The UK parliament's petitions site relaunched this week, sparking another debate about petitions and their proper place in our political process. It's an argument that predates the internet by nearly 900 years but it's one just as relevant to democracy and protest today as it was when Edward I popularised the practice of petitioning.
The core question is twofold; how does our Parliament engage with petitions, and how should people engage with our Parliament? It's something we've been thinking a lot about at Change.org since we launched in the UK in 2011. In that time our 8m users have started campaigns that have sparked national debates (like Lucy Anne-Holmes did with No More Page Three) changed laws (like Jakki and Sheila did with marriage certificates) and even freed imprisoned relatives (like Iman Ghavani did when his sister Ghoncheh was jailed in Iran). And along the way they have provoked fierce argument, held government departments to account and engaged MPs of all parties.
Successful petitions like these often share several attributes. They typically begin with a compelling personal story that motivates supporters to sign and share. They have a well-defined ask, which they address to the right decision maker. And they have something we call the "little big thing" - a way of bringing national issues like housing or sexism to life through noisy, creative campaigns (like the New Era Estate or the Women on Banknotes campaigns did so successfully).
Politicians from all parties are taking notice - starting petitions themselves, backing constituents' campaigns and even responding through Change.org when they are the decision maker. Parliament has also built a petition tool, promising that campaigns of over 100,000 would be debated on the floor of the House. And while it's good that Westminster is trying to find news ways of listening to the people, there are some potential problems with the idea that 100,000 signatures is a sensible threshold for parliamentary debate.
In our users' experience this is not the case. Parliament regularly debates the ideas outlined in petitions of all sizes, provided they capture the imagination of MPs. The emphasis on reaching 100,000 also risks implying that big numbers are only the route to change. Over at Change.org the average winning petition attracts around 200 signatures, powering an average of 50 campaign victories every month in the UK.
We also find that our users are adept at understanding when to focus on politicians - and have made a big splash in Westminster in the last few weeks by challenging government departments to publish their own statistics, or demanding that MPs don't receive a £7k pay rise. But crucially our users also know that power doesn't only sit in the hands of MPs - which is why our open platform sees countless petitions that bypass Parliament completely and target the police, corporates, councils, cultural institutions and just about anyone or anything else that wields influence in modern Britain.
Platforms like Change.org are opening up politics because they put power directly into the hands of the people and it's good that Westminster is evolving to reflect that. But if Parliament's formal petitions process is going to achieve its full potential it should ditch the focus on arbitrary numbers and 19th Century committees and embrace a more open model fully fit for the 21st Century.