This is an extract from Tony Czarnecki’s book: ‘Democracy for a Human Federation’
In some countries, there is a different form of political engagement – citizens’ petitions. This form of political engagement is not that new. There is some historical evidence from the ancient Egypt, where the slaves building pyramids tried to petition for better working conditions. In Britain, there were one million petitions submitted to the parliament between 1780 and 1918. In 2015, Britain introduced a formal petition system. Citizens can file a petition on any subject on-line. If at least 10,000 people support it, such a petition must be debated by the government and a formal response published. If a petition gets over 100,000 signatories, it must be debated in the Parliament. So, superficially, it has several advantages. The most significant one is that it creates a channel of communication between citizens and the government, increasing citizens’ engagement in shaping important policies. It is also simple, and inexpensive. Here is a summary of petitions filed between 2017-2019 in Britain.
Table 3: E-petitions filed in Britain in 2017-2019 parliamentary session
On average, about 35 petitions are being debated in the British Parliament every year. So far, just one, on removing tax on tampons, succeeded. And that is the whole point. Petitions, at least in Britain, are a frustration valve for the voters and a fig leaf for the governing party, covering the current system of total power grab after the elections. One of the most spectacular failures of the system was a petition on the second Brexit referendum, which has gained 4.5M signatures. The Parliament debated it and quickly rejected it because the Conservative Party, which was the main supporter of Brexit, had a majority. It is obvious from even this example that for a petition system to work in any country, it would need a much tighter legislation, which would not allow a government or a Parliament to easily reject it. In the Brexit case, there should have been a requirement for a supermajority of say, 60% of MPs to reject the petition.
Therefore, we need a different, ‘reinforced’ petition system, which would be part of an overall new democratic system, where successful petitions would trigger a process of continuous accountability of the governing to the governed during the whole term of the Parliament. Citizens’ Petitions could be made to the Parliament, the government, or any other legislative body, following tight rules, such as those set out below:
- Every citizen will have a right to launch a petition through a dedicated digital on-line system, supervised by an independent Electoral Commission
- For petitions relevant for a government or a Parliament, a country’s independent Electoral Commission will check their potential legislative impact. These will include checking if a legislation already existed but was not acted on, required an amendment, a new legislation is being proposed, or that a petition will not require any changes in the existing legislation and was thus invalid (this is already happening in the UK)
- The petition system will allow every citizen not only to support a petition but also propose his own version or leave comments. The comments will then be aggregated by the petition debating system, such as POLIS or Consensual Debating. Every signatory would be able to assess the changes in the proposed wording of the petition and see an on-line visual representation of various groups’ support for each of the variants of the legislation. Based on that, a signatory might switch his support for another version of the petition. In this way, the most preferred version of the petition will be chosen through a consensus and compromise. This may greatly enhance citizens’ engagement, leading to a significantly improved quality of the petitions by uncovering patterns in the opinions of the participants, sorting them into opinion groups, and identifying the areas of consensus
- A petition will have to gain enough signatories under its final version within a legally prescribed period to be considered for a response from the government or be debated by the Parliament
- To become a mandatory request for the Parliament to debate it, a petition will have to get the support of a certain minimum percentage of the registered voters on the electoral roll, e.g. 5%. Such a percentage may look high, however if such a system is to work properly, the intervention into the existing, or proposed legislation must be justified by a very serious impact it has, or it might have, on the lives of the citizens of that country
- To become a mandatory request for the government to debate it, a petition will have to get the support of a minimum percentage of voters, e.g. 0.5%. The petitions to the government will be responded directly by that legislative body following the agreed procedures
- Valid petitions to the government will be directly sent via the Electoral Commission to a relevant government’s department.
Should a valid petition require a debate by the Parliament it would trigger a debate by the Citizens’ Senate – a permanent Citizens’ Assembly, which is discussed in the next chapter.
 BBC History, ‘The Private Lives of Pyramid-Builders’, 17/02/2011, https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/pyramid_builders_01.shtml
 Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller, Oxford Academic, Petitions, Parliament and Political Culture: Petitioning the House of Commons, 1780–1918, 13/4/2020, https://academic.oup.com/past/article/248/1/123/5819582
 House of Commons Library, ‘House of Commons trends – e-petitions’ https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/house-of-commons-trends-e-petitions/, 3/11/2020,
 Sustensis, ‘Consensual Debating for all levels of governance’, https://consensus.sustensis.co.uk/consensual-debating-for-all-levels-of-governance/