Petitions: credit where it’s due

Last month, the GDS blog published details of the traffic levels experienced by the new government e-petitions service in its first 100 days:

At what price? Well, that came out soon afterwards, in a PQ to the Leader of the House.

The Government’s e-petition site was designed and created by the Government Digital Service, in conjunction with the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, at a cost of £80,700. The projected technical running cost for the first three years of operation is £32,000 per annum.

– which works out, very roughly, at just over around 1p per ‘transaction’ (ie petition signature). The traffic numbers were impressive in and of themselves, but it’s this calculation which matters more. A hearty ‘well done’ to the GDS team. Now, it’s over to the politicians to do something meaningful with the petitions…?

The return of e-petitions; a new home for the Govt Digital Service; and an ironic footnote

Two site launches today worth noting: the return of e-petitions, and the ‘new’ Government Digital Service blog.

E-petitions used to belong to Downing Street; now it’s moved over to Directgov, and thence to individual departments, rather than landing everything on the PM’s desk. There’s very little to see just now: just a submission form, and a few information pages. We won’t be able to see or ‘sign’ other people’s petitions for another week or so.

It’s been built by the Skunkworks team, now under the more full-time management of Mark O’Neill – or to be more specific:

#epetitions was put together by an onsite agile team of 3 devs, 1 PM, 1 customer + 1 part-time analyst, over three iterations. RoR stack.
tweet by @chrismdp

… and so far, (update: nearly) everyone’s been jolly nice about it, particularly as there’s so little to see. Maybe they’ve seen what else is coming.

The e-petition’s previous incarnation became notorious when 1.8 million people signed to protest against road pricing proposals. Its successor won’t have to wait long to face a similar challenge: the Guido Fawkes blog has already lodged a petition calling for the restoration of the death penalty for child and cop killers, and is planning a special campaign to reach the magic 100,000 signature barrier, (potentially) triggering a debate in the Commons. Good luck to whoever’s desk that lands on.

One slight downer for me is that fact that it’s been redeveloped from scratch, using Ruby on Rails, rather than extending the existing MySociety-built platform (now being taken up by dozens of councils throughout the land). Tom Loosemore tells us: ‘ if [the new] code base isn’t open sourced, it won’t be for lack of will or encouragement!’ – but I just can’t see that being enough to see the application being reused more widely, particularly at local councils. Mark assures me that they did look at using WordPress, which would have guaranteed a high degree of reuse; I’m looking forward to reading his blog post about why they opted for the alternative approach.

Speaking of which… the Government Digital Service has a ‘new’ blog, or rather, it has consolidated various previous efforts (including Alphagov and the Cabinet Office Digital Engagement blog) into a new home, located at wordpress.com (where it joins, among others, UKTI and both the Army and Navy).

They’re using the premium Linen theme, costing them $68, with a bit of graphic customisation; and a mapped domain for a further $17/year. And as it’s on wordpress.com, that’s pretty much all it’s cost them. (And purely because I’ve already been asked the question: no, I didn’t have any part in its creation. Well, apart from several years of ruthless evangelism.)

Meanwhile, with more than a little irony… the Cabinet Office has also published its list of the 444 government websites still in operation, 243 of which are marked for closure. Neither of these sites is mentioned.

Skunkworks® building new e-petitions system

Well done to Richard Parsons at edemocracyblog for extracting (via FOI) the proposal submitted by Directgov to the newly created government ‘skunkworks’ for building the new government e-petitions system.

The project’s objective is ‘to allow UK citizens to submit petitions to Government, and particularly to be able to petition for parliamentary debates on any subject they chose, subject to the overall governance arrangements required by No 10 / Cabinet Office.’ With the commitment to debate any petition attracting over 100,000 signatures in Parliament, they’re expecting traffic levels to be ‘much higher’ than the Downing Street e-petitions site that went before. They’re proposing a development cost ‘upwards of £55.2k’ (at a £600 day rate, I note), and annual running costs of £86.2k for ‘light touch moderation’.

On the technical side, they’ve explicitly specified that it should be ‘developed using Open Source technologies’ – specifically a LAMP stack of Ubuntu, Apache, MySQL, and PHP – although there’s no explicit commitment that the petitions code will then be open-sourced itself. Hosting is to be ‘in the cloud’, with a passing reference to Amazon S3 and the existing (‘underused’) Cabinet Office setup.

I can’t add much to Richard’s further analysis of the document’s contents; but I will note that it’s one of the first public airings of a full-on skunkworks ‘brand’ – which doesn’t appear to credit the name ‘skunk works’ as a UK registered trademark of Lockheed Martin, only to be used with ‘prior written approval‘. Hmm.

No10 e-petition on abandoning IE6

I’ve happily signed the e-petition on the Downing Street website calling on the Prime Minister to ‘encourage government departments to upgrade away from Internet Explorer 6.’

I’ve written on this subject before; and I know the huge headache it would be to alter in-house applications built for IE6 alone (although that’s another story altogether).

I note the petitioner’s failure to mention the government-backed Get Safe Online initiative, which explicitly recommends upgrading. So when he says ‘(The French and German) governments have let their populations know that an upgrade will keep them safer online. We should follow them.’ – I know he’s wrong. And I’m not sure I buy his suggestion that ‘When the UK government does this, most of Europe will follow. That will create some pressure on the US to do so too.’

But that’s all beside the point. If we can use this petition as some kind of leverage, I’m prepared to overlook its deficiencies. And with nearly 5,000 signatures in a couple of days, and front-page coverage from the BBC, we have a platform on which to build.


The latest browser market share numbers show that finally, IE6 has been deposed as the world’s #1 browser. And in the last few days, Google has announced that its Apps will be phasing out IE6 support, becoming the latest big name to say enough is enough.

It’s time to put IE6 out of our misery. Sign the petition.

Blears backs wider use of online petitions

Writing on Comment Is Free, Hazel Blears reckons Labour’s problem is that it has become distanced from its voters. ‘The problem is the powerlessness within the system for the majority of people,’ she writes. ‘People feel that their views disappear into a black hole, without the slightest echo.’

Hazel’s solution is ‘a healthy dose of direct democracy’: more directly elected mayors, a reinvigorated co-op movement, and online petitions. ‘Petitions, especially on-line, should be used to guide the deliberations of local councillors and ministers,’ she says. ‘Petitioners should be able to press for debates in council chambers and even parliament.’

If that inspires anyone to set up their own petitions system… don’t forget that the Downing Street petitions system, built by MySociety, is ‘open source’, meaning you can download and use it free of charge.

Labourspace: great idea, awful execution

Relaunched* (presumably?) at the weekend’s Spring Conference, LabourSpace.com is the Labour Party’s campaign-based social network. Ed Miliband’s welcome message calls it ‘the place where those of us who share Labour’s values come to discuss how we want to make Britain a better place to live.’ There’s much to like about it, but they get some things stunningly wrong.

As the name suggests, MySpace is the role model. You’ve got pictorial lists of friends campaign supporters, and a campaign blog (with comments, but without RSS). There’s a simple one-click process to support or oppose the campaign in question, as well as a curious ‘revoke’ option (?). But it’s the addition of the pro-active viral aspects which make it interesting. The campaign’s ‘top recruiter’ gets their picture on the campaign profile, and there’s a competitive element to the site, based on the number of supporters recruited each monthly (?) ’round’. There’s a big button to ’email a newspaper about this campaign’. And there’s an ’email a friend’ option too.

But, er, hang on. The ’email a friend’ option wants me to supply the username and password for my personal email account? Are they serious? I imagine they want to scour my address book for people I might want to spam about my campaign… but come on guys, did you miss the recent news stories about data security?

That’s far from the only downside. There’s very little explanation of how the site actually works, apart from a Flash movie on the homepage (which nobody will sit through)… not even an ‘About’ page. The registration process is very intrusive, with address and postcode mandatory. You need to be a registered member to do almost anything, including comment on the blogs. They’ve given zero thought to SEO, judging by the lack of sensible page titles or URLs – and frankly, it looks a bit ugly.

Plus, I don’t believe ‘bringing your campaign to the attention of senior Labour politicians’ constitutes an adequate ‘prize’. If Labourspace is going to get any kind of traction, senior Labour politicians will have to take notice of it regardless. (See ConservativeHome, for example.) Offering attention as a prize doesn’t bode well.

This site could have been absolutely fantastic: e-petitions taken to the next level. But they’ve gone out of their way to make it difficult to engage with. With David Cameron talking today about making it easier and less onerous for people to connect with his party, this seems completely the wrong approach.

The Spring Conference date was known well in advance. So, what would I do with it?

  • Lose the ‘hand over your email password’ thing immediately. Unforgiveable.
  • Write a few pages telling me what the hell is going on. Dump the Flash intro.
  • Lose the Labour brand. Make me want to engage with the site, its community, its campaigns. Then let me be pleasantly surprised that it’s a Labour-backed initiative.
  • Don’t make everything ‘registered users only’. Encourage outsiders to participate.
  • Improve the design, and give campaign owners some freedom to design their own space.
  • If you’re going to do blogs, do them properly. RSS feeds would be a start.
  • Consider adding a spellcheck. It doesn’t give me great confidence in Labour’s education efforts if site members can’t spell.
  • Where’s the ability to take campaigns outside – to my own blog? my own Facebook profile?
  • Think about SEO. Start with proper page titles.
  • And clean up the source code: what’s with all the commented-out ‘lorem ipsum’ on the homepage?

Someone is eventually going to build the ultimate political campaigning platform. This could have been it. It isn’t.

*Update: sorry, just after I first posted this, I discovered it’s been around for a while. It looks like this is a relaunch rather than an initial launch, rebuilt on a new platform.