Exploring E-Petitions

By Elana Goldstein

Over the past two years, AmericaSpeaks has been working with funds from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to explore issues related to open government. The grant culminated at the beginning of the summer with the release of “Government Sponsored E-Petitions: A Guide for Implementation and Development,” a paper focused on electronic petitioning and local government.

AmericaSpeaks doesn’t often have the opportunity to be involved with projects like this, so it was exciting for the organization to take a step back and look at citizen participation from a new angle. We see e-petitions as a new means for governments to encourage increased citizen interaction and involvement in the policy making process.

The paper serves as a guide for public managers who are interested in e-petition design and implementation. The guide breaks down the key decision areas that a public manager may face throughout the implementation process. In addition, the guide includes three case studies, each of which examines a different governmental entity’s approach to e-petition implementation. The first case study looks at e-petitioning in the United States with the Obama Administration’s “We the People” e-petition platform. The second case discusses state level implementation in Queensland, Australia, with an emphasis on using e-petitioning as a way to overcome geographic barriers to citizen participation. The final case study examines implementation on the local level with the e-petition platform in Bristol, England.

While e-petition implementation is highly dependent on the local context, several issues emerged as best practices throughout the case studies. For example, the use of a trial period in the early stages of an e-petition process gives the government time to work out glitches in the platform, as well as work to get elected officials and the public bought in to the benefits of the system. Similarly, we recommend that all e-petition systems utilize a time response guarantee. So, if a petition gathers enough signatures it is guaranteed a response within a specific time frame. While the amount of time will vary across localities and platforms, the guarantee will provide a sense of accountability for citizen petitioners and create a petition response structure that treats all petitions equally.

As more communities implement and innovate around e-petitions, our notions of best practices will change. In the long history of petitions and governance, e-petitions, we must remember, are still in their infancy. However, it is safe to say that the spread of e-petitions is a positive development for the practice of democratic participation. For citizens, the continued use of e-petition systems can lead to a greater capacity for civic participation, a greater ability to get things on the government agenda, and greater expectations for political participation outside of the voting booth. Citizen participation and increased government accountability through e-petition processes has genuine potential to strengthen linkages between elected officials and the participatory public.

We hope that you take the time to read through the guide and share it with your elected officials. Enjoy!

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