Ever wondered what impact online petitioning actually has on government? Thought about what effect becoming a digital signatory to “x” or “y” petition has on the world?
There’s more than one answer. Some say it may actually have a tremendous amount of sway with governments. Others claim the online petition movement is a huge waste of time and energy, at least as far as influencing government.
For those who don’t know, Canada’s House of Commons’ rules prohibit putting forward petitions that are not signed on paper. This effectively rules out any and all online petitions from ever being presented by members of parliament in Ottawa.
One would think that little governmental convention spells the end of the usefulness of online petitioning. Not so, say some real movers in the online appeals world.
A brave, new democracy
Kennedy Stewart, New Democrat MP for Burnaby, British Columbia, has been championing this issue from the inside since February this year. He brought forward a private members’ bill, Bill M-318, which seeks to change the standing orders in the House to allow for digital petitions to be presented.
On his website Stewart says e-petitions are the leading edge of the wedge for democratic reform in a modern age.
“There are few issues today as critical as democratic decline. Whether it is collapsing voter turnout rates or diminishing levels of social capital, all governments need to take immediate action to reverse these disturbing trends. I have devoted much of my 20 years as an academic to exploring how to increase citizen participation in politics,” he says. “I am honoured to be in a position where I can advocate for real policy change,” starting with his bill.
Stewart goes on to note that e-petitioning has become an acceptable form of citizen engagement within numerous governments around the world and even here in Canada. Both the province of Québec and the United Kingdom have instituted mechanisms to allow for this type of activity.
Open yourself to the possibility
While some, like Stewart, work from within on this issue, others trod the grassroots path to drum up support and use e-petitioning as a way to make government take notice of a cause, even if the electronic version can’t technically be brought forward in the House.
The folks over at OpenMedia.ca have become leaders in crafting and pitching the cause of a free, big brother-less internet. And they’ve done it all through online petitions and social networking.
Steve Andersen, OpenMedia.ca’s founder and executive director told CharityVillage that despite his organization’s not having any of its e-petitions raised in parliament, the efficacy of his model has been remarkable.
“Even if you ignore the fact that we've helped Canadians make significant changes in politics and policy, the amount of citizen education and engagement that's come of our online campaigns has been jaw-dropping,” he said. “When it comes to numbers, the pro-internet community has the concepts down: a mass of engaged and critical Canadians can be a powerful agent for change. These supporters know that spreading the word is anything but a passive activity. When it comes to civic education, we're blown away every day by the critical intelligence displayed in comments on our social media spaces, our site, and our inboxes.”
Beyond that, he said politicians react when they receive constant emails of the names of citizens that are added to e-petitions daily.
Andersen notes that the way his organization structures its online petitions makes it hard for members of parliament to ignore them. He said OpenMedia.ca’s petitions can be designed to alert policymakers about developments via email or fax.
“Canadians have added to that by sending messages to their MPs using some of the online tools we offer by writing letters to the editors of their local papers, engaging with policymakers on social media [and] getting petitions signed in their neighbourhoods,” he said. “Through these actions, some of our supporters have even succeeded in getting politicians to present official petitions or otherwise speak on our community's behalf in the House of Commons.”
Badgering the wrong way
As heartening as it may all seem, there are still detractors who believe e-petitions are all for naught.
Nova Scotia-based online consultancy company Mediabadger has a different take on how much one can expect to achieve via online petitioning.
In a recent blog on the website, the company’s CEO and co-founder Giles Crouch wrote that e-petitions are “useless.”
“Our whole business is about research and analysis of what people are saying in digital media channels and a good portion of that is around civil society issues. That includes dissecting and analyzing online petitions,” Crouch wrote. “So here’s a reality check in regards to online petitions: they are meaningless in regards to actual change in civil society – what that means is, if you think a government is going to change a law or bring in a new law because you signed an online petition – you are mistaken. That is not going to happen.”
Crouch points out the obvious: that digital petitions cannot be formally introduced into legislatures. Additionally, he takes aim at people who believe they’re helping to advance causes by “signing” petitions online about events that are often happening outside the jurisdiction of where the signee lives.
In one sobering section, he writes: “Isn’t it great that in just a few seconds you can ‘sign’ a petition, get your name into the mix, feel that your name, among hundreds or thousands of others, is going to change the game? You’ve showed your values true, declared your stand. You feel a part of that whole ‘democratic process’ thing. Except, it means nothing. Absolutely nothing. Perhaps because the petition you just signed is for an issue in Montana and you live in Saskatchewan, Canada. Or perhaps it’s for Hamilton, Ontario and you live in Victoria, BC.”
According to Mediabadger’s research, governments don’t care a whit about online petitions unless the signees represent a critical mass of their home constituents. And that is not often the case in an interconnected, online world.
Petition the right way
Andersen maintains there’s much value in the online petitioning realm. And he has some parting advice for other groups or organizations that want to do it effectively.
“There are definitely some dos and don'ts that we've picked up along the way,” he said. The do’s of crafting and disseminating an e-petition include being concise, clear, and urgent.
“Don't use confusing language. Do make your theory of change – how you believe supporters' actions will contribute to the goal in mind – clear,” he said.
“The most important thing is that you ask your community for feedback and advice. Canadians...are smart and resourceful, and they pay attention. They're how we at OpenMedia.ca know what we know now. They're how we've won time and again. Their engagement is what winning itself is.”
Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf is president of WordLaunch professional writing services in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos (from top) via OpenMedia.ca. All photos used with permission.
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