ESRC Digital Good Network


Are Parliamentary e-petitions a tool for ‘good’ political engagement?

Lauren Martin, Digital Good Network Intern and Summer School 2023 Attendee, draws upon her own research into digital democratic engagement to contribute to our discussion about what a good digital society looks like.

Young people protesting on street; image of phone with e-petition on screen.

Parliamentary e-petitions are quickly becoming one of the most popular ways that citizens appeal to policy makers. They are, according to the UK parliament website, “an easy way for you to make sure your concerns are heard by Government and Parliament”. Petitions submitted cover a range of topics, from enshrining the right to roam in legislation, to calling for new legal requirements for drivers to report if they hit a cat. But what ‘good’ do parliamentary e-petitions do and what does this look like in an increasingly digital world?

Launched in 2015, the joint UK House of Commons and HM Government e-petition system is one of the most popular systems of its kind in the world. In its first five years, there were nearly 23 million unique validated signatures and today, almost 50,000 petitions have been submitted online

What makes this system different to other platforms is that parliamentary e-petitions are institutionally tied; there are formal guarantees of political action once a petition reaches a certain threshold of signatures. In the UK, once a petition surpasses 10,000 signatures, the Government will publish a written response. Once a petition reaches 100,000 signatures it is  considered for a debate at Westminster Hall.

But how does this system contribute to the Digital Good Network’s idea of ‘digital good’? 

In my PhD research, I am interested in how the campaigning role of parliamentary e-petitions  is fulfilled and how by ‘adding value’ to campaigning groups’ repertoires of political action (Tilly, 2006), parliamentary e-petitions can act as facilitators for good digital democratic engagement. I argue that parliamentary e-petitions enable the digital good because they provide an accessible platform for citizens to engage with and influence political processes at any time during the election cycle.

One short vignette of a recent e-petition ‘Increase funding for urgent research into devastating motor neurone disease’ demonstrates how this looks in practice. As suggested by the petition title, this petition called for increased funding into Motor Neurone disease (MND). It was created by the #UnitedtoEndMND coalition, a group composed of people living with MND, the MND Association, MND Scotland, My Name’5 Doddie Foundation and neurologists. Once the 100,000 signatures threshold was reached, the petition was debated in Parliament and soon after the Government ring-fenced £50 million for MND research. During the campaign to gain signatures, the coalition worked with parliamentarians to ensure that the campaign was placed onto the government’s agenda, and that the voices of those who live with MND were heard by those in power. The e-petition in this case was a vehicle for public support and gave impetus to the cause, demonstrating how e-petitions can be used by citizens to influence formal channels of policy making and, importantly, give voice to important causes. 

On the surface, the success of petitions like the Motor Neurone Disease petition shows that the direct, digital link that parliamentary e-petitions provide to formal channels of policy-making are a significant step forward in democratic engagement in an increasingly digital world; citizens now more than ever are able to feed into policy-making processes and have their voices heard. 

But it is important that we interrogate questions of equity in this process, and whether or not some voices are crowded out in favour of others. Existing research, and indeed very early findings of my own, suggest that some voices are heard more loudly than others. 

For example, Escher and Riehm’s (2017) findings of the German e-petition system suggests that citizens with university degrees had considerably higher knowledge of the German e-petitions system than those without a degree. This speaks to the well established issue of the digital divide but it is not just demographic equity that might be an issue. Larger campaign groups like those listed in the vignette above have more resources – time, money and people – that can be funnelled into an e-petition campaign than individual campaigners who have to sacrifice a significant amount of their own time (and sometimes money) to ensure the success of their petition. 

My early findings highlight that whether a petition can reach 100,000 signatures and capture the attention of policymakers is dependent on the amount of media support – traditional and digital – that a creator can garner over the six months that a petition is live. It is significantly more work for a single creator without organisational backing to accumulate media support than it is a well-established campaign who already has media connections. Whether this imbalance of resources amongst creators overshadows the ‘good’ development of parliamentary e-petitions remains to be seen, but my hope is that my own research can interrogate and understand how parliamentary e-petitions as a mechanism for direct and digital engagement with Parliament beyond elections can be part of the idea of the digital good. 

In my PhD research, using case studies of animal welfare e-petitions, I have focused on two main areas. Firstly, how parliamentary e-petitions can be used to build communities of support, enabling citizens and organisations to coalesce around political causes. And secondly, I am assessing the capacity for digital spaces to act as arenas for political change. 

Within this, questions of equity in the process remain key, and as I progress into the latter stages of my PhD I will explore the interdisciplinary connections between my discipline and the Digital Good Network, with the aim of contributing to the network’s vision of creating a step change in digital society research.

About the author

Lauren Martin Profile Pic

Lauren Martin

PhD Student, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield

Lauren Martin is a doctoral researcher working in the fields of British politics, legislative studies and digital society at the University of Sheffield.

She is interested in how citizens use new tools for democratic engagement and her thesis looks at the use of parliamentary e-petitions by citizens and campaigning groups to understand how ‘everyday’ politics can affect decision making.

Lauren attended the Digital Good Network Summer School in 2023 and was also successful in applying for a Digital Good Network Internship with the BBC, which will be completed by summer 2024.