Estimated reading time: 2 minutes Earlier this week, the new Government Digital Service published the first user-submitted petitions on the new Directgov "e-petitions" website.
The press duly made a scandal out of nothing by running headlines claiming that as a result, the Government would soon be forced to debate the return of capital punishment.
In truth, when they ran that story the petition to restore capital punushment had only a few hundred votes – more than 100,000 are needed for an issue to even be considered by the Backbench Business Committee, who then decide if it will be debated in Parliament. The petition now has in excess of 8,000 votes (it could be argued that this is a result of the press coverage), but that's still less than a tenth of the total needed to even be considered for debate.
What's interesting is the petition-signing mechanic. Here's why:
Somebody has set up an opposing petition to retain the ban on capital punishment, which at the time of writing has over 15,000 signatures. What I find interesting is that if either the pro- or the anti- capital punishment petition is successful, the outcome would be that Parliament would debate whether capital punishment should be restored, or whether the ban on it should be retained.
i.e. A vote for either petition is a vote for the same thing.
When an appeal against a prison sentence is successful the sentence is reconsidered, and sometimes increased. In the same way a debate about retaining the ban on capital punishment could hypothetically result in the ban being removed.
I'm wondering if perhaps a better mechanic would be that of an online poll. As Stefan Czerniawski asked on Twitter: "If I can vote for an e-petition, why can't I vote against it?"
It might work better if the petition were in the form of an issue, and the pubic were asked "Should this idea be debated in Parliament?" Yes / No
If the Nos were offset against the Yeses, and the threshold of 100,000 lowered to 50,000, that might work better.
UPDATE – an even better option proposed by Paul Brewer on Twitter would be to count the total number of signatures, but ask people to choose if they're for or against the issue when they sign. That gives a view of both how important the issue is to everybody, and the split for/against.
This is exactly the kind of user behaviour that couldn't be anticipated before launch, but since the GDS will be actively improving the e-petitions site over time it may be something that can be rolled into a future release.
I'll definitely be watching the development of the site with interest.
One final unrelated pause for thought... I wonder if the e-petitions URL lost the hyphen in the same swamp of punctuation that the Directgov URL found a dot? ;-)
Disclosure: I work at the GDS, part of the Cabinet Office, though I wasn't involved in the creation of the e-petitions site.