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Archive for June 2007

Fortnightly(ish) Link Roundup for June 15, 2007

Posted on Fri, Jun 15, 2007 at 6:11 PM by Andrew Chadwick


Reforming the UK prime minister's e-petitions system

Posted on Tue, Jun 12, 2007 at 3:39 PM by Andrew Chadwick

Petition image

At the recent RSA event on the Social Impact of the Web, there was some debate about how the UK prime minister's e-petitions programme should evolve, with much of the discussion centring on the problems of incorporating deliberative elements alongside the essentially push-button format. Tom Steinberg of MySociety, the organisation behind the site, called for a public debate about this. Here are my brief thoughts.

The main problem here is the format of any deliberation. Large scale moderation seems to me to be inescapable in any element of user-generated content on a site such as this, but forums make it that much more difficult to do.

Do we want additional extra user-generated content and (partly) user-controlled deliberation added on top of some of the e-petitions? If we do, perhaps a standard threaded forum might not be the way to go. The problem with forums is that:

a) they're designed to facilitate confrontation and therefore flaming is more likely
b) in an environment like this, they may turn people off who don't feel that they have the expertise to contribute (one of the rationales for the e-petitions site is to provide a facility for those who do not have the resources (economics, skills, contacts etc) to establish their own campaign sites).
c) they are extremely risky for politicians and public servants and this tends to make them costly to moderate.

Given this context, a 'story-telling' approach, with moderated comments, plus user ratings, might just work.

A successful example here is the BBC news site's user-generated content. Much of it based on a story-telling, reactive model. Stories are powerful, and people feel comfortable telling them.

Citizens could write stories of limited length about why the petition matters to them, and a sample of these could be opened up to comments and ratings. Activists will tell the stories, the less active will make brief comments, and the 'ordinary' supporters will rate. Highly rated stories will rise to the top of the list. Rating stories is different from polling - which is, after all, built in to the petition format in the first place.

Whatever you go for, being choosy about the petitions (say just the top twenty, defined in terms of signatory numbers sampled over a set period of time) to be opened up to the stories format also seems essential.

Introducing stories, comments, and ratings on those stories introduces some controlled deliberative interaction and makes it a more human and granular website. It encourages greater civility and is less risky but more innovative than forums.

What do you think? Are there better ways forward for the prime minister's e-petitions?

[Crossposted at the New Political Communication Unit blog]

Edited on: Thu, Feb 19, 2009 1:15 AM

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