In theory, the detailed proposals for improving Parliament's use of petitions are due by the end of this month, and if they are to be announced while the House of Commons is still sitting then the last date for publishing them is tomorrow.
These are the items in question from the Cabinet Office business plan.
3.6.i. Present proposals to the House of Commons to ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures within a given year will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament, and that the petition with the most signatures be tabled as a Bill.
3.6.ii. Present proposals to the House of Commons to introduce a new 'public reading stage' for Bills to give the public an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online for use in a dedicated 'public reading day' within a Bill’s committee stage.
In the past, consideration of the issue has usually included the use of an ePetitions system, although the pledges above don't explicitly refer to using online petitions (we are also waiting to see if the use of ePetitions by Parliament replaces the still-suspended Number 10 petitions website or if they will run in parallel).
It is also worth noting an excellent draft paper by Andreas Jungherr of the University of Bamberg and Pascal Jürgens of Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz looking at the experience of the German Bundestag which has used an ePetition system since 2005.
Lessons from Germany
In the German system, if a petition gains over 50,000 signatures in its first three weeks the petitioner is able to set out their concerns before the parliament's petitions committee.
However, the authors found that "not even 100 e-petitions account for the vast majority of co-signatures" and that only a fraction of the petitions reached the 50,000 threshold.
Given that the UK proposals would set the threshold at 100,000 signatures over a 12-month period (albeit for an arguably more significant debate rather than a committee hearing), as I've noted before there is a question about whether the bar is being set too high in Britain.
In a striking parallel with the post I wrote about the UK's Your Freedom crowd-sourcing website (where repeal of the Digital Economy Act attracted the most support), similar themes were also highly visible in the German system. Between October 2008 and January 2010, four of the most popular petitions related to the practices of internet users.
As with the Your Freedom experience, the paper's authors say of the German petitions system:
"Although internet related topics are highly popular, it would be wrong to suppose the e-petition system is only advantageous to internet-friendly topics."
Who signs petitions?
After analysing the data, Jungherr and Jürgens also drew some conclusions about the type of people who use the German ePetitions system:
The majority of users are single issue stakeholders who use the system once or twice to sign clearly related petitions. The second largest grouping is that of activism consumers who sign many petitions on unrelated subjects.
There are much lower numbers of new lobbyists (who sign many similar petitions over a longer period of time) and hit and run activists (who sign many similar petitions over a shorter period of time).
The authors make the important point that greater participation is not the same as greater deliberation, but deliver a positive overall conclusion about ePetitions.
"While this political participation through a click might not be the political participation envisioned by advocates of the deliberative online democracy or the new public sphere, e-petitions clearly have an agenda setting function. To dismiss this as 'couch potato activism' does no justice to the phenomenon."
They say that political participation via the internet is not a "radical game changer" for democracy but does lead to "more pressure on established players through ad-hoc campaigns and an increased expectation of direct communication with political institutions".