Monday, 17 December 2007

Don’t try to be funny

A year ago I suggested that the ePetition scheme (petitions online to the Prime Minister) was a fairly pointless exercise, though amusing in a quiet way. Although 10 Downing Street does not actually say so, the new Prime Minister probably agrees. A recent progress report strikes a ho-hum note, suggesting that those responsible for running it are rather bored with the whole thing, though some members of the public continue to support it.

Over 29,000 petitions have been submitted, of which over 8,500 are currently live and available for signing, over 6,000 have finished and 14,601 [more than half!] have been rejected outright. Reasons for rejection are:

[We] reject petitions that appear to be duplicates.
There have been a number of petitions that are based on premises that are simply not true. There are a good number purely based on newspaper stories or web rumours that have no truth behind them.
We had no option but to refuse all URL addresses and links in future petitions.
Initially, we decided it would be wrong to accept petitions proposing people for honours this, since there is an existing procedure for honours nominations from members of the public. However, after discussion with the Cabinet Office Ceremonial Secretariat, we agreed that we could accept these petitions, provided that we make clear to petitioners that the e-petitions service will not replace the existing system. Anybody wishing to nominate somebody for an honour should still complete the online form.
We have reluctantly decided that we cannot respond to petitions of less than 200 people, unless they relate specifically to small groups (for example, people from a small community). Similarly, if a petition cannot really be expected to gain a ministerial response and therefore its purpose is only its existence rather than the response from government then we will reserve the right to simply not respond.
We have to avoid libel, incitement or any other legal issues and we do not have the resources to systematically check the details of individual cases, or to seek legal advice on every contentious petition. So we have erred on the side of caution, asking people to re-phrase petitions if we believe there is any likelihood of legal risk, or of causing offence.
There have been cases where we have decided to remove previously accepted petitions. Mostly, this has been due to human error and we have sought to correct those errors.
On a couple of occasions, we have rejected petitions because of the way those petitions were being promoted. Petitions were being 'hijacked' by extremists and were promoted in the most offensive terms imaginable. While the petitions themselves weren't provocative, the actions of those supporting them most certainly were. We deemed this to be contrary to the spirit of the petitions site and removed them. This is an action we are prepared to take again if necessary.
These reasons for rejection are obviously quite sensible but taken together suggest a certain lack of enthusiasm for the project among those who have to read all the submissions, who do not, of course, include Mr Brown. But perhaps he in involved to some extent, for he could well have inspired this po-faced comment:

Initially we accepted humorous petitions, on the grounds that they did no harm and were often funny. However, as the site grew in popularity, we found that more and more time was being taken up considering borderline cases where supposedly humorous petitions risked being seen as offensive or in bad taste.
Some users also contacted us to complain about silly petitions undermining the serious purpose of the site. We decided it was impossible to justify this use of Civil Service time, or to come up with clear guidelines as to what amounts to good or bad taste. We have decided no longer to accept petitions that are obviously intended as jokes.

Our mandarins tackle many difficult tasks brilliantly, but “to come up with clear guidelines as to what amounts to good or bad taste” is certainly one which would tax the mightiest intellects.

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