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  1. Science & Tech
8 March 2007

NMA flushes out Number 10 petition genius!

The truth behind the Downing Street petition debacle?

By Mike Butcher

You will have heard about the mass e-petition on the Prime Ministers web site about road toll pricing.

Now, admittedly there are many more petitions on the site which are somewhat off the wall, as Newsnight found recently when it tested the efficacy of the idea by petitioning the PM to sit in a tub of custard outside Parliament. They got 2,000 signatures.

Lately you can petition the Prime Minister to prevent the BBC from making its iPlayer on-demand television service available to Windows users only. And helicopter pilots will be delighted to learn they can now petition the Prime Minister to Instruct the Civil Aviation Authority to permit Single Pilot Public Transport Operation up to age 65 subject to a valid medical. At last I can sleep at night knowing, someone is fighting the good fight on my behalf.

On a more serious note newstatesman.com’s very own Mark Thomas used his blog to call for a Bribery Tsar. That followed his bid to whip up support for a policy of selling peerages for £1

At the time of the road toll protest, asked if the genesis behind the e-petitions was the head of Google, the official response was that Number 10 wasn’t precisely sure of the genesis but “there was no sense at all in Downing Street that we regret having gone down this road. It had been a very interesting exercise.”

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It’s certainly got our interest! Unlock Democracy (the joint campaign of Charter 88 and the New Politics Network) is calling for the Prime Minister to commission an independent citizens’ jury to deliberate on all petitions that get more than 100,000 supporters to sign up. Petitions are now a live political issue it seems.

So one can hardly agree with the unnamed minister who reportedly said the petitions website was dreamt up by a “prat” and was proving a public relations disaster. Tom Steinberg of MySociety.org, who did not come up with the idea but claims to have put it together, told the BBC recently “Academic research shows people are more willing to sign a petition than engage in any other kind of political activity. It’s a simple process and clear what you are doing – putting your voice to a statement.”

Petitions are also a pretty simple way of getting an issue into the media. Given that more than one million people taking to the streets to protest against going to war with Iraq wasn’t enough to force the government to change its policy, I’m sure we expect even more petitions. Who needs to march when you can sign a petition in your pyjamas?

But has the New Media Awards now managed to uncover the genius behind this idea, where every other national newspaper failed?

Jimmy Leach was appointed Head of Digital Communications at 10 Downing St in August 2006 from the Guardian Media Group, and is responsible for all new media activities including the website, podcasting and e-petitions. Now he has been nominated in the Modernising Government category of the New Media Awards.

According to the nomination he “executed the e-petitions strategy which has resulted many millions of people engaging with the website.”

You can say that again Jimmy.

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