By: Eric Jackson, an intern within the framework of Overseas Professional and Intercultural Training Program, American Councils
As outlined in the Government of Georgia’s Open Government Partnership action plan, iChange.ge is an online platform set for a 2013 completion giving Georgian citizens a framework to petition their government. iChange.ge is an important piece expanding the e-participatory net to citizens who want involvement voicing concerns and propositions to government. While this online petitioning concept is very new to the Georgian political system, it is also new in the United States and fairly older in the United Kingdom. In the U.S., “We the People” was an online petitioning system implemented during Barack Obama’s presidency in 2011, while in the U.K.; the HM government e-Petition system was upgraded in August of 2011. Both of these e-Petition platforms have different ways of legislatively and executively answering to citizen petitions that are worth analyzing.
For U.S. citizen e-Petitions there are two thresholds to achieve to elicit an official response; the first threshold is a petition has to reach 150 signatures in 30 days to become visible on the White House petition portal website, and the second, requires 100,000 signatures in thirty days for an official response. Once the two benchmarks have been reached, an appropriate policy maker will give a formal response addressing the petition in question. These official responses have dealt with a wide variety of petition issues, some that are fantastical and comedic, like the official response to a request to build a “Death Star” from the blockbuster movie Star Wars. Other responses have taken on more serious tones, such as the petition to designate the Westboro Baptist Church (a homophobic radical evangelical church group that pickets military funerals, etc.) as a hate group, which accumulated over 300,000 signatures and an official response that the U.S. government would not designate the Church as a hate group based upon the first amendment. Another recent petition wanting to reinstate Military Assistance Tuition (MAT) accumulated 120,000 signatures, requiring an official response from the White House that outlined the White House’s support for continuing MAT and providing statistics on military veterans receiving education funding. In the end, these official responses denote the current policies and subsequent reasoning for these policies related to the petition’s content. Despite these official responses, legislative actions capitalizing on citizens’ e-Petition concerns have not taken shape in Congress. This result is for a couple reasons; one, is that e-Petitions are only viewed and responded by the Executive Branch and not the Legislative Branch, where legislation can only originate. Thus, a key branch of government is not involved in the U.S. e-Petition process. Secondly, only official responses are supplemented as government action, when in fact, they do not initiate legislative change nor provide a legal framework to act upon. Official Responses can provide a springboard for more discussion on an issue in the Executive cabinet, but the fact remains: this discussion has not translated into codified legislative action.
In the U.K., the premise for e-Petitioning is the same as the U.S., with a 100,000 signature threshold required for official recognition, and more importantly, the petition will be considered for debate in the House of Commons. An MP must make representation of the petition to the Backbench Business Committee where the decisions on letting the petition go to debate in the House of Commons is made. Here is where citizens’ concerns are directly addressed in a legislative session. Although, there is a six step process to ultimately debate the petition, direct legislative access is guaranteed once the appropriate steps are fulfilled and MP makes representation. Since 2011, there have been twenty petitions debated in the House of Commons. It appears that the petitions debated have no comical or fantastical reasoning, unlike some other U.S. petitions that have received official responses. This may be due to the Backbench Business Committee’s more stringent oversight of petitions that necessitate debate, and the fact that an MP has to assume representation of an e-Petition to start the debate process. Debate times have varied from as little as 90 minutes over a petition to return Shaker Aamer to the UK, to a full day of debate on a National referendum on the European Union.
The debate centered metric of the U.K.’s e-Petition practice is an important example of directly involving parliament in e-Petition discussion and impeding unwarranted petitions that are intended for comedic purposes and not beneficial for the common social good. However, it does not force the government to act on drafting new legislation and the results have proven the claim. There has been no new legislation drafted, much less passed, specifically focusing on an e-Petition’s grievance in both the United States and the U.K. Instead, you have governmental addresses and debate recognizing e-Petitions, but not acting upon them to craft legislation. With this in mind, the Government of Georgia has a unique opportunity to design an online petition platform that can not only improve citizen e-participation and awareness on issues, but can facilitate legislative initiatives. Furthermore, Georgian civil society has already exemplified it can turn a written form of petition into positive legislative action; the 2012 “This Affects You Too” campaign sponsored by many Georgian NGOs and media organizations brought a petition of legislative initiatives for parliamentary consideration. Out of the petition initiatives, the “Must Carry/Must Offer” proposal obligating cable providers to broadcast all Georgian channels with news programs to subscribers was drafted into a legislative initiative and later signed into law by President Saakashvili. This precedent gives the Georgian government a meaningful example to go farther establishing mechanisms where online e-Petitions, if reaching the respective threshold, can turn into legislative initiatives which can subsequently be voted on in parliament. If the Georgian government can successfully integrate parliamentary inclusion into the e-Petition process, this would bring a whole new aspect to citizen e-participation: one not yet capitalized in the U.S. and U.K.