Council online petitions

I was walking down the street just the other day, and on the hoarding that I passed I was distracted right out of my way.

Poster for a petition to add a safe crossing point on Mary Vale Road

The link (and hopefully the QR code...) takes the user to a petition on, a petition which will ultimately be submitted to the council with a view to there being an outcome.

Many years ago the council had its own petitions site, a petitions engine supplied by a third party supplier which had cornered for itself a niche in supplying petitions sites to councils. A couple of months ago when I saw somebody on Facebook promoting a petition which would ultimately go to the council, I went to do the thing I usually used to do of saying to them please don't use the popular commercial petitions sites for your petition, please use the proper council petitions site - and when I went to get the link I discovered the council doesn't have a petitions site anymore, it advises people to go elsewhere for that sort of thing.

I never sign petitions my friends are asking me to sign which are on commercial petitions sites, on a matter of principle, and I tell people so whenever they try to engage me to. The reasons for this include:

  • I keep as much control over my personal data as I can; there are some aspects of my data I grudgingly share with the likes of Meta, Google, and Apple in exchange for the services they provide me, but beyond that I try to stay at the tin foil hat end of protecting my personal digital privacy. And commercial petitions sites have as a business model the harvesting of users' personal interests and other data in order to market other goods and services to them,
  • Which includes marketing other petitions to the user; commercial petition sites are essentially automated Customer Relationship Management Systems - 'Hi, I see two weeks ago you signed a petition in favour of a zebra crossing over Mary Vale Road in Bournville, we thought you might be interested in signing this petition supporting a Low Traffic Neighbourhood in Bournville too'. This is not how petitions are supposed to work - petitions are supposed to be campaigning tools where somebody who has a Beef does a degree of work to persuade other people to agree with their Beef and put their name and address to a petition about it, and when that petition is presented to the council, the government, whoever, the recipient is supposed to be overwhelmed by the level of public support there is about this Beef and be compelled to take it seriously. Random clicking on the Petition Of The Day in the morning email is not a measure of genuine public support,
  • They're too easy; ironic for somebody who makes it their job to try to make things as easy as possible for users to use things, but there are certain circumstances where a little friction in the service can be beneficial to the quality and reputation of the service. If a user has to do a degree of work in creating a petition, then them doing that degree of work is an indicator that they're serious about the issue they're creating the petition over; if a user has to do a degree of work to sign the petition, that's a similar indicator they have a degree of genuine care for the issue rather than simply mindlessly signing it,
  • They're often of dubious accuracy or merit; I have a rule of thumb when it comes to news articles in partisan sources which are trying to make me be outraged about something - I assume to a degree or other that there are some lies or omissions in the article and the truth is almost certainly considerably less outrageous. If there's a picture of wronged people in it, my immediate thought is 'they need to work on their compo face'. Similarly I've seen too many petitions that people have asked me to support, which my immediate feeling on reading them was that seems ssusssss, where sure enough some cursory further research reveals an alternative perspective on the story,
  • They inoculate against genuine engagement and activism - in a world where there's a perception of increasing injustice coupled with a perception of increasing laziness, there's also a perception of increased inclination for people to think they've clicked a link in an email and done their bit to solve homelessness. 1,000 who really care about an issue really getting down to active campaigning and awareness-raising is far more valuable and effective than 10,000 people just clicking a link, and those 10,000 people just clicking the link risks diluting the efforts of the 1,000 who care rather than amplifying them.

I assume the councils who have decommissioned their petition portals in favour of directing people to the commercial sites have done so for budgetary reasons, that the licences cost more money than it was worth for the number of users using them.

Many councils now in their digital strategies explicitly state that if content is available elsewhere then we should not be replicating it, we should be signposting to it. To a degree, that makes sense - the combined editors of Wikipedia have much more time available to curate rich articles on the history of the county than we have, so it's fair enough to say if people come to the council website looking for history, we can give them an intro but direct them to the Wikipedia article for the fuller picture.

But - and my suggestion about a reconsideration about live election reporting aside - it would be inconceivable for us to say we don't need to have election results and council party composition on our site anymore because the public can get them from Wikipedia, wouldn't it? Wouldn't it??

Similarly petitions. To my mind, the neutral facilitation of the democratic process is part of the core business of the council and therefore should be part of the core functionality of the council website.

But I'm not sure why a petition engine on a council website needs to be complicated anyway; it strikes me that it ought to be reasonably simple to create forms with our forms engines, some kind of categorisation to curate petition forms from other forms, and if we want to be like proper clever create some kind of workflow to connect the forms to our case management systems?

I’ve made a start on a proof of concept - I’m still working on it,though.