Category Archives: Petitions/Proposals

Change.org: the business savvy changemakers

A $25 million investment from around twenty different tech figures, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, former Facebook CFO Gideon Yu and others, is not the typical funding source for the ordinary organisation supporting civic activism. Yet Change.org is not your ordinary civil society organisation as it is formally a for-profit corporation. Citing the advantages of “speed and scale” Ben Rattray, the chief executive of change.org, founded Change.org as a profit-making business while committing to reinvest all of its profits.

Technically Change.org is registered as a Benefit Corporation or B Corporation (or simply B Corp), which means that in addition to maximising shareholder value a corporation commits to making a positive social and environmental impact on the world. Instead of relying on donations or member contributions, the global petition giant relies on investors and sponsored petition recommendations.  Petition initiators will pay Change.org to display their petitions as a suggestion after users sign other thematically related petitions. To borrow from Klint Finley writing for Wired,

“the company is letting nonprofits target potential donors in much the same way Google lets partners target customers through contextual advertising.”

Change-bilde

The incoming money has allowed Change.org to become one of the go to sites for petitions (with the non-profit Avaaz only generating half the traffic), the website attracts around 20’000 petitions per month and they have offices in 18 countries. Notable successes include petitioners convincing Southwest Airlines to cut ties with SeaWorld on the grounds of animal cruelty charges, and a recent petition contributing to the FDA allowing Tekmira Pharmaceuticals to fast track drug and vaccine research for Ebola. Having said that, there is still some way to go in measuring what impact their petitions actually have. One way of going about this is to look at the number of people signing successful petitions, which reached 1 million in 2013 in the US alone. Yet it would be even more important to measure the responsiveness of businesses or governments. One step in this direction is the company’s plan to implement a voting system for petition responses, but commissioning case-by-case impact reviews for the bigger petitions would be a welcome development.

There are those that express concern over the ‘email industrial complex’ that sites like Change.org are creating. Given the suffix “.org,” which is usually not used for commercial enterprises, it’s not hard to imagine that many signatories are not aware of their petition-signing histories and emails being sold for profit. Just the same, the recommendation system isn’t without its flaws. It fosters users to gravitate towards petitions that they would agree with anyway and favours big non-governmental organisations with the funds to promote their petitions.

At the risk of enraging the traditional left, there’s nevertheless something great in the way that Rattray talks about what he wants Change.org to become:

“The psychological effect we want to have,” Rattray said, “is when someone walks outside right now and says, ‘I want to rent an apartment, where do I go?’ Craigslist. To buy a book? Amazon. To address child slavery or climate change or stop the closure of the local park next to me? Change.org.”

His main point here is clearly about him wanting Change.org to be the go-to place for petitions. However, I like the mental image he creates. That in our consumer society civic activism would be in the mainstream, that keeping companies and governments in check would be just as casual an activity as purchasing underpriced books online or overpriced coffee at Starbucks. On that note, go and watch this inspirational video with all the good that people managed to accomplish using Change.org in 2014.

[Marta]

The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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Government Petition Websites: A Lost Cause from the Start?

With the rise in popularity and influence of global petition web sites, those launched by state institutions have remained out of the spotlight. Such sites could be seen as praiseworthy initiatives that nevertheless lack the necessary punch. However, the story behind them is a bit more complicated and worth spending a little time on. The way that We the People in the US and e-petitions in the UK have developed highlights a couple of crucial insights into democracy.

In 2011 the White House launched We the People that was meant to reignite the connection between the government and the people of the United States. Yet after its initial popularity the site ran into foreseeable problems. The low signature threshold that entailed the petitioner to an official government response (5,000 signatures) meant that the White House ended up responding (in quite an amusing way) to petitions demanding NASA to construct a Death Star spaceship or declare Sasquatch as an endangered species. After the subsequent increase in the signature threshold to 100,000, the website has experienced a drop in popularity, and the White House has been criticised for being slow and too general in its response to popular petitions, such as one on reducing gun violence.

Some would argue that a static website such as We the People cannot compete with change.org, which attracts signatories through social media. Moreover, a government-run petition website is fundamentally restricted in its ability to gather support – the government itself cannot really send out reminders to support a petition against itself. As succinctly put by J.H. Snider:

This is because the interests of the public and elected officials differ. The public is inclined to ask politicians to take controversial stands that politicians have no rational self-interest in taking.

But this doesn’t mean that the state itself cannot institutionalise petitions as a way of enhancing democracy. Perhaps, we need to look across the Atlantic to a somewhat different political system whose ‘debating chamber’ type of parliament can provide the right conditions for such sites to reach their intended potential.

UK’s e-petitions website was launched around the same time but has recently taken a somewhat different direction. Initially the website was criticised for suffering the same malaise, namely, the government being in a position where it effectually restricts the diversity of petitions. With a previous average rejection rate of 47%, the UK now seems to be inclined to reach an institutional compromise. New plans aim to keep the petitions serious and hold petitioners to account while limiting the government’s discretionary powers to ignore the people. Starting with the next parliament more power would be given to the House of Commons through the creation of a Petitions Committee which would coordinate successful petitions and e-petitions would be brought directly to the Commons. In addition, petitioners would be called to present their case thus creating a reasonable requirement from the people, which could help to filter out trivial petitions with a lot of support (such as the Death Star request).

The US and UK sites have taken different routes after facing quite fundamental challenges, yet UK’s experience gives hope that a direct link between the people and their state can be institutionalised in the form of such state-initiated petition platforms.


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

 

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A 21st Century Campaigning Community: 38 Degrees

38 Degrees was intended to create a UK campaigning body that would serve a similar function as MoveOn in the States, GetUp in Australia or the global Avaaz. It would not be entirely correct to describe these websites as online petition sites only, rather they aim to filter out causes with the greatest potential and then focus on creating strategic online and offline campaigns for targeted impact. In the past years the UK’s 38 Degrees has been singled out as one of the most notable online activism groups that might soon be constituting ‘the real opposition’ in British politics. Their clever name, “38 Degrees,” which refers to the angle at which avalanches begin (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on this bit of science), also adds to their appeal.

38 Degrees is run by a small office and the agenda is set by 38 Degrees’ member community, which simply refers to those people who have registered on their website by signing up to attend a local event or signing a petition. The process starts with the 38 Degrees team gathering together suggestions from the comments on their website, blogs, Facebook and Twitter in order to create a shortlist of most consequential issues. In addition, the team tries to add any issues that might be of interest to their members by keeping a lookout for any urgent matters in the media and with the help of researchers or campaigners in other organisations. Afterwards, depending on time constraints, they either try to poll the entire membership or create a targeted poll with a random selection of members. Once campaigns are chosen it’s again down to members to decide whether they will want to support the cause. If enough members show their support by signing up to the campaign, the 38 Degrees team will then invest proportionate resources in advertising, fundraising and direct contact with relevant politicians or businesses.

E6-38Degrees-pic

Recently, though, they’ve also added Campaigns by You, a new feature on their websites that allows members to start their own campaigns directly without putting their ideas through the process described above.

The organisation strongly expresses its commitment to being a non-partisan body, while their value commitments (“to defend fairness, protect constitutional rights, promote peace, preserve the planet and deepen democracy”) and the majority of the causes championed by the team do seem to reflect more of a left-leaning progressiveness than some conservatives would like to see. Yet their funding is not directly tied to any of the big parties and is entirely member-based, donations averaging at around £12.00. Their most prominent campaign that deserves credit for its cross-party cooperation fought to stop the privatisation of publicly owned forests and was supported by both Conservatives, such as MP Zac Goldsmith, and other more likely candidates from the green-leaning left. The campaign gathered more than half a million signatures and convinced the Conservative government to Conservative government to withdraw its plans.

Above all, what is great about the work of 38 Degrees is that despite them using the full potential of online technologies they also try to keep their feet on the ground by organising occasional member meet-ups, facilitating locally organised events and engaging in offline advertising and door-to-door campaigning.


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

 

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

The whole world joining hands? Avaaz petitioning

avaaz (2)

 

Avaaz – which means voice in several languages – has indeed become one of the most vocal online political participation platforms in the world. Called as the world’s largest and most powerful web movement, Avaaz provides the possibility for anyone to start a petition or donation campaign, and the greater the attention it receives from other members of the Avaaz community, the greater is the campaign the organization helps to set up for promoting the issue. The initiatives that Avaaz members bring to public spotlight are different: they range from specifically national questions like petitioning for the government of Germany to close all nuclear facilities, complex political conflicts as the call to recognize Palestine’s statehood to global and cross-cutting issues like the climate change. Here the recent highlight by Avaaz, one that also underscores the link between online and real-life activism, was co-organizing the massive global march on making the world leaders act on the climate change that gathered around 400 000 people in New York and hundreds of thousands across the world.

Creating the scope and publicity is really in the heart of what Avaaz aims to do, and the actual size of the issue may not be so relevant. Their self-described strong side is the ability to draw resources from their (at the moment forty) millions wide community and make the issues, on which small activist groups have possibly worked for years, reach the ‘tipping point’ by transforming them into the campaigns with global reach that receive attention in the highest political level and by the major media outlets.

Avaaz is not a very typical non-governmental organization: the permanent staff is constituted by around one hundred people that are located in various countries yet much of the work is also relied on the broad network of community members. It declares itself as completely independent and as fully financed by its members. The initiatives that receive campaign funding and attention by the Avaaz are ‘upvoted’ by members themselves (every new call for petition is sent out in the Avaaz network); organization itself calls it a ‘’servant leadership’’ strategy where the main agenda is set by members themselves while the staff works on realizing it into major events.

As the organization that has elevated the online organized activism to such a massive scale, Avaaz has also faced the accusations about lack of real impact of their initiatives. It reflects the broader criticism of the online activism that describes it as ‘clicktivism’, giving the satisfaction for its members in doing the good deed but changing little in the reality. Signing petitions and sharing information in the social media may indeed not be difficult, however, many of these initiatives have acquired significant attention because of the activities as, for example, distributing campaign posters, organizing media events and protest marches that Avaaz has carried on the ground. The online and traditional activism forms thus are combined and this along with the millions of members globally makes Avaaz a very intriguing and trail-blazing case of today’s political activism in the web.

 


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

SIF_EEZ_graf_el_LOGO

 

FixMyStreet

Sometimes our public decisions involve the most mundane of questions, How can we make our local government fix this pothole? instead of Do we as a society choose to care for the weak?

FixMyStreet [https://www.fixmystreet.com] addresses exactly the first kind of query. The website allows users to submit photos and requests to fix road maintenance related issues which are then sent directly to their local authorities by the FixMyStreet team.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 12.52.31

FixMyStreet was developed by MySociety [https://www.mysociety.org], a UK based NGO, which specialises in making tools for online democracy. FixMyStreet can be accessed as a web application or as an iOS or Android mobile application. The MySociety team seems to be consistently delivering on the design front and FixMyStreet is no exception – the user interface is intuitive and pleasing to the eye.

While you should have realistic expectations of the average response rate from your respective local authority, this website can make the bureaucratic burden easier to bear thereby increasing response time. Instead of five different people e-mailing, calling, and complaining in paper about the same old mattress dumped down the road, a quick look at the submitted reports in your area [https://www.fixmystreet.com/reports] can inform you that a complaint has already been made. The same goes for councillors who are encouraged to integrate FixMyStreet on their websites [https://www.fixmystreet.com/council] – this allows them to quickly access a centralised map of their constituents’ concerns. There does seem to be one feature missing from the application – a voting system where fellow locals could add support to those reports they also find worthy of attention.

[Marta]

 


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.

www.sif.lv

www.eeagrants.lv

www.eeagrants.org

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Enhancing Estonia’s democracy through Rahvakogu

In February, Democracy One Day blog reported on a fantastic e-participation initiative in Estonia, rahvakogu.ee. The idea was to crowdsource policy proposals that have a potential to enhance Estonia’s democracy. In that post, we promised to do a follow-up when the project is finished. So, to keep our promise, we contacted Olari Koppel of the The Foundation Estonian Cooperation Assembly (Eesti Koostöö Kogu[i]) to tell us what has happened since February.

The readers of Democracy One Day already know the idea behind the Rahvakogu and about the initial idea-gathering process. What we do not yet know is what has happened since the end of February. Please give us an update.

We gathered approximately 1500 proposals during the  crowdsourcing stage, the three weeks in January. After bundling, analysis, evaluation by experts and seminars these 1500 were boiled down to 20 most important proposals which were submitted to the Deliberation  Day audience (320 randomly chosen people). The result, 15 proposals were presented  to the Parliament by the President of the Republic [Toomas Hendrik Ilves]. The Parliament’s  Committee of Constitutional Affairs has been discussing these  proposals for some time now and had a public hearing on 3 June.

The positive thing is that the Parliament has treated Rahvakogu’s work as  a legitimate material so far and this is a clear sign of cooperation.  According to our laws, the Parliament actually has the right to reject any proposal without discussion, if the proposals are not submitted in accordance with the law. Even the President has no  right to submit new laws or amendments to the Parliament (he/she can  only initiate amendments to the Constitution).

Two MPs – one from the [ruling] coalition and the other from the opposition – acted as  rapporteurs. They presented the proposals about the timetable [of implementation] and  possible ways of combining the proposals. Also, they reflected the  initial reflections from the parties represented in the Parliament. I cannot say that politicians are overwhelmed by the job Rahvakogu does. But  they are not totally opposed either. I predict, one third of the proposals will be  passed and the laws changed as Rahvakogu asked, one third will be  somewhat modified and one third will be rejected. The real work –  writing the official amendments and discussions in the Parliament –  will start in September.

What are the proposals that, in your view, are almost certain to be adopted by the Parliament?

Rahvakogu is proposing the idea of lowering the threshold for founding a new political party. Under the current law you have to have 1000 members to establish a party. Rahvakogu’s proposal is 200. I think the final result will be somewhere between 300 and 500.

In addition, Rahvakogu is proposing the idea of lowering the threshold of votes necessary for entering the Parliament. Under the current law a political party must get 5% of the votes in order to become eligible for seats. Rahvakogu’s proposal is 3%, but most likely the final result will be 4%.

What about those that have almost no chance of being adopted?

This one is much easier to answer [laughs]! The Parliament is opposed to giving the citizens the right to initiate referenda. The proposal that would make the members of supervisory boards of state-owned companies directly financially responsible  [for possible financial losses of those companies] also does not have any political support.

What has been the public response to the whole process? Has it  been more positive or negative?

The public response has been ambivalent. There are people and groups  who lack trust  in the parliamentary process, particularly when it comes to politicians dealing with their own privileges and rules of conduct, the election laws etcetera. And these people call Rahvakogu’s  efforts a  nice try  but they doubt if any real results and changes  would come out of it. Some have even said that the whole Rahvakogu thing is a pretense, a process initiated by the political establishment in order to avoid serious consequences and real change.

And, there are of course people, who sincerely believe that this could  be a new way of doing and discussing things. It is too early to make any projections or measure success. I personally believe that, in a democratic system, political changes should  be evolutionary not revolutionary.

Would you consider the Rahvakogu initiative a success?

It is too early to answer this question. But it definitely works  as a method for gathering and discussing various proposals. There are two ways of evaluating the whole Rahvakogu event. Some prefer the process – communicating with people, discussing, gathering ideas, finding a compromise et cetera. Some prefer the results, i.e. how many proposals will actually become law. Process-wise we can call it a success already. The method -deliberative poll or deliberative democracy- is sound and it can be used in the future. Result-wise we have to wait till next spring [2014]. And I do personally hope, that the Parliament will start amending laws out of  the desire to improve our democracy. Although the cynical element also exists – that it is just very unpopular to ignore Rahvakogu.

I wonder if Rahvakogu initiative (the whole consultation, the idea -crowdsourcing process) was something totally new for Estonia or did you build on something that had been tried before?

There have been several efforts in the past to build a direct link between the politicians and the general public. You can still write a letter to your representative in the Parliament or to a government minister. And there are also internet platforms where you can follow public discussions about certain topics initiated by the Government.

However , Rahvakogu is unique because of its method, scope and the measurability of the possible outcome. We defined the topics, designed the process  and set a deadline.

How did you come up with the methodology for Rahvakogu?

It was like putting a puzzle together  – one thing leads to another etcetera.  It is really a combination of different things. There is nothing unique about web-based crowdsourcing, i.e. pooling of ideas, proposals and arguments. And Professor James Fishkin from Stanford [University] has conducted  deliberative polling in 18 countries already. We combined the two and  also made an agreement with the political parties represented in the  Parliament, that they will give a fair treatment to the Rahvakogu  proposals.

There were many Estonian NGO’s involved in Rahvakogu initiative: how did you manage the logistics?

We had the so-called initiative group to run the whole „show“: some IT geeks to design and maintain the online platform, people from the so-called roof organization of NGOs, e-Government Academy, the analysts from Praxis [Center for Political Studies], one representative from every political party represented in the parliament. My organization coordinated the whole process, kept people together, watched the deadlines, paid the bills etcetera. Most of the work was done on a voluntary basis in the evenings and weekends.


I know that there are several other things under way in your organization. Could you briefly describe some of them?

This year, the Estonian Cooperation Assembly started a three-year project of the so-called state management analysis. We are going to evaluate the functioning of the state apparatus by first describing all the different bodies established by the state and executing state power, from the ministries to various semi-public/semi-business/semi-NGO organizations, where the state is a stakeholder or an interested party. We review all the functions and  resources (money and people), which are used for running these bodies.  The next stage is the same analysis at the local level. And the basic question we are trying to answer is whether this whole organization we know as the State is working in the public interest, is the bureaucracy only solving problems or perhaps creating some new ones, is the system sustainable and so on? Our analysis could finally become a White Paper for a wider state reform.

Well done and good luck with that!

[Interview by Iveta]

[i] The Foundation Estonian Cooperation Assembly was established by the President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves  in 2007 as a cooperation network for non-governmental organizations. The foundation monitors topics which influence Estonia’s long term development and that are seen as priorities by its members. It was given by the President the task to „run“ or co-ordinate the Rahvakogu process.

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E-petitions in Germany

Petitions are a well-established way in many democratic states to give citizens the opportunity to raise their voice and forward their complaints or concerns to the country’s representatives, thereby often enforcing their claims and also creating public awareness through the collection of signatures. In Germany, an interesting platform transforming this traditional way of democratic participation into an e-democracy tool has been established in 2005: the e-petition portal of the Bundestag (German parliament).

Startseite

Although an online platform for petitions is certainly nothing tremendously innovative these days, one has to consider that unlike many other e-petition websites, this is an official platform hosted by the parliamentary commission for petitions within the German parliament, which also means that it is ensured that your petition is actually scrutinized.

In Germany, sending individual or public petitions to parliament is one of the fundamental rights to be found within the constitution, the German Basic Law. After registering at the website, citizens have the possibility to exercise this right online, making the procedure much more convenient. Whilst the submission of individual non-public petitions relating to personal concerns becomes certainly more comfortable by means of the portal (you just have to fill out an online form), the platform is particularly interesting with respect to public petitions, which can be supported by other citizens. In this regard, instead of going through the exhaustive process of collecting signatures on paper, the petitioner just has to submit it on the e-petition platform and other registered users can “sign” them online with just a few clicks. All public petitions appear in the petition forum, which is the centerpiece of the website. Here, the users get an overview of all petitions and can also have a discussion on them.

Petitionsforum

Since all public petitions submitted are first screened with respect to the compliance with several specific rules (e.g. they need to be of public interest and suitable for discussion), it may take some time for your petition to get published and be open for signature and discussion. If the parliamentary commission for petitions is the opinion that a petition does not comply with the rules for publication, it may still be treated as an individual petition.

Even though the mere number of supporters gathered for a petition has no direct influence on its success in the subsequent parliamentary scrutiny procedure, a large number of supporters makes it of course much easier to be heard. In this respect, there is a quorum of 50.000 signatures that has to be reached within 4 weeks after the online publication of the petition (traditional paper signatures may be added, but not  signatures collected via other non-official online platforms). Having reached this figure, the parliamentary commission for petitions usually holds a public debate on the issue, whereby the petitioner is invited and has the possibility to present his or her arguments before the delegates.

Irrespective of whether a petition is an individual or a public petition and whether the quorum has been reached or not, all petitions complying with the general formal rules go through the parliamentary scrutiny procedure conducted by the parliamentary commission for petitions. Hereby, the members of the commission debate on the issue and request a statement from the respective responsible ministry, which is in turn scrutinized and taken into consideration. Once the commission has come to a decision, it presents a recommendation to the plenum of the Bundestag, which then decides on the issue. Usually this marks the end of the procedure, meaning that the petition is either rejected (e.g. because a change in legislation is not possible) or that it is accepted. Either way, the petitioner receives an explanatory statement outlining the reasons for the decision, whereby the statements concerning public petitions are published in the online forum. However, the fact that a petition is successful does of course not mean that legislation is now automatically changed according to the petitioner’s wish. Instead, the petition is usually submitted to the government, which might also be requested to take action regarding the issue concerned.

The usefulness and effectiveness of the overall German petition procedure or legislation not withstanding, the e-petition system of the Bundestag is certainly a simple but very interesting feature to modernize a traditional tool of democratic participation.

[Christian]

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