Rodrigo Davies

Thoughts on Neighborly, civic crowdfunding and the future of community development

How Latvia turns online petitions into policy

08 May 2012

There's no shortage of online petitions, from officially-run sites like the UK government's epetitions and campaign groups, to third parties who have little or no interest in policy or activism (or are civil society organisations choosing to remain impartial). But politics 2.0 skeptics are quick to point out that despite some often very large numbers, driven by the global reach of the internet, it's as tough (if not harder) to translate these petitions into real-world action.

The UK government, for its part, says it will consider petitions that receive more than 100,000 signatures for debate in parliament, and any British citizen can sign, regardless of age - that means you need the support of 0.16% of the population to be considered by MPs. Actually getting the issue debated is another matter, but there's been sufficient press and public interest for some high profile petitions to reach parliament.

But what if the system made it mandatory for representatives to debate the most popular petitions? As Alex Howard pointed out recently, Latvia's politicans have agreed to debate any petition on the government site Mana Balss (My Voice) that wins more than 10,000 votes by citizens aged 16+.

It's a big commitment, though the threshold is three times higher than in the UK: a petition requires around 0.5% of the eligible population (around 86% of the population is aged 15+) to make the cut. The identities of petition signatories are verified at the point of registration using banking system records, and cross-checked using the national citizen register.

And the system demands a lot from its citizen participants, too. As mentioned by Francis Irving, the system has a built-in workflow that helps cultivate proposals that are practical (much more so than in the UK). After a petition has been proposed, the creator is given initial help from crowdsourced volunteers who make suggestions for improvement (the petition does not get published on the Mana Balss site at this point). Next, the creator is reponsible for securing 100 supporters for the petition, and if successful, real volunteer lawyers become involved and help craft the final wording. All those involved are crowdsourced volunteers. The UK's petition site could certainly do with some sharpening up, both to boost the quality of the inputs and to improve its credibility with legislators.

The rigour of Latvia's process and the integration with formal political and citizenship structures hasn't stopped citizens taking square aim at their representatives, though. Right now the most popular petition calls for politicians being sworn into office to take an oath that they won't commit perjury. Among the other front runners is a campaign against the yet-to-be-ratified ACTA agreement, and a demand for e-elections. Mana Balss is surely the tip of the iceberg for Latvia's open democracy movement.

Other countries - especially 2.0-savvy leaders in Estonia (which UK officials recently visited) and Iceland - are watching. Is there any scope for international campaign groups to leverage their significant online petition followings to interface directly with government-recognized platforms?

p.s. The Guardian has this brief video interview with Latvia's foreign affairs minister: