational constituencies”, transcending the boundaries of electoral districts. Indeed, I believe this is one of the main potentials for e-petitions and one of the missing discussions in the world of Internet and politics in general (for more about it, read this).

The demobilization hypothesis also allows for competing views. For instance, Cruickshank et al. (2010), building upon the concept of efficacy, argue that e-petitions may actually function as an entry point to further participation. Or, as suggested by the title of their paper [PDF], signing an e-petition may be seen “as a transition from lurking to participation.”

Also, it is important to note that e-petitions (and petitions in general) are not all the same, with each one bearing its own promises and shortcomings. From a democratic perspective, a defining element of petitions is the extent to which they are linked to actual decision-making processes. A review of the evidence of petitions a few years ago for the UK government summarizes this point well:

Petitions enable citizens and community groups to raise concerns with public authorities and give some sense of the support for the proposition amongst the wider population. It is a mechanism that is understood by elected members, officers, and the community alike. Petitions differ in the extent and manner in which they are connected to formal decision making processes. Some petitions are not linked to a meaningful formal response mechanism from public authorities. Where citizens see no relationship between their participation and outcomes, not surprisingly, such petitions have the least impact on community empowerment and may even be considered disempowering. Other petitions require a formal response from the public authority. Where it is clear that the authority has given due weight to the proposition, the potential for empowerment increases: the device exhibits the potential for impact on decisions, thus providing a rationale for increased political efficacy and activity amongst civic organisations. (Pratchett et al. 2009)

picture by controlarms on flickr

SEVEN PROPOSALS

Of course, I am far from thinking that e-petitions are a lost cause, and there are a number of ways in which shortcomings may be addressed. Thus, to conclude, I present below seven tentative proposals for leveraging the potential of e-petitions.

  1. Unambiguous responsiveness: Processes of institutional change that enable and mandate governmental responsiveness should accompany the implementation of e-petitions. Clear legal requirements may reduce opportunistic actions (e.g. cherry-picking) that ultimately erode public trust.
  2. Enable communication: The “gagged participation syndrome” remains a major limitation of e-petitions. Provided the necessary safeguards are in place (e.g. privacy), allowing citizens to communicate with one another and self-organize will unleash the power of e-petitions. Citizens by themselves might even come up with solutions to some of the issues that they raised in the first place.
  3. Connect constituents to representatives: In the majority of cases, e-petitions are confined to the Executive branch. Communicating to representatives (i.e. MPs) the preferences and concerns of their respective constituencies would simultaneously strengthen participatory and representative democracy. Connecting constituents and their representatives – with their mutual consent – would do so even more.
  4. Know the e-petitioners: Having a better knowledge of the overall traits of the population of e-petitioners may offer a wealth of information to improve the democratic potential of e-petitions. Among other things, governments may be able to launch outreach campaigns to under-represented groups and find more effective means of communication for specific segments of the population. Of course, once again, only if the due safeguards are in place.
  5. Manage expectations: All other things being equal, satisfaction with democratic processes (S) is the difference between results (R) and expectations (E) [hence S = R - E]. Even if results are positive, if citizens’ expectations are higher, satisfaction is negative. Clearly outlining what citizens can expect from their participation minimizes the risk of undermining political efficacy.
  6. Experiment: One of the advantages of new technologies is the fact that experiments can be conducted at extremely lowered costs. In the case of online participation for instance, there is research indicating that different types of design or information provided (e.g. number of subscribers, thresholds) might actually leverage participation. User experience approaches such as AB testing could help identify the best choice architecture for e-petitions. Some experiments could even take place in real life settings without jeopardizing the integrity of the petition process.
  7. Enable and fund research: There is a disproportionate scarcity of good research on e-petitions. Facilitate third party funding and access to data and information to conduct their research on e-petitions. Citizen-generated (big) data has untapped potential for better understanding collective dynamics, which could in turn inform the further design of e-petitions and online participation in general. Two brilliant examples of this type of research in the field of e-petitions can be found here and here [PDF].

When it comes to perfecting participatory institutions, there is no silver bullet. Working with government on a permanent basis for years, I am aware that many of the suggestions above are easier said than done. But it would also be too easy to say that e-petitions are great participatory mechanisms as they stand.

***

P.S.

On the US experience, here’s a great post by Alex Howard.

Also, thanks to Marija Novkovic for sharing some of her readings.

Further reading recommendations (besides the papers cited above):

Participation, Democracy and the Downing Street E-petitions service [PDF]

Broadening Participation Through E-Petitions? An Empirical Study of Petitions to the German Parliament [PDF]

Transforming Government through e-Participation: Challenges for e-Democracy [PDF]

Electronic Petitioning and Modernization of Petitioning Systems in Europe [PDF]


 

6 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with e-Petitions and How to Fix them

  1. Tiago,

    For solution #3, it might be useful to consider demonstrating how opening the data from the ePetitions platform can be used to map signers to Congressional Districts. I know it’s imprecise, given the gerrymandering that goes on in the United States, but it’s worth a shot. My thinking is that overlaying city information with boundary layers might be illustrative – especially when there are opposing petitions (as is in the case of White House petitions around gun violence, for instance).

    So, does anyone know if there’s a scraper for the White House ePetitions Web site?

  2. Hello Tiago,

    Very interesting post – particularly the idea of gagged participation – almost as if the designers lock in vertical communication to prevent more democratic, empowering horizontal communication.

    Did you see the article by Megan Garber in The Atlantic? As well as ‘selective responses’ she also talks about problems with ‘boiler-plate’ or ‘evasive responses’. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/01/the-white-house-petition-site-is-a-joke-and-also-the-future-of-democracy/267238/

    As you mention in passing, it is really interesting that e-petition sites (in the UK and US at least) have been led by the executive branches – when I at least would imagine the legislatures (as scrutinisers of executive government) to be the more natural home for this. I wonder if the executive branches were just quicker on the digital uptake, or host them so that the legislative branches don’t.

    Finally – what do you think of the independent e-petition platforms or campaign platforms – such as Avaaz, 38degrees (UK) or Change.org? Alex Howard mentions that WeThePeople are building an API to allow connections between these. But if you have a look at Change.org’s business model, it’s hardly democratic: http://www.change.org/en-GB/about/business-model

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Pingback: Modeling the Rise in Internet-based Petitions | DemocracySpot

  4. Pingback: 10 Most Read Posts in 2013 | DemocracySpot

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