Back in November 2006 we launched Number 10’s petitions website. We were pretty proud of the usability-centred site we built – we can still lay a pretty good claim to it being one of the biggest democracy sites (measured in terms of people transacting) that the world’s ever seen.
Over 12 million signatures had been added to petitions by the time the site was switched off after the 2010 general election. We were particularly proud of developing a system that was highly load-tolerant: we once survived over 20,000 people signing within a single hour, all whilst running on a pair of cheap little servers. That performance on so little hardware was down to the raw brilliance represented by a coding team made up of Francis Irving, Matthew Somerville, and the late, great Chris Lightfoot.
We’re also pleased that the popularity of the site led to the irresistible rise of the belief that the public should be able to petition the government via the internet. So even though our site was mothballed, Parliament and DirectGov have taken over the idea, and the commitment has been upped a notch, from ‘we’ll send a reply’ to ‘we’ll talk about it’. To be clear, we are not, nor have ever been a community interested in replacing representative democracy with direct democracy, but anything that can squeeze any drop of change from Parliament is worth a small celebration.
What’s most pleasing, though, is that we’ve been able to take the open source code built for Number 10, improve and expand upon it to develop a hosted petitions service for local councils around the country, or the rest of the world. And this is where we found the most important lesson for us: local petitions can be awesome, and despite the much smaller numbers of signatories involved, we’ve been more widely and frequently impressed by local petitions and responses than at the more glamorous national level. We’re particular fans of Hounslow Borough Council who have given positive and detailed feedback on all sorts of genuine local issues, as well as working hard to let local residents know that the service exists.
Just recently we launched a site to make it really easy to find local council petition websites, because there are hundreds hidden away (we built some; most are supplied by other vendors). If we could see anything result from today’s huge explosion of interest in online petitions, it would be that people might start to look local, and explore what petitions in their community could mean.