No10 petitions system goes live

I’m very pleased to announce that the petitions system we’ve built for 10 Downing Street has gone live today.

I’m very grateful for the hard and often inspired work put into this by Chris Lightfoot and Matthew Somerville, as well as the civil servants who have helped to build a petitions system which I believe is in a real class of its own.

The most notable features are:

1. Petitions are accepted and published, regardless of the political slant of the petition. However, if they break the Ts&Cs (a petition that doesn’t actually ask for any action, for example) then they are put on a special rejected petitions page: they don’t just vanish. We think this transparency feature is probably unique.

2. The site is being launched in beta, and will change over time. This might seem too commonplace to note for many of you, but it reflects a willingness to see a public IT service evolve in response to users, not simply fulfil a contract agreed in advance. mySociety exists partly to spread good practice in the public sector, and we think this is a nice example of that in action.

3. The code, including Chris’s amazing high-load optimised engine, is all open source.

Any questions? Come into our chat channel at www.irc.mysociety.org or mail us at hello@mysociety.org.

22 Comments

  1. Any chance of setting up a “no” column?

    e.g “We the undersigned want a flat tax”
    name 1
    name 2
    … etc

    We the undersigned oppose this petition
    name 1
    name 2

  2. Hi Andy,

    I’m afraid this is something that we won’t be doing. You see, petitions are valid because they count the total number of people willing to put their name to something. But the moment you have a contrary position, you get something that looks like a poll, or a vote, but which isn’t representative. You see, they’re different beasts, and we would be doing little but increasing the amount of confusion on the internet if we added this feature.

    However, you can create a petition contrary to another petition – nothing wrong with that, as two separate counts.

  3. Isn’t it true that the Government only counts a petition as a single piece of correspondence regardless of the number of people who sign it?

  4. Nice to see – [broken link removed] that ‘my’ or ‘our’ petition becomes ‘theirs’ ………. which we cannot do anything with (other than print or file) without permission or license.

  5. There’s current discussion on the AoIR list

    (The air-l@listserv.aoir.org mailing list is provided by the Association of Internet Researchers http://aoir.org
    Subscribe, change options or unsubscribe at:
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    see the following taste, that you might like to reply to:

    “I have two remarks to this interesting debate – leaving aside the
    question of who is delighted (or not) for what reason ;-)

    @petitioning without deliberation

    Well, even when discussion spaces are missing, having something like
    public petitions online does make the current petitioning system more
    transparent and accessible – let’s not forget to note that – which
    feeds well into new forms of more deliberative democracy as well
    because other deliberative arenas (e.g. media, or those alternative
    discussion spaces Stephen suggested) may pick up the petition issues
    and carry them into the public sphere, that in turn can exert
    “argumentative control” over the political administrative system (in a
    siege-like manner, to speak in Habermas’ terms).

    However, the lack of discussion spaces on No 10 petitions
    is a disappointment
    * given that it would be more convenient for citizens to discuss the
    petition issues on the same site (and they would probably want to be
    listened to in most direct ways),
    * given that state bodies need to transform themselves into more
    deliberative institutions as well to meet the challenges of democratic
    development
    * given that the e-petition-forerunner-system,
    http://www.e-petitioner.org.uk, has a discussion space, and
    * given that Matthew Taylor himself, the (or an?) outgoing No 10
    Strategy adviser, has recently called for more deliberative spaces
    rather than more channels for citizens to express their demands:
    http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2006/11/the_challenge_f.html

    @consideration of ePetitions
    The flood of petitions (500+ in the first few days) may be viewed as a
    success. However, knowing how much ressources it takes to process
    petitions, it also undermines the credibility of the
    e-petitioning-system at No 10. It is beyond imagination that the No 10
    administration can pay attention to an extra 500 petitions that stream
    into No10 every couple of days on top of the paper petitions even at
    the most rudimentary level. That is, they must have filters in place,
    such as number of signatures received or the like, which they need to
    make transparent to maintain credibility – and credibility is probably
    the most important ingredient for success in this realm.

    On a further note, which explains my interest in this issue, I want
    point you to the e-petitioning system at the German Parliament, which
    Zebralog is currently evaluating:

    Public Petitions at the German Parliament:
    Zebralog evaluates pilot project
    http://www.zebralog.de

    Greetings, Matthias

    PS: I’m going to post this thread to do_consult
    (http://groups.dowire.org/groups/consult/index.xml) as well as people
    there should be interested in reading this

    Matthias Trenel
    Zebralog e.V.
    trenel@zebralog.de
    http://www.zebralog.de

  6. My own comments on Friday to the first posts on the air list follow; again, you may like to comment:

    There are no obligations on the UK government. The
    Scottish Parliament seems to be further on though see
    http://epetitions.scottish.parliament.uk/

    This site is a product of mysociety.org, and related
    involved people who were/are behind
    theyworkforyou.com, and other on-line enterprises
    going back 10+ years.

    These are all examples of amongst other things making
    the proceedings of the legislature, and government,
    more understandable, approachable, responsive,
    accountable, and help check and hold the executive to
    account.

    The UK system is in many respects still a feudal form
    of government on which has been grafted over time
    various additional attributes, such that there is in
    the modern era now a government representing a
    minority of the popular vote exercising all the powers
    of the monarch (the ‘prerogative’ powers) plus those
    that had been taken under parliamentary or statute
    control. All in all, there is very limited scrutiny or
    holding to account by the legislature of either the
    passage of legsilation, or the actions of the
    executive.

    At the end of course, you can always throw the
    bastards out …….. :-) ….. but it may, in the
    database state, be too late by then.

    Mass petitions have a long history – Wat Tyler and the
    Peasants Revolt of the 14th century being an early
    example of a mass petition albiet with some bloody
    features, and a negative outcome.

    Listen also to the discussion from this morning’s BBC
    Radio 4′s In Our Time at
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime.shtml

    Other examples might include the Pilgrimage of Grace
    http://englishhistory.net/tudor/grace.html; small
    scale ones e.g. one handed in by an MP on behalf of
    constituents
    http://www.derekwyatt.co.uk/news_item.aspx?i_PageID=113440
    Petitions to Parliament concerning the Corn Laws
    http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/cornlaws/petition.htm

    Petitions to Mr Tony
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6147842.stm
    [broken link removed] – he’ll
    still accept paper petitions, and these often get good
    media coverage, which is part of the reason for so
    doing, but not all e-petitions will be accepted or put
    up on the government site.

    — Ildiko Kaposi wrote:

    > Wainer,
    >
    > What’s the reason for your disbelief?
    >
    > I took only a cursory glance at the sight, so I’m
    > not well-informed.
    > First of all, I don’t know what the online
    > petitioning implies exactly,
    > i.e. whether there are any obligatory consequences
    > for the Right Hon.
    > Blair or government policy. But online petitioning
    > as such is practised
    > elsewhere, and e-democracy has been something of a
    > priority for the UK
    > government, so this seems to fit the pattern.
    > Am I misreading the initiative?
    >
    > Ildiko
    >
    >
    > >>> “Wainer Lusoli” 11/17/06
    > 1:56 PM >>>

    >
    > Still rubbing my eyes in disbelief
    >
    > Any thoughts, anyone?
    >

  7. Tom’s reactions to the comments and remarks on the air list included:

    > Lastly, please note that for those of you who think I’m ignoring the
    > fact that there ARE discussion forums on other petition sites, please
    > just absorb the following scale difference:
    >
    > * Total petitions submitted on and offline to Scottish Parliament in
    > first 7 years : 964
    >
    > * Total petitions submitted online to No10 site in first 6 days: 925
    >
    > I look forward to your feedback on this issue very much.
    >
    > best,
    >
    > Tom Steinberg

    The petition with the most numerical support so far is:

    We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to repeal the Hunting Act 2004.

    Submitted by Nick Onslow FRES – Deadline to sign up by: 15 November 2007 – Signatures: 9366

    Some of the less well supported I posted before.

    I’d observe that crude numbers (as in how many petitions are posted, or even the numbers supporting any one petition) are only one element of any evaluation. The nature of the petition, and what is being demanded, must count; and longer-term the effect and/or impact, contrasted/compared with more traditional methods.

    The concommitant publicity and coverage of ‘traditional’ petitions following marches on Downing Street, rallies in Central Hall Westminster, petitions to Parliament, lobbying Parliament, etc., are all well used and well known means of political campaigning – though how effective they are is a big question. But effectiveness can be measured in how much the publicity rallies even more people to the cause (e.g. Make Poverty History), although impact on government policies may be less than hoped for.

    The crude numbers game was one of the main criticisms made at the Portcullis House meeting about theyworkforyou ….. by both MPs and others.

  8. Dominic,

    You quoted me from that list, but I think you missed the core question I posed for everyone there, and anyone reading this:

    “Do you consider it possible to design deliberative discussion system on a site as sensitive as No10 which will generate debate sufficiently mature as to merit the sizeable public spending on moderation that would be required? If so, how?”

    In my view, that’s what’s at the heart of your three posts above…

    Tom

  9. In a representative democracy there will (or perhaps that should be) be multiple fora for ‘deliberative discussion’ for ‘debate’ that is ‘sufficiently mature’ to justify the cost of moderation. I paraphrase, and slightly distort, as I’m not aware of any means that meet your tests …… the Houses of Parliament don’t (slight qualification that the second chamber does probably do more mature things than the junior one). Judging by the quality of what this government in particular, and other governments generally, have come up with in the recent Queen’s speech, and the pitiful ‘japes’ of their spin machines, rubbishing of individuals seem as ‘not one of us’, and the general pauicty of real debate, and the impoverishment of our archaic form of government, I see little justifcation of the No 10 site.

    The petition system exposes people concerns and interests, and enables ‘my’ support to be
    made public also. So perhaps these will reach a wider audience, and delivered ‘direct to Downing Street.’ The publicity and exposure of a mass petition delivered publicly reaches (or potentially reaches) vastly more than any of these do. A suggestion to try and measure reach would be to record site hits and naviagtion to individual petitions, and show this, as well as the actual signees.

    Friends are highly dubious about this petition system, and that the support of say the repeal of the Hunting Act is representative.

    And at the end of the day, it is still a matter of what significant impact or effect these have. Surely you don’t envisage Blur or Broon acting because the highest number counted support the repeal of the Hunting Act? :-)

    Dominic

    x-posted to Air-l

  10. x-pots from air-l

    From: “Wainer Lusoli”
    To: air-l@listserv.aoir.org
    Date: Tue, 28 Nov 2006 19:58:27 -0000
    Subject: Re: [Air-l] epetitions
    Hi Tom – and others

    As much as I like your stance on the whole petition issue, I think the question is ill posed: too many leads in one rhetorical, type II [negative answer] stem.

    To your specific question, the answer is: yes, it would have been possible to build in deliberation. It has been done in relation to Parliamentary Committees, and in departmental consolations. Why not with No10?

    Were you allowed to do so? I don’t know, you should tell us, did you ask?
    Should money follow maturity? No, it should foster maturity. That is the point of deliberation [you you believe deliberative theorists].

    Is moderation too expensive when billions are spent in man+equipment in Iraq [that people in Britain seem reluctant to accept]? Well, I leave that to No10.

    Comments welcome

    Best

    Wainer

  11. Curious – and I’d welcome comments as to why – was the nature of this rejected petition off the No. 10 site:

    —-
    We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to launch an independent review into the privatisation of the British railway network that considers whether it was the right thing to do.

    Submitted by Rajesh Joshi

    More details from petition creator More details cannot be shown

    Petition Rejected

    This petition has been rejected because:

    It contained party political material

    Additional information about this rejection:

    Sorry, your reference to Baroness Thatcher makes it difficult for us to accept this. If you could just
    remove the reference to her, then we are clear of party political issues.
    —–

    I couldn’t see any party political reference, and in any case why should that be a bar? After all, the
    electoral and legislative system is predicated on party politics.

    Doh! Or has something really deep and significant been overlooked?

    x-posted to:

    The air-l@listserv.aoir.org mailing list (which is provided by the Association of Internet Researchers http://aoir.org Subscribe, change options or unsubscribe at: http://listserv.aoir.org/listinfo.cgi/air-l-aoir.org)

    Join the Association of Internet Researchers: http://www.aoir.org/

  12. Just rather intrigued that there has been no reactions – maybe too busy coding – either to Air or to this.

    And my last post 2 days ago is awaiting moderation.

    Ding! I should petition Blur to do something about this!

  13. x-posted from air-l – apologies for the delay, but I didn’t see it in the volume of mail ;til this morning.

    I’m not familair at all with it, but it appears that in the Scottish system there is some tangible and visible impact – at least some form of public hearing about most(?) petitions.

    Is that a likely development? We could see powerful parliamentary committees questioning the government closely on what steps it will be taking?

    ————————————-
    Date: Tue, 21 Nov 2006 17:28:10 +0100
    From: “Matthias Trenel”
    To: air-l@listserv.aoir.org
    Subject: Re: [Air-l] Petition Tony Blair, online that is
    Hi Ildiko,

    > Is this the pilot the Bundestag modelled on the e-petitioning system
    of
    > the Scottish Parliament?

    Yes, that’s right. As far as the technology is concerned: The
    Bundestag adopted the e-petitioner system that was developed by the
    International Teledemocracy Center and first employed by the Scottish
    Parliament (later also by Local Authorities in England: Kingston and
    Bristol). But the similarities might stop beyond technology, e.g. the
    Bundestag hasn’t had a public hearing for public petitions yet while
    that happens with almost all petitions in Scotland, as far as I know.

    Best, Matthias

  14. Hello Dominic (and your colleagues by proxy),

    Let me tackle your various questions and arguments.

    >Friends are highly dubious about this petition system, and that the support of say the repeal of the Hunting Act is representative.

    They are completely entitled to feel that way about this or any other initiative we run. However, I’m afraid that whilst thousands of people per day are making use of it, though, that’s not a good enough reason to persuade me to suggest to the trustees, developers or our volunteer community that we should annul our contract and close down the site.

    > Surely you don’t envisage Blur or Broon acting because the highest number counted support the repeal of the Hunting Act?

    Speaking personally, I think you’re probably right about the chances of the pro fox-hunting people getting a repeal of this act under this government. However, I hope it is pretty obvious that we didn’t build this petition system because we thought the government would and should do everything that was petitioned for: it is simply a new channel in our multi-layered representative democracy. It does not make the rest of the political universe vanish.

    >yes, it would have been possible to build in deliberation. It has been done in relation to Parliamentary Committees, and in departmental consolations. Why not with No10?

    Excellent news – please point me to examples. I am especially keen to see ones that can deal with over 1000 parallell discussions on different topics.

    > Were you allowed to do so? I don’t know, you should tell us, did you ask?

    No, I didn’t ask. I was much more concerned that the process of actually signing and making petitions should be percieved as transparent and trustworthy by most users, as it clearly is. However, we have now added lots of features that I didn’t ask for, and nor did No10 as the site was being designed. This is what it means to run a beta.

    > Is moderation too expensive when billions are spent in man+equipment in Iraq

    You might have noticed that mySociety hasn’t launched any military action in Iraq recently. This is a question to direct to No10. I am sure your view that this is a good use of money will form part of their considerations on the issue of discussion systems – you can let them know directly by mailing the support address on the petitions homepage.

    >I couldn’t see any party political reference, and in any case why should that be a bar?

    There is a strict division of powers over rejections or acceptances – this is No10′s business not ours. However you appear to have quoted No10′s justification in your own email, relating to Mrs Thatcher. If you think that they should have allowed her to be mentioned, please drop No10 a mail through the support address on the homepage of the petitions site.

    >Is that a likely development? We could see powerful parliamentary committees questioning the government closely on what steps it will be taking?

    As Stephen Coleman would doubtless point out now, the executive and the Parliament are different things. I’m not aware of any such plans, but why not ask your MP to raise the idea in the House of Commons? Personally I would be happy to see petitions given some sort of more formal status, although I have not spent much time working out exactly what. Do you have any views?

    all the best,

    Tom

  15. lo Steiny,

    Just thought I’d drop you a message to say congratulations. The e-petitions website has now conclusively proven in spectacular fashion (with the road charging petition) that any government just isn’t ever going to listen.

    Hope you’re well.

    Regards
    Rob / MYstIC G

  16. Hello,

    I’ve just posted an exchange with Tom about the road pricing petition on my blog…
    http://baconbutty.blogspot.com/2007/02/no-10-road-pricing-petition-beware-what.html

    Making five suggestions…

    Tom – greetings and congratulations on all the innovations of mySociety including, it seems, the engine in the No 10 petition site.

    I agree that a massive discussion board would be impractical and pointless. But I do think the system has some amplifying biases that could be at least attenuated and misses opportunities for more deliberation.

    Here’s some suggestions:

    1. Allow users to define ‘counter petitions’ or ‘variant petitions’ and make these accessible from the original petition to which they refer. This would create a cluster of proposals around an issue – and reduce search and transactions costs for those wishing to express a different view. Perhaps some threshold of signatures might need to be reached before that system cuts in – with an editorial judgement about what can be added as counter petitions or variant petitions to a popular petition.

    2. Without having a free-for-all discussion board, you could allow the petition originators to elaborate and update their case as the petition goes on – or this is too much trouble for the ‘long tale’ of small petitions, allow more editing rights when a petition reaches a threshold of signatures (1,000, 10,000 – depending on the distribution). Editing rights could include posting updates and responding to arguments made in the media or by critics. If it was a sufficiently small number, you could allow the right to make external URL links – I would welcome the opportunity to make a case on road pricing (or many other things) as I have here on the barely read “Bacon Butty” using links to quality assure and add credibility to the and argument.

    3. Create an ‘oppose’ option for any petition. I’ve seen the rationale for not doing this on the No 10 web site, but I don’t think stacks up – in fact, the asymmetry in effort required to oppose a popular petition is huge and the experience disempowering and frustrating. Why should saying ‘no’ be made more difficult and saying ‘yes’? I think there is a risk of too much analogy with paper petitions – but that breaks down when the transaction cost of signing and collecting signatures is so low.

    4. Have ministerial or PM responses added to the petition while the petition is open, but triggered by passing thresholds of signatures (eg. 1000, 10,000 – whatever would keep these to an acceptable number)… what a pity that the PM didn’t set out the case he eventually e-mailed at an earlier point in the development of the road pricing petition.

    5. Not so sure about this one, but should there be a bit more quality control, so that petitioners reflect real world choices and don’t embed falsehoods or misleading statement in their petition? Supposing an editorial standard about equal to the letters page of a local newspaper was applied? The guidelines don’t seem to allow for misleading propositions as long as they are clearly expressed! Would you allow a petition that tells the government to “stop giving free mobile phones to asylum seekers”? So what about the implication in the road pricing petition that the govt would be tracking our every move?

    Hope this is useful!

    Regards

    Clive

  17. William Overington

    I recently tried to add two petitions. Both have been rejected twice.

    The first petition has the following page.

    [broken link removed]

    The “More details cannot be shown” details were as follows.

    quote

    The initiator of this petition is not an architect and is not
    involved in the construction industry. The Design for
    Manufacture competition included the following sentence. The
    competition will focus on capturing the benefits from modern
    construction and on stimulating public discussion about what
    Homes for the 21st Century should be like. The idea in this
    petition is as a result of the initiator of this petition
    thinking about what some homes for the 21st Century could be
    like. The Design for Manufacture competition has its own webspace.

    William Overington

    10 April 2007

    end quote

    There were no allegations about anything in the petition at either first stage or second stage. Indeed, the “More details” notes were the same at both stages and nothing about allegations was claimed at that stage.

    The second petition has the following page.

    [broken link removed]

    The “More details cannot be shown” details were as follows.

    quote

    The intention of this petition is to provide an idea which
    could hopefully help in the implementing of the
    [broken link removed] cheap drugs petition. The duration
    of this petition is 11 months so that when the
    [broken link removed] cheap drugs petition is completed,
    this petition will already be completed and ready to support
    the [broken link removed] cheap drugs petition.

    end quote

    At the first stage, there were no “More details” notes.

    My original wording was as follows.

    quote

    We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to initiate a
    feasibility study involving expert input from government
    departments and from the pharmaceutical industry as to whether
    it is feasible to introduce a symbol, a logo, which may be used
    on the packaging of a pack of pharmaceuticals such that the
    logo conserves all logos and other information related to the
    quality of the pharmaceuticals in the pack yet cancels the
    licence to sell the pharmaceuticals in that particular pack in
    the developed world: the intention being that if this idea is
    feasible and becomes implemented then hopefully some
    pharmaceutical companies would make and distribute packs of
    pharmaceuticals carrying one or more copies of the logo for use
    by hospitals and doctors in the poorest countries of the
    developing world at the incremental cost of producing them
    without on those particular packs seeking to recover the
    development costs of the pharmaceuticals in the pack.

    end quote

    This was rejected with the remarks.

    Your petition was classed as being in the following categories:

    * Wording that is impossible to understand

    So, I reworded it and added some notes.

    Yesterday I resubmitted exactly the same stage 2 texts that are published in the government webspace, but this time with no “More details” notes.

    I am concerned about the assessment process and that the government webspace is damaging the idea in the first petition by claiming that allegations have been made, when no allegations whatsoever have been made. I am concerned that right-minded people may shun the idea because of the factually wrong claim about allegations which is being made in the government webspace. There is something seriously wrong with the assessment process. Readers of this post are welcome to form their own opinion of the quality of the assessments from reading the above texts of the “More details” sections.

    William Overington

    2 May 2007

  18. Francis Irving

    Hi William,

    The problem is that you put too much text in the main body of the petition, and not enough in the “More details”. Also, you cannot put your own name or any URLs in the “More details” section.

    The best thing to do is to resubmit your petitions correcting that.

    Francis

  19. William Overington

    I am pleased to say that the idea contained in the eutopia petition, which was later in the eutopia-estate petition, is now rewritten in a new petition with the short title eutopia-housing, and that the eutopia-housing petition has been accepted and is now open for people to consider signing.

    [broken link removed]

    The closing date for signing the petition is 15 January 2008. The period of seven months was chosen so that the petition would close early next year and hopefully the Prime Minister will agree to the request in the petition and that the competition can open in the spring of 2008.

    However, in order to succeed the petition needs a good number of signatures. If the petition receives one signature each day on average while it is open then over two hundred signatures will be achieved.

    However, there are many ifs in the process before the housing estate is built and put into use, though if it is built and put into use, then maybe it will be the first of a number of such housing estates around the country.

    William Overington

    16 June 2007

  20. William Overington

    I am pleased to say that the idea contained in the interactinglogo petition, which was later in the metacertificator petition, is now rewritten in a new petition with the short title special-mark, and that the special-mark petition has been accepted and is now open for people to consider signing.

    [broken link removed]

    The closing date for signing the petition is 18 March 2008. The period of nine months was chosen so that the petition would close a few weeks before the [broken link removed] cheap drugs petition.

    The intention of this petition is to provide an idea which could hopefully help in the implementing of the [broken link removed] cheap drugs petition. The duration of this petition is nine months so that when the
    [broken link removed] petition is completed, this petition will already be completed and ready to support the [broken link removed] petition.

    However, in order to succeed the petitions may need a good number of signatories. Whilst it is possible that the Prime Minister might act upon them upon their merits regardless of the number of signatories, a good number of signatories would help them to become acted upon. Indeed, lots of signatories might lead to government responses before the closing dates of the petitions. At the time of writing this text, the [broken link removed] cheap drugs petition has eight signatories, including me and the [broken link removed] special mark
    petition has just one signatory, namely me.

    I feel that the two petitions have a good possibility of leading to major benefits if they are acted upon by the Prime Minister.

    William Overington

    20 June 2007

  21. A sugestion to try n measure reach would be to record site hits and navigation to individual petitions, and show this, as well as the actual signees.