The Problem with Online Petitions

Average Reading Time: 6 mins

Sign this to show your support, Stand with Joe bloggs, Be part of it, Support this cause, Stop this, Start that – we’ve all seen the ceaseless online petitions which vary greatly in their aims, professionalism and grace. Some are nearly as bad as the ‘type amen and share to send a prayer’ nonsense from social media, both which anger me greatly, but should I actually be wound up by them or furiously signing them as quick and plentiful as possible?

What are Online Petitions

Online petitions started as a simple way for users to digitally sign petitions, rather than in person, from clipboard carries or in local stores. The idea was that people would effectively be able to support the correct causes and sign against/for all items that directly affected them or causes they supported. They are provided (in the UK) by a multitude of businesses, charities, government and international subsidiaries.

The facilities, options, opinions of and benefits (to the user, signatory, owner and cases) differ greatly along with a disparity between demographic of users and opinions of the separate platforms.

Statistics

Most of the millions of e-petitions that get signed each year, then, fall on deaf ears and achieve very little. 6.4 million signatures per year just on the governments own petition.parliament.uk site2.

Indexed Pages Domain Links SEMRush FB Total3
avaaz.org 78700 326000 207838 57400
petition.parliament.uk 114000 324000 190332 22490
causes.com 674000 10500000 111063 10850000
thepetitionsite.com 395000 1480000 19818 110720
change.org 2450000 71900000 1552 1780000
home.38degrees.org.uk 7820 211000 324558 4600
thunderclap.it 326000 2100000 101991 9860

The Bad

Anyone can create a petition (just like the real world) however digitally it means any person without probity can create a petition for users to sign, without the intentions being vetted. Added to this there is a massive void between the professional and highly personal – the downside is a couple of glasses of wine and bad experience can result in a national campaign (some may see this as a benefit) but I feels more structured and wholesome campaign – with proper governance and planning – will always succeed if the cause is genuine.

This ease is great for this proper organisations and bodies who need the facilities and for fast moving situations like politics, but I’ve read far too many where the intentions are great but the poor application of the intentions have lessened the impact and possibly reduced the public perception of the campaign. While there are several petitions I’ve had to complain about after users have created them only from seeing incorrect spam on social media!  We’ve all seen the nonsense posts, but yes, some people believe them and then it’s probable more people will believe after they see a petition. While there are also several campaigns which are moot, the most recent is from May 20174, where the author is requesting Endometriosis is recognised under the Equality Act 2010 – now let me be clear, Endometriosis is a horrid thing to deal with and can cause many complications being both physically and mentally draining and i’m not lessening that at all – the Equality act covers Disability, which would include Endometriosis so this petition was not really needed. Although gathered 10,000 signatures some of who wouldn’t know about the condition, the post itself provides an incorrect view that the condition isn’t covered when it is, this sort of poor research leads to incorrect public views and it has the ability to damage a larger campaign.

The instant gratification achieved from online petitions in this way is immediately exhilarating, however the ease of signing means those signatures are not likely to want to do anymore to support the campaign. Clicking a button to help and actually getting off your ass are vastly different! This burnout after piqued interest on media – means support will dwindle after media saturation (which will vary by user and campaign) can this be a key to support for local issues? I feel only national issues should be utilised in online campaigns (even then only a small proportion of the nation will see the camping any platform not to mention media). – anything less than 10,000 signatures to me is not sufficient!

Dilution of issues due to duplicates and similar campaigning. A unified approach to issues is key, speaking from one page is necessary to fight an issue, multiple voices speaking from different aspects is not productive without an overall aim and management from a central aspect with an objective being key.

Desensitised to petitions as a whole, slacktivism (portmanteau of slacker and activism) is now rife, because of this there are far too many petitions being signed and shared, this means on average (being linked to several charities and connected to many charity focused people) I see at least 10 petitions a day show up on my social media, add that to the ones I get emailed to me by people who think i’d be interested in what they sign up for.  This causes me, and many others, to have petition blindness5.

Because of the above many organisations are now shying away and publically distancing themselves from online petitions 6– I’m make a difference between online petition and an organisations own online support request mechanism (osrm [p.s. I want this to be pronounced ‘awesome’]) 

Victories because of Petitions?

Its very doubtful7 From the table below we can see the number of petitions (only included is the government petition site) which shows more than 65% of the petitions are rejected, now some of these is becauase there already exists a similar petition, however it doesn’t take in number of signatures or profesionalism – so if you were to make a better worded, planned and executed petition the orgional would be kept and yours would be rejected. But have previous parliamentary petitions ever succeeded in implementing real change? I couldn’t find any evidence of it, the only changes were from campaigns which already had an organised following and subsidiary organisation pushing for the amendments it seems like a lot of the Petition sites take credit for already active campaigns. 

Total Petitions8 31,731
Rejected 20,781 65.4912%
Awaiting Response 12 0.0378%
Provided Response 475 1.4970%
Awaiting Debate 9 0.0284%
Debated in Parliament 56 0.1765%

“if you collect more than 100,000 signatures, your e-petition could be debated in the House of Commons” The above table shows just how many actually get debated, in TOTAL 56 have been debated since July 2015 when it started, this is less than 0.2%! Of the ten campaigns that garnered most signatures in 2016, four were denied a debate and none has so far succeeded in obtaining its intended outcome or implementing real change9. I agree with Emma Howard of The Guardian10 in that it creates false expectations although I would go further in saying it provides the people with a flawed beleif of impact.

The Good

Slacktivism is always seen as negative; lazy activism which no true desire to change society, an easy way to jump on the bandwagon or to agree easily without actually understanding what you’re agreeing with or against. However this can be of great benefit for those campaigns which are written effectively, it’s quite clear what you are signing and the aim of the campaign, with true motivation and belief slacktivism can, at its very least, provide a massive reach for ideas and issues without fiscal cost to a charity/cause.

The population of the UK is changing with each generation technology and social media become more integrated into their lives – I’m the last generation that didn’t have a mobile until very late teens, it’s now known how that will affect social issues in the future, but it is unlikely to reduce in numbers. People have embraced petitioning online whole heartly, some belive that it is a key method of expression be that Substantive or Protest11.

Some of the additional facilities provided by online petitions, when used properly, can aid a campaign no end, from automatically contacting your local MP/Councillor, to allowing you to email several friends and to share on other networks, all makes for ease and promotion.

Conclusion – Don’t stop!

No, I’m not asking for regulation or anything more formal, but maybe I think the petition sites using a method of promoting registered organisations or public figures (like mps) over the standard petitions, while also making certain petitions which have the same cause/aim being merged and those people being made to work together on the campaign.

Petitions only achievement is to promote a parliamentary debate – however the debate already exists in the public for the petition to be created (some smaller than others).

Parliament’s petitions are about demonstrating discontent and developing campaigns to address specific issues, as many other political tools are – Cristina Leston-Bandeira 12http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/what-is-the-point-of-petitions/13

Online petitions are the start, a tool and an easy marketing exercise for any campaign which needs support, they work when they’re done correctly. In the true slacktivist way, it’s just a click, you may as well!

Heavy Hand
Charges for Regulation by the Charity Commission or is there an alternative option?

Average Reading Time: 7 mins

In 2015 the Charity Commission head, Paula Sussex, advised there were talks ongoing regarding charging to keep the Regulator a float, while in March this year the treasury gave the all clear for the Charity Commission to formally look into the possibility of charges and costs.

This a very current and heated issue, which i’m still very conflicted with. On one hand I do very much agree with William Shawcross, believing the largest Charities should be contributing to the regulator to fund the costs of regulating the majority of smaller charities (that’s probably the socialist in me!) – but should it not come from public taxes?

As far as my opinion goes the Treasury already supports charities quite well with their Gift Aid Schemes and other tax benefits for registered Charities. While most would say any charge for regulation should go to those who benefit from regulation, but it cannot be that simple as you can’t really charge Homeless people or animals, rare trees, users of foodbanks, cancer patients, and the list goes on. One thing all charities have to have in common, by their very nature, is that they are to benefit the Public, mostly certain specific areas or selected groups of people but over all the benefit is to the public.

The problem with this is you can’t charge those people who are using the services, you can’t charge employees, you can’t really charge Trustees as they’re offering their governance for free and you don’t really want to increase taxes to the public (as that would result in public resentment and criticism of the Third Sector and political scapegoating of the industry too). This really only leaves the current government budget being increased from its current point which means budget will need to be gathered elsewhere (We’ll shy away from current party politics and fiscal policies for now). We’re left with the following options to gain some budget back to effectively regulate;

  1. Charities to pay
  2. Fines/Charges to charities
  3. Companies
  4. Gift Aid Scheme changes
  5. Match Funding
  6. Mixture of the above

CAVEAT: with my current experiences with the regulator I do not believe it is fit for purpose regardless of how much money you throw at it.

Lets look at some figures;

Charity CommissionCharities
  • An organisation which can spend £5000 on creation of a new logo; I’m all for marketing, but when the organisation is not achieving what it needs to and the main reason it provides is budget then this expenditure shows the core aim is not the true focus.
  • increased spending on agency staff, which almost tripled from £900,000 to just under £2.7m in 2015/16 which to me says their HR function is not appropriate either (now hiring new HR management as of 7.7.17)
  • The Charity Commissions own report said it hit 16 out of 17 of its internal targets – who created them – why has Parliament not set targets in line with Third Sector organisations requirements?
  • In 2015 there are around 2.5 organisation for every 1000 people 1 , I like that statistic as indicator, it provides a clearer view of just how many charities there are.

As of December 2016 78% of the revenue brought in by charities is received by the top 1.3% of charities (2201) organisations 2 , to make up the current funding for the Regulator at least to its current level (matching what they receive now)

Options

1. Charge Charities

Lets look at some options;

  1. Charge each of the top 1.3% of charities would need to be charged over £9,500 each – possible given their size but unfair to the beneficiaries of those specific organisations.
  2. Charge each charity evenly you’d need to charge each of the 167,109 around £125 each, much more reasonable but hardly fair that a £5000 per annum playgroup is charged the same as a £25m+ charity, but then again each charity is under the same regulatory requirements, oversight and authority.
  3. Charge on a graded scale so based upon income the below table shows charging each charity just £35 per year (appropriate to cost for administration of the charity status) and also fund the Regulator, while the largest 2000 charities would be £1500 per year, a small percentage of the >£5m per year incomes. This would provide the regulator with a few hundred thousand pounds more than their current budget
Annual income bracket Number of charities % Annual income £bn % Annual Charge* Total Annual Charge
 £0 to £10,000 65,842.00 39.4  £                                0.22 0.3  £                35.00  £               2,304,470.00
 £10,001 to £100,000  56,853.00 34  £                                2.01 2.7  £              100.00  £               5,685,300.00
 £100,001 to £500,000  21,956.00 13.1  £                                4.83 6.6  £              250.00  £               5,489,000.00
 £500,001 to £5,000,000  8,972.00 5.4  £                              13.41 18.4  £              500.00  £               4,486,000.00
 £5,000,000 plus  2,201.00 1.3  £                              52.65 72  £           1,500.00  £               3,301,500.00
 *My example of Charge Total  £             21,266,270.00

2. Fines/Charges

The current law requires charities to file their documents on time, and the burden is on the Trustees to do so, if you are not able to do so then you should not be signing up as a Trustee, I believe a fine for not filing your books is needed to encourage clear lines between the disorganised and the effective. Currently there has been an ongoing inquiry for those charities which have been late filing their books for more than two years, the cost of this inquiry will be massive, yet this could have been recouped if the charges were like other documents where the trustees directly are fined, not the charity! This will make certain the documents are provided on time and prioritised jointly by all trustees. A fine of either £100 in total split between the Trustees, or £50 each per Trustee should discourage ignorance of a legal requirement.

3. Charge / Tax Companies

The £2.1bn contribution of the FTSE100 companies in 2014 3, I couldn’t find any record of more current figures, but lets just use £2.1bn as an example – not forgetting this is just from the FTSE100 companies, not any other company than ones listed on the exchange – if just 0.02% of this had to go towards regulation it would bring in £42million to the regulator, this could again be easily enacted and would put administration of such matters on to the accounts teams of the FTSE100 which would be easily able to support this function. 

Some Charges/fines I think may appropriate to Charities themselves;

  • Application Fee – a set fee to process the application to register, this may be £10/20 only, but will add up and cover some costs
  • Authorisation Fees – to request authorisation to pay connected staff, or payment of Trustees or release of land for sale etc
  • Constitution changes – I think non default Constitutions should be charged to be reviewed correctly (although some of the default docs I think could be improved)
  • Late Accounts Fine – fine should be appropriate if the accounts have to be sent back to the charity as insufficient/inadequate
  • Missing info fine
  • Not updating Trustee info
  • Any other misgiving which relates to a requirement

4. Gift Aid Changes

In 2014/15 the UK government provided £1.19bn in gift aid to charities 4, this may be a cleaner option by providing say 24% gift aid rather than 25% the other 1% could fund the Regulator.

This would mean 4% of the £1.19bn going to the regulator, providing £47.6m to the regulator, which is a few million more in real terms of what they received a decade ago. The benefit of this is that its simple! Doesn’t add to the additional administration of the regulator and provides and appropriate and proportional income which would vary on the income of the sector.

Major Caveat: Charity Commission

Commissions current proficiency in respect of what is not only needed by charities but also what is needed by the beneficiaries of those charities does not seem to be inline. The commission currently has little open channels for the public to request help/support or advice while those charities which are abusing the law have little way of guaranteeing action and consequences to the abuse. If the commission is to continue without holding responsibility for prosecutions of those abusing charities then the funds must come from the commission’s budget and be passed to Crown Prosecution to action those needs. Very few people now believe the commission provides value for money or does what the law intended it to do. My own issues with an abused charity have taken over 3 years for the commission to open an inquiry. That is ridiculous that abuse can be ignored like that for such a period of time, regardless of what budget they have available, there are charities up and down the country struggling for funds and they manage to achieve much more!

Lets not forget this is just for England and Wales – Scotland and Ireland have their own regulator!

Public bodies like this do not usually lose their budgets without warning, nor without not showing theirs benefit themselves! The Charity Commission needs to stress, without reservation, the issues prevalent in the third sector to show why money is needed and why regulation is vital! As far is public knowledge the Commission has not delegated or partnered with other Charity organisations to support their workloads! One of the first things I would have done was make certain the day to day drivel from Mrs Jones and her WI meeting was passed over to an organisations like CVCs, those people who wanted hands on supporting advice should be passed to those local organisations created to do so!  The regulator should be concerned with regulatory matters and their litigation to protect the industry and the massive amounts of public funds which goes with it.

Conclusion

In the end Charities are there to mop up the errors and misgivings of parliament to protect the public interest, it should be the government which provides the needed funds to regulate and police the industry properly. Charity abuse is one of the most detested of all abuses and those volunteering for them of their own free time must also see some protection and guarantee that when issues are exposed they are corrected swiftly and those responsible are punished sufficiently, where necessary. Sadly the Commission is already funded by Taxes paid to the government by the people of the UK, if they’re then going to charge Charities too, who are doing the jobs which are only created by an inefficiency of government mechanisms then essentially people are being taxed twice as they will pay from their taxes and from their donations to the charities.

The main problem with other options is that the Commission cannot implement or control it and only the Government may say that its a more appropriate option. My expectation is that the commission will at some point advise that charges to each charity are going to be put into place, no matter how many disagree with cost being fulfilled in that way

Does the Charity Commission even know what charity is?

Average Reading Time: 2 mins

After reading an article in The Guardian by Geoffrey Robertson QC about the Charity Commissions refusal to provide the HDT registration as a charity in 2014, it got me thinking about the registration process and how not once does the law give any regard to moral principles.

This is certainly understandable but I wondered how many of the general public would be aware? – If a charitable cause fighting for rights of a group of people can be declined Charity Status (although this has since been revoked and they are now a charity), I wonder how many of them payed attention to the cost attributed to this decision, which essentially means the funds are reduced to spend on support of all other charities by the body – added to removing funds from the valuable work of the HDT. The casefile from the tribunal states “It is important to record that the Charity Commission made clear in its decision, and indeed in its submissions to the Tribunal, that its objections to the registration of HDT were technical legal ones and that it recognised HDT’s valuable philanthropic work in the field of human rights” So this means they added a legal burden to this charity to instigate a tribunal because of their own ‘technical legal objections’.

What does this say for the state of the Charity Commission decision makers who declined this group? Or that a processes hasn’t been created to allow the commission to make this decision, after all they have the power of the high court as stated in the Charities Act.

I can understand the Charity Commissions stance that an aim to change law may be perceived as political, however the aim was to protect individuals by changing laws which persecute them…..how can that NOT be a charity in any view?

I think this case should have hopefully made clear some issues with charitable wording, however this shouldn’t have been needed and certainly not in the way this has had to have happened. There should be a clarification of political purpose and an extension to be very specific.

Fighting for rights to specific subset, one which does not remove other living beings rights

What if they were fighting for rights of another group, more decisive? Lets say they were fighting for rights of people who want slavery to return, this wouldn’t be allowed as not only would this be a ridiculous cause, but it clearly fights for rights that remove others rights and dignity.

Any organisation which fights directly for rights of a demographic that doesn’t ask for rights to be removed from others to achieve their aims MUST be a charity, regardless of what risks this poses to UK foreign relations. Although its written in law that the High Court must take into considerations any foreign relations and not judge upon their laws, the UK has a responsibility to the world in standing up for rights of people, regardless of what political impact that may have. By not allowing the register of a charity like this, they give legitimacy to countries who do destroy human rights, that in itself is a worse political statement for the UK.

The Human Dignity Trust have even been praised by Ulrike Lunacek, Vice-President of the European Parliament;