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making a quantifiable difference

Petitions: effective?

One of the first things I wanted to investigate when I was thinking about this blog was the effectiveness of petitions — particularly online petitions.  They just seem so useless to me.  And yet, a number of major non-profit organizations who generally seem to know what they’re doing sometimes ask me to sign online petitions.  Maybe there was something to them, after all.

I emailed a few non-profits to ask about the effectiveness of petitions as well as other forms of activism.  The answers that I got (which I’ll discuss more in future posts) did not address petitions specifically, and most of them said something along the lines of, “It’s hard to measure these things.”  I decided to do some of my own research — by which, for the moment, I mean “I used Google so you don’t have to.”

I was delighted to see that Snopes.com had covered this issue (specifically regarding e-petitions), because they’re usually so good with research and citations.  Unfortunately, in this case they make a strong statement that online petitions are ineffective, but they don’t cite any sources.  For shame!  Snopes does, however, sensibly point out that e-petitions have a lot more problems than paper-and-ink petitions in terms of problems verifying the identities of signers.  And they end with this:

Those truly committed to righting the wrongs of the world are encouraged to take pen in hand and craft actual letters to their congressmen or to whomever they deem are the appropriate people to contact about particular issues. Real letters (the kind that are written in a person’s own words and sent through the regular mail) are accorded far more respect than form letters (let alone petitions), and that should be kept in mind by those intent upon being heard. Yes, the effort it takes is far larger. But so is the potential for making an actual difference.

(Note that tricky “or to whomever they deem are the appropriate people to contact” — that can be hard to figure out, at least in terms of effectiveness.  We’ll cover that more in future posts.)  About the only thing that Snopes does think an online petition is good for is informing the signers of the petition about a situation they might not have heard about before.  And then, in the best case scenario, they will go try to do something effective about it.  In the worst case scenario, they will feel they have done something important just by signing an online petition (and possibly spamming their friends).

So, Snopes agrees with my initial intutions.  Meanwhile, sites like PetitionsOnline.com, unsurprisingly, say that petitions can get great effects — but they’re hardly disinterested parties.  (And PetitionOnline.com’s examples of winning “sincere apologies” through petitions are hardly glowing examples of rights made wrong, in my opinion.)  Are there any sources of actual hard evidence out there as to the effects of petitions?

The best I can come up with for the moment is an analysis of the effectiveness of petitions presented to the Australian government (a paper presented in 2007; hopefully therefore not too out of date).   It appears from the report that signing and presenting pen-and-paper petitions to the government is considered a bigger deal and more a part of the standard process of government there than in the U.S. (where I am located).  So one might hope that they have a big effect there, at least.

Sadly, it appears that even pen and paper petitions are not very effective at bringing about change via the government, even in Australia:

Of the 2589 petitions presented to the House of Representatives since 1999, only three have received a ministerial response….  Since 2001, petitions have been presented and discussed during certain periods of private members’ business. Only 3.3% of petitions presented to the House since then, however, have been presented in this manner….  In fact, one individual will have a much greater chance of receiving a written response to his or her letter than a group of petitioners who have collectively expressed a grievance by
signing a petition.

Things look grim for the governmental petition!  Even more so than I had predicted, really.  The paper indicates that at least some other parliamentary governments have similar statistics (though a few actually obligatorily respond to each petition).  One nifty system that some countries have, however, is a dedicated petitions committee:

A key innovation in Scotland, Germany and India has been the development of a dedicated petitions committee. These committees are considered a constructive means by which a parliament is able to examine petitions and thereby enhance its own role in the petitioning process. One observer has described petitions committees as ‘deliberately setting out to engage with the public and actually encouraging them to use it as a process of contact with Parliament.’

I like this idea!  I like the idea of a dedicated governmental group engaging with the public and having an ongoing sense of who is concerned about what.  I can’t find statistics on how effective petitions are in these countries, however.

What of online petitions?  In Scotland, Germany, and portions of Australia, e-petitions have also become incorporated as part of the system for petitioning the government.  Interestingly, e-petitions do not yet constitute a large portion of the petitions submitted.  These seem to be treated like normal petitions to the government in these cases.  But the system for signing and submitting them seems to be more rigorous than many of the petitions that get passed around online, and in at least some cases involve a dedicated governmental petition site for collecting signatures and personal information.  In any case, these petitions certainly don’t receive any more attention from the government than pen-and-paper ones.  And I think this is a best-case scenario for e-petitions.

That’s all that I’ve come up with for the moment in terms of evidence.  It’s hard to generalize from this to non-governmental petitions in other countries.  But so far the evidence does seem to point to most petitions being nearly useless except in terms of raising awareness and bringing communities together (which can certainly be good things, but are not usually the stated goals of petitions).  However, I’m guessing that how a petition is written, targeted, and publicized, and which organization(s) are backing it can make a difference as to how it is received.  If someone like the ACLU gathers hundreds of thousands of signatures and then goes to the media with these numbers, that publicity might help effect change.  Certainly I have more hope for such a petition than for one that a random person starts online and sends to their friends.  Still, I’ll be on the lookout for more facts and figures on this front.

For the moment, I’d say go ahead and sign a petition if you feel like it — it certainly doesn’t take much effort.  But don’t think that that means you’ve had any effect on the problem.  It’s very unlikely that you’ve made a difference just by signing your name.

Sorry to end on a down note, but soon I hope to talk about things that we can do that actually do make more of a difference.

UPDATE: Check out my follow up post on online petitions.

3 comments

1 Eva { 03.22.10 at 6:09 am }

This recent US health care over haul was made so by a collective effort of people urging government through on-line petitions, calling representatives, writing Senators and going to town hall meetings. Every petition I signed on-line I would ask 10-20 people in my contacts to do the same. I actually think on-line petitions make an impact but do believe that nothing does so more than face to face activism, but since our civility towards each other in this polarized nation has taken a huge decline – on line activism might be the way of the future.

2 lauren { 03.22.10 at 3:15 pm }

@Eva — interesting observations (and hooray and thank you to you and everyone who worked for health care reform!). I would love to know any quantifiable evidence you have about the impact of petitions or other forms of activism; that’s a big part of what I’m interested in figuring out as I write this blog. So far all the research I’ve done indicates that petitions don’t directly do much themselves in most cases — but if they can encourage people to get out and do other work, then they can potentially have a large impact. I think there’s a risk that people will think they already did something important just by signing a petition and then be less likely to help in other ways, but if that is avoided, petitions certainly could be indirectly positive. But if you have any examples of where they directly made a difference, I’d be really interested to hear that, too.

3 online petitions: another point of view — Effectivism { 05.13.10 at 4:48 pm }

[…] I posted about the topic previously, I mentioned the Snopes article on online petitions, which claims they are a waste of […]