When I worked in a Member of Parliament's office back in the early 1990s, our office – like those of our colleagues – was inundated with an unending stream of petitions, pre-printed form letters, faxes and actual mail. Sifting through it all took up a huge amount of time (and incurred more than a little staff resentment).
These communications varied wildly in impact. We often took the effort required by a particular medium as a rough proxy for the level of sender's depth of feeling and commitment. A personally written letter, for instance, carried a lot more weight than a lowly mass-printed postcard, which was maybe a little more significant than a petition.
And if a tangible, paper-based petition is unlikely to soften the flinty hearts in the corridors of power, you can how much hope their electronic kin have. Point-and-click protest is so easy to do – and for that reason, just as easy to ignore in the face of so many competing demands for attention.
So my heart usually sinks whenever I receive yet another appeal to go sign yet another e-petition. With a very few exceptions (such as the petition to change Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day's first name to "Doris" in 2000), and despite the hopes of their sponsors, they almost always wrap up without making a dent in public policy.
But now British Prime Minister Tony Blair seems interested in rescuing the lowly e-petition from irrelevance. Earlier this month, his office launched a remarkable experiment with online petitions.
There isn't really any technical innovation here, but the idea of housing a petition-hosting service within the walls of government is intriguing. It lends respectability to what has usually been an outsider's tool, and there are great touches – like the neat little link to see which petitions have been rejected and why, a small but useful way of helping people do their lobbying more effectively. (The site's staff take that a step further, offering suggestions for ways of making a petition more acceptable.)
With public feelings of efficacy and levels of political engagement so low, it could well be that part of the answer is to lure people back to the civic arena with the easiest possible means of speaking out. And petitions have such a long and honorable history that is would be nice to see some new life for them. Whether the government is trying to co-opt e-petitions or make them more meaningful, responsiveness will probably be the key to whether this initiative succeeds or fails (even if those responses are often a considered, respectful and well-explained "no").
Still, I can't help but wish there was more. It's easy to dismiss even large petitions if you can convince yourself that the signatories wouldn't be voting for you anyway.
So suppose, for example, you could tag your signature with your party affiliation, your broad political philosophy, your stands on other key issues or your occupation. (Listing your occupation as "One of your cabinet ministers" would be a pretty clear warning flag, for instance.) Petition organizers would be highly motivated to start building broader coalitions, starting conversations across traditional political, cultural and social divisions. You could even start generating a little social capital.
Petitions would still be the easiest (some would say laziest) way of speaking out. But breadth of support could lend them some serious clout, as legislators and party strategists discover that the supporters they're counting on in the next election want them to change course now. And if that leads citizens to take on heftier forms of political action, they'll be even harder to ignore.
Even for jaded, overworked political staffers.