18 december 2015

E-petitions…to be or not to be?

A tool of e-petitions has recently appeared in Ukraine, but it discredits itself. Citizens formulate e-petitions like “Nominate Tymoshenko Yulia Volodymyrivna as Ambassador to Honduras” and “Darth Vader — the Prime Minister of Ukraine.”. Public authorities (so far only the President of Ukraine) give the runarounds with their replies. The circle is closed.

Nowadays, there is a large threat of distorting e-petitions as a tool of the authorities and of citizens. Both sides see their own purposes and prospects of e-petitions, but none of them have a clear understanding of their essence. It is therefore appropriate to provide precise and concise way for a “bright future” of this instrument of democracy.

The right to appeal is constitutional. Art. 40 of the Main Law of Ukraine states:

“Everyone has the right to file inpidual or collective appeals, or to personally appeal to the state authorities, local government officials and officers of these bodies which are obliged to consider the appeals and to provide a substantiated reply within the statutory period.”.

The Constitution of Ukraine does not have any limitations on presentation of the relevant appeals.

Traditional appeals of citizens are inpidual. When there is a public interest (this issue applies to electronic petitions and collective appeals), it is an element of democracy. E-petitions applying to electronic democracy relate not only to measuring impact and taking advice, but also to the level of an intermediate position between obtaining information and decision-making (by active participation through a “top down” way by the criterion of the initiating subject). They fall into both legal categories: an addition to other legal tools and a new tool from a public point of view (appeal in the electronic version).

There is a great deal of tools and practices for appealing to public authorities electronically. They are very popular and effectively work in the whole world. E-petitions highlight real problems and are intended to suggest the ways to solve them. Their advantage is the ability to directy pass into another form of protest (in electronic form). However, they do not exclude manipulation, including the one from the authorities, as well as other risks. On the other hand, it is clear that the developments in practice of electronic submission and consideration of e-petitions will be representative.

E-petitions: Ukrainian Framework

E-petitions stand for a special kind of collective appeal (electronic appeal) which is submitted to senior government authorities (the President of Ukraine, the Parliament of Ukraine (Verkhovna Rada), the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine), local authorities (local governments); a service for collecting signatures. E-petitions relate to complex issues. Contents of such petitions is limited in accordance with legislation on information.

In the minds of both public authorities and citizens the following features of this tool have to be present:

—  the purpose of the petition is to start a dialogue with the authorities;

—  collective character of such form of appeal;

—  freedom of expression — the importance of e-petitions and resonance problems are to be stressed. The question raised relates to issues of public interest (corresponding with many interested subjects);

—  short (simplified) procedure for considering e-petition;

—  e-petition is not binding for the addressee;

—  the need for compliance with the law as well as the rules of the Web-portal;

—  robust platform — usually state websites, although electronic filing of petitions through public websites is allowed (e.g. public website with rigid identity effectively operate in Latvia);

—  “locked” theme — limited by information legislation; pre-moderation.
Pre-moderation relates to having e-petitions pre-signed wit a set number of votes (qualification). Such requirement creates competition (the highest demand);

—  reaction of the authorities does not necessarily apper until the appropriate amount of votes will be collected.

Abroad, it is also possible to transform e-petitions into e-initiatives (there is a successful experience in Finland).

The main function of the tool of e-petitions is to start legitimate debates, the inclusion in the dialogue. In Ukraine, e-petitions are widely used as an alternative way to “reach out” to the higher authorities. This tool has two levels of use:

1. State petition — the focus is on issues of national importance. Web-portals of such higher state bodies are now functioning in Ukraine: the President of Ukraine (“E-petitions” on the official website of the President of Ukraine), the Parliament of Ukraine (Verkhovna Rada) (“E-petitions” (test version) from October 29, 2015). The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine as of October 29, 2015 is also going to launch a Web-portal for electronic filing of petitions.

2. Local petition — the focus is on resolving procedural issues, committed to the discretion of local communities. There is no duty to create an official website (web-services) at the local level (saving of budgetary funds and time) — you can pay for outsourcing to NGOs and file an e-petition through their Web-portals. This proposal is also linked to the facilitation of the launch and the existence of a counterweight in the form of public portals (e.g. e-dem.in.ua, petitions247.net).

Gradation of levels of filing e-petitions makes it impossible to pert them between subjects in terms of the capacity to solve the problems that concern the citizens. However, some other authorities also want to accept electronic petitions. It is not prohibited by law which regulates the status of key actors6 addressing the most important issues of public importance in the aforementioned field.

On the other hand, even with the existence of a clear algorithm for e-petitions filing and consideration such forms of abuse are possible in the implementation of this tool:

—  identification of e-petition authors or signatories;

—  double voting of the same person from different email addresses;

—  other risks associated with technical support process and review of electronic submission.

Such potential forms of abuse have a high probability of becoming real. At the same time, there is a problem with the responsibility of offenders. Whereas it is possible not to worry: there no extra special sanctions, except from overall. Previously there were more grounds for bringing legal proceedings, but they were excluded from the Art. 28 of the Law of Ukraine “On information”. However, the approach is not formal — the interest for e-petition is taken into account.
Each of the entities are responsible at the limits of their authority: the author (not a subject of copyright law!) — for the content of e-petition; the recipient (addressee) — for the timely and proper consideration; the Web-portal — for collection and accuracy, meeting the requirements of the law (must provide proof of authenticity of signatures, follow the rules of identification).
In the case of unfair acts, it is possible to bring up to criminal liability for unauthorized interference with operation of computers, automated systems, computer networks or telecommunication networks (Art. 361 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine).

Success Secrets of E-petitions

Why did the President Petro Poroshenko reject the first petition for legislative approval of the law on protection of citizens of Ukraine? Why did on the Web-site of the Parliament of Ukraine (Verkhovna Rada) as of December 13, 2015 the largest number of votes gain the e-petitions on the rejection of the Draft Law “On education”, prepared by the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, because this decision would destroy the system of children's art education, the removal of parliamentary immunity, the introduction of the electronic system for voting and collecting signatures during the realization of people's will in Ukraine, the imperative mandate — the possibility of early withdrawal of any of the selected persons not justifying the trust of voters, introducing high fines for garbage on the street? These and other questions can be answered while focusing on the specific requirements for e-petitions tool.

The secret of success of e-petitions is that people shall be treated with topical issues to the addressee who can solve them, and the authorities always have to answer with the substance, rather than give boilerplate letters. Thus, e-petitions will not be impious acts and will contribute to meeting the public interest which concerns the group of their signatories.

On the basis of analyzing the content, form and procedure of signing “successful” e-petitions we are coming now to such performance criteria for e-petitions:

—  easy wording for citizens when signing, clear requirements for a public authority and taking into account its sphere of competence. The same criterion also covers appeals to the signatories of the petition — an emotional anchor. It should be remembered that e-petitions quintessential simplicity is the clarity, which includes: a small number of characters; simple and emotional header; professional but accessible explanation; accessible language (without specific terms, jargon borrowed words, internationalism); use of simple sentences; structured text (highlighted keywords; visual blocks (small paragraphs) — ease, optimal information value; consistency — introduction, main part, substantive provisions, relevance and reasonableness, hyperlinks);

—  feasibility — on time and resources (labor, financial, including cash, etc.) for signatories and for the authorities. Only feasible e-petitions will prioritize efforts on primary and general to provide citizens and the authorities with settlement of socially important issues. In this sense, the guidelines are published documents with the priorities of development strategies. The priority of e-petition at the time of signing might be a nice bonus as an unexpected support (you should remember about the check-list);

—  an appropriate (relevant) addressee — requires the presence of powers to respond to the content of the petition. The Web-portal should contain hints as to the proper recipient;

—  a person of initiator should be known and respected;

—  the real significance of the issue for practical application;

—  inclusion in the text of the e-petition of the expected beneficial outcome for civil society and government or ways to achieve it;

—  “there is no alternative” approach when grounding the subject of the petition — the need to convey to people that having signed the petition, you can get a result, and there is no other way. This criterion is spreading to e-petition from strategic management (economic management based on the inevitability and irreversibility of its procedures and consequences);

—  the right moment and the target audience (the initiator should decide on it).

In assessing the effectiveness of the e-petitions tool, you also need to consider the possibility to collect signatures in time depending on the interests of the initiators; on the number of signatures; opportunity to take this petition to the proceedings; the results and the measures taken by the addressee.

Implementation of E-petitions

The public trust depends on the practice of using e-petitions tool. This is reinforced by the possibility to submit e-petitions on state and public websites. The competition will enhance quality.

There is no doubt that the authors and signatories of e-petitions are interest in the recipient having considered and resolved them positively. In order to increase the probability of satisfying e-petitions sent to the authorities, the following mechanism should lie in the the basis of these appeals:

—  updating issues;

—  establishment of action groups and discussion;

—  maximum “information noise” (public events) — flash mob shares (theatricality), stickers, ads, public information, round tables, inviting foreign experts, thematic TV programmes, etc. Through the described forms and types of infoglut additional e-petition signatories and stakeholders from the authorities will be attracted. It is important to determine responsible public entities for this area, monitor and control them;

—  building a base of interested participants by creating a friendly expert community (opinion leaders); consolidation of the most authoritative NGOs; searching specialized funds (funds base for distribution); access to the social networks — links to the groups on e-petitions or the personal page of initiator in order to be fully informed; work with universities (attracting motivated students);

—  visualization — infographics, advertising for expansion of the initiators and the distribution of powers between them. As a result, it is necessary to distinguish between the following categories: advertising campaign (destination); advocacy campaign (ways of solving the issue at the right time and in the right quantity through stakeholder groups and real signatures);

—  attracting business (stakeholders and potential partners).

The mechanism should act so that the idea of e-petitions becomes as own to their signatories and the authorities. In general terms, it is necessary to initiate an e-petition only when there is an understanding of how and what to do. Pre-need issues are calculation of risks and preparation of rebuttal, their sound alternative plan. The appeal must contain a proposal of its own mechanisms to solve the problem situation.

Thus, a conclusion can be stated that e-petitions are a tool that invites dialogue. In order to create conditions for their future use by both the authorities and the public, there should be a clear and uniform understanding of the nature, the procedure for their filing and consideration, and the criteria for legitimizing e-petitios.

The appropriate tool of e-petitions has a great potential to become very friendly. This requires speed (breakthrough while collecting signatures and during consideration); consolidation of society (pision of society by narrow interest groups is possible only while filing local petitions); cooperation agreements, partnerships with business and government; timely monitoring and notification; forwarding to appropriate recipients (based on the competence of the authorities).