When I worked in a Member of Parliament’s office back in the early 1990s, our office â€“ like those of our colleagues â€“ was inundated with an unending stream of petitions, pre-printed form letters, faxes and actual mail. Sifting through it all took up a huge amount of time (and incurred more than a little staff resentment).
These communications varied wildly in impact. We often took the effort required by a particular medium as a rough proxy for the level of sender’s depth of feeling and commitment. A personally written letter, for instance, carried a lot more weight than a lowly mass-printed postcard, which was maybe a little more significant than a petition.
And if a tangible, paper-based petition is unlikely to soften the flinty hearts in the corridors of power, you can how much hope their electronic kin have. Point-and-click protest is so easy to do â€“ and for that reason, just as easy to ignore in the face of so many competing demands for attention.
So my heart usually sinks whenever I receive yet another appeal to go sign yet another e-petition. With a very few exceptions (such as the petition to change Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day’s first name to “Doris” in 2000), and despite the hopes of their sponsors, they almost always wrap up without making a dent in public policy.
But now British Prime Minister Tony Blair seems interested in rescuing the lowly e-petition from irrelevance. Earlier this month, his office launched a remarkable experiment with online petitions.