Coalition Government to introduce epetitions that will influence parliamentary debate

It's been a short while since my last post, and in that time we've acquired a new Conservative-Lib Dem government.  So what better way to get back back to blogging than drawing attention to an interesting piece of Conservative policy that offers a major opportunity for campaigners (especially digitally active ones) to get their issue on the the government's agenda – and potentially have a real impact on legislation.

The policy in question is referenced in the Coalition's final Programme for Government in the section on Political Reform where it sets out the following commitment:

"We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be
eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most
signatures will enable members of the public to table a bill eligible to
be voted on in Parliament."

Pretty radical?

In essence it seems the government is committing to ensure that any petition over the magical 100,000 number will eligable for debate in Parliament.

Even more interesting is the secondary commitment to allow public petitions with the "most signatures" to also table bills. Now this second point is rather vague but I'm sure that I remember reading in Conservative policy documents during the election campaign outlined petitions with 1m signatures or more would be tabled as bills.

Two immediate thoughts spring to mind here.

The first, prompted by a Glen Tarman on the ecampaigning forum, covers the implications for campaigning groups – especially those effective at online mobilisation.

Glen argues that a "high-visibility impactful campaign is not always [...] correlative to the numbers game" and of course he's right. But he also points to recent examples where significant numbers of people have 'signed-up' to social change causes far in excess of the benchmark of 100,000 set by the current policy:

  • Jubilee 2000 petition – 2,960,262 UK signatures
  • Make Poverty History – 500,000 petition signatures (90% of signatures were online)
  • Trade Justice Movement – 750,000 signatures
  • Downing Street Road Tax epetition – 1.8m online signatures

And that's what I find interesting with the 100,000 (and possibly 1m) signatures benchmark. In the age of email, social media and social networking it really isn't too difficult (although it's not *easy* either) to mobilise significant volumes of people around an important issue.

As the list above shows, even less-mainstream aid issues can generate enough signatures to secure a parliamentary debate. Compare this with the infamous road tax epetition example or this England/World Cup Facebook Page which has generated 140,000+ Fans in 48 hours.

So what are the implications for professional campaigners? One the one hand the policy taps into our digitally networked age where online sign-ups and 'Likes' lower the barriers to taking part in social change movements and campaigns.

Conversely, it can be argued that this will enshrine a culture of 'slacktivism' in our political system which in turn may lead to a de-incentivising and disenfranchising of real-life action and its corollary, an increase in disproportionate policing and political prosecutions

While I'm not suggesting this is definitively the intention of the policy, it is – in my mind at least – a possible outcome. Of course, this may also have the opposite effect. Who can say yet.

The other implication of the policy worth considering is whether a distinction will be made between public petitions and NGO-driven petitions?

As well as the likelihood of generating different petition topics (e.g. international trade justice vs domestic road pricing) it's arguable that NGOs or professional campaigns are likely to consistently mobilise 100,000 signatories on 'progressive issues', as opposed to the weirder – or 'self-interested' as Glen more appropriately puts it – ones.

Any decisions around implementing the policy will need to factor in these issues if the initiative is to be seen as credibie – especially to a traditionally hostile media when it comes to anything remotely disintermediating and web-based.

It will be fascinating to see how this policy issue will develop and play out as it's clearly an integral part of the Conservative's plans for parliamentary reform that aims to put citizen
empowerment at its core, e.g. the web-based Public
Reading Stage
for new laws.

Add to this EU plans to introduce a similar petition policy and we could start see a radical political agenda that involves and enfranchises citizens at the core of democracy. But then that might open another debate as to who and how criteria for citizenship are constructed. But I'll save that for another blog post.

Labour’s iPhone app mobilising supporters

Mzl.edgauvsh.320x480-75 There’s a great blog post from Stuart Bruce about Labour’s iPhone app that serves as a timely reminder that new media and the Internet isn’t primarily about ‘social meeja’.

Stuart’s post come as uber-Tory blogger Iain Dale writes in the Telegraph that this so-called Internet election isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Of course, it was largely the media that set the standards for the ‘Internet election’ and Iain’s blog post seems to argue that because candidates aren’t blogging and Twitter is "useless as a campaigning tool" then the digital election is a failure. But let's not forget it's also meant to be the Mumsnet election as well but everyone seems to have forgotten that already.

As a timely rebuttal, Stuart observes that when it comes to creating virtual networks of activists, then the Internet is doing a great job, thank you very much.

In fact, many political activists I know argue that what really matters at an election is  feet on doorsteps, canvassing phonecalls and ultimately crosses on ballot papers.

And let’s face it, until we have some concrete evidence to prove otherwise it's widely accepted Twitter or Facebook aren’t necessarily going to deliver these – although that’s not to say they don't have other important roles to play too.

And this is the mistake the media and many others in the PR world seem to make. They look to Obama and say: "it’s social media wot won it" and make the logical progression that we aren’t seeing that campaign replicated in the UK in 2010.

Those in the know, however, are acutely aware that it wasn’t social media wot won it for Obama but rather email marketing. Obama’s team judiciously used huge volumes of targeted data to motivate voters ahead of polling day and mobilise them on polling stations.

Data protection laws differ in the US from the UK and while no UK political party yet seems able to replicate Obama’s email campaign, Stuart runs through some of the successes Labour has been having with it’s iPhone app in identifying and mobilizing voters.

The app has been designed and built using feedback form grassroots activists and is packed with functionality that empowers people to get out on the doorstep, make phone calls and attend events.

Specific features allow users to access the Labour manifesto in text or video format, use GPS to locate party campaigning events happening near them, read Labour Party tweets, call and canvas people using Labour's virtual Phonebank tool (crucially, it this works within the UK's data protection legislation – something the Tories failed to take into account recently).

In fact, the app is so good, even the acerbic Popbitch gives it the following praise:

“The ‘Inside the Campaign’ section is, surprisingly, not mind numbingly dull.”

Stuart tells us that Labour’s learning is: “if you want to mobilise large numbers of people in a network to do things for you then you need to involve them.”

And on that point he couldn’t be more right.

Two post-event analyses of the #DEBill by me

As you might have seen in my previous
somewhat splenetic call to action
against the Digital Economy Bill the past few
weeks have been spent with my blood pressure rather high.

Perhaps out of therapy – or merely because
it’s offered a fascinating case study of how social media can be used to
potentially open up some form of direct democracy – I’ve pulled together a
couple of blog posts on the subject.

The posts broadly cover the use of social
media to campaign against the bill and the – I argue – ground-breaking way Twitter
was used to report the crucial debates in real-time as well as engage with
politicians mid-debate.

The first post was published over on We
Are Social's (i.e. my work's) blog
while the second was guest posted over at Royal Holloway University’s
New Political Communications Unit blog
.

Enjoy!

Mumsnet election: an analysis

The following was posted as a guest post at Royal Holloway University's New Political Communications Unit blog.

Justine Roberts, founder of online mums and parenting community, Mumsnet,
spoke at an Albion Society event on digital democracy last week and
provided a fascinating insight into the future of politics, digital
campaigning and organisational structures.

Justine questioned why so many politicians were keen to get in front
of Mumsnet members and suggested the reasons may be more conventional
than first thought.

Firstly, Mumsnet, as a concept or new media channel is much easier
to grasp than other social media tools, such as Twitter. While Twitter
is still largely a dangerous and mysterious tool to a lot of MPs, with
inherent etiquette, esoteric terminology and demanding, difficult to
manage real-time functionality, Mumsnet is much more like the Richard and Judy of media politics.

You have a 95% female community; mass membership (1m uniques a month) and since the media claimed the election a Mumsnet election
the community has been on the watch-list of most Westminster hacks
meaning what MPs say is likely to get reported in the traditional media.

Given this high level of awareness, does Mumsnet have any real political power, Justine asked.
The
answer in short was, yes. Because, despite MPs' perceptions that
Mumsnet is just another traditional media channel with a mass, passive
readership, they've overlooked one major difference: participation and
self-organisation.

Mumsnet real political potential lies in driving single-issue
campaigns relevant to members. Justine gave an example where members
had vociferously opposed plans by the Government to change the
childcare voucher scheme, challenged the prime minister on a live
webchat on the site, and pushed the most popular current Downing Street ePetition (currently standing at 99,000+ signatories). The campaign eventually caused Gordon Brown to change the unpopular policy.

Given this potential effect on policy, Government is now engaging
the community proactively. The wisdom of the community is being
exploited by the Department of Health, who are involving Mumsnet community members to help develop its policy towards women that have suffered miscarriages.

What this all adds up to, Justine suggested pragmatically, was that
while Mumsnet may not have political power in the traditional sense, it
certainly has power to mobilise its members in the same way
organisations such as 38Degrees, the single-issue political mobilisation platform, can.

This was a fascinating comparison, given that Mumsnet is also a
peer-to-peer support community for many other members as well as a more
traditional news portal for even more.  I couldn't help wondering about
the potential for a study of Mumsnet to test its organisational hybridity.

Finally, Justine dispelled the myth of the bloc vote in Mumsnet.
Their own internal surveys of members' voting intentions revealed that
party support is fairly evenly split across the three main parties.
Despite this, however, the BNP was actually caught out trying to
infiltrate discussions and shape debates around a fascist/far-right
agenda.

While not entirely conclusive evidence of Mumsnet's organisational
hybridity, Justine's conclusion could certainly be interpreted as
reflecting the complex socio-technological structures at play within
the community. “Mumsnet,” she concluded, “is a non-aligned mouthpiece
for its community. It’s not a union bloc vote; it’s more like an octopus with pre-menstrual stress.”