Explaining the e-petitions process to the public

How can we judge success or failure in relation to e-petitions to Parliament? Dr Catherine Bochel discusses a framework for assessing e-petitions, drawn from research in the National Assembly for Wales and Scottish Parliament.

Formal e-petitions systems in parliaments have become very popular with the public. However public understanding of the petitions process and what can be achieved by submitting a petition remains a challenge. This post explores the outcomes of petitions, considers how ‘success’ and ‘failure’ might be judged in relation to petitions, and may help political institutions think about the processes which underpin their petition systems and the ways in which they frame them for the public.

Despite their undoubted popularity, evidence suggests that petitions systems, including those in the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the UK Government and Parliament system, face a number of common challenges, including the need to educate people more about the petitions process, and to provide them with a better understanding of what they may achieve by submitting a petition (Bochel, 2016; Caygill and Griffiths, 2018; House of Commons Petitions Committee, 2016; National Assembly for Wales Petitions Committee, 2016; Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, 2015). There may also be beneficial outcomes for petitions systems, including helping to better manage petitioner expectations, to measure the success of petitions, and to promote other opportunities for public engagement.

The research underpinning this post was undertaken in relation to the systems in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales and led to the development of a framework to help understand how the ‘success’ of petitions might be judged. This could be adapted and applied to the UK Government and Parliament system.

‘Success’ and ‘failure’ in petitions systems

The systems that are in place in elected bodies today enable members of the public to raise issues and concerns on a wide variety of topics, inter-alia: arts and culture, education, sport, politics and democracy, children and young people, transport, religion, health, etc. In Scotland and Wales there are some notable examples of change for some of those who submit petitions. For example, PE1098/PE1223, on School Bus Safety, led to the introduction of the Seat Belts on School Transport (Scotland) Bill which was passed into law in December 2017. In the National Assembly for Wales, P-03-256 Additional Trains to Fishguard, resulted in the Minister funding five additional train services a day to and from Fishguard. However, such successes are likely to be limited to a relatively small number of petitions and petitioners, and it is therefore important to also consider what other petitions and petitioners might achieve.

‘Success’, or otherwise, for petitions systems might be judged in many different ways, including, for example, the number of petitions submitted, the number of signatories to petitions, or the extent to which petitions are seen as being treated seriously and transparently.

Given these challenges, and in particular the likely subjective nature of petitioner assessments of the success or otherwise of petitions, this research focused on outcomes for petitioners from the perspective of the systems themselves. It starts from the premise that success and failure are unlikely to be all or nothing categories, but can more usefully be viewed as a continuum. At one end of the continuum would be outright ‘success’, with the petition achieving everything that it asked for, and for petitioners this would be the ultimate outcome. However, while the vast majority of petitions are unlikely to achieve this, there are nevertheless other things that might be accomplished from submitting a petition, other than complete ‘failure’.

Drawing on research on the devolved legislatures, a framework has been developed to help understand a variety of ways in which petitions might be judged. The framework sets out the stages in the petitions process, the actions that the systems can take, and the potential ‘outcomes’ for petitioners at each stage. It highlights that ‘success’ (or otherwise) of petitions can usefully be conceived of as a continuum, and the need to recognise that petitioners can achieve different outcomes, including not only ‘full’ achievement of their aims, but also awareness raising on the topic of the petition, promoting the petition to wider audiences, perhaps through a debate or an inquiry, getting their issue on the agenda of the Parliament or Assembly by it being discussed by a petitions committee, being able to collect further information on the topic of their petition, and having an opportunity for written and potentially face to face dialogue with members.

Assessing what happens to petitions is not, therefore, simply a matter of them ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’ to achieve their aims.

Notes

Dr Catherine Bochel is a Reader in Policy Studies at the University of Lincoln, and a House of Commons Academic Fellow.

This blog draws on research featured in Dr Bochel’s new article for Parliamentary Affairs: Petitions Systems: Outcomes, ‘Success’ and ‘Failure’

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