Government squandered public education opportunity with dismissive response to anti-Trump State Visit e-petition

19 Feb 2017
Prime Minister Theresa May and President Donald Trump at a press conference during May's first visit to the US since Trump took power

Last week the government had the opportunity to engage directly with 1.8 million citizens. Presented with a communication opportunity on this scale, more thought and effort should have been applied to crafting the message.

Dr Ruth Fox, Director , Hansard Society
Director , Hansard Society

Dr Ruth Fox

Dr Ruth Fox
Director , Hansard Society

Ruth is responsible for the strategic direction and performance of the Society and leads its research programme. She has appeared before more than a dozen parliamentary select committees and inquiries, and regularly contributes to a wide range of current affairs programmes on radio and television, commentating on parliamentary process and political reform.

In 2012 she served as adviser to the independent Commission on Political and Democratic Reform in Gibraltar, and in 2013 as an independent member of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee Review Group. Prior to joining the Society in 2008, she was head of research and communications for a Labour MP and Minister and ran his general election campaigns in 2001 and 2005 in a key marginal constituency.

In 2004 she worked for Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign in the battleground state of Florida. In 1999-2001 she worked as a Client Manager and historical adviser at the Public Record Office (now the National Archives), after being awarded a PhD in political history (on the electoral strategy and philosophy of the Liberal Party 1970-1983) from the University of Leeds, where she also taught Modern European History and Contemporary International Politics.

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Unfortunately, what the 1.8 million signatories to the anti-Trump state visit e-petition got was a bland, 122-word brush-off that sounded as if it had been written by a grumpy minister forced to stay behind to cook up the lines after class.

It was so poor they didn’t really need to waste 122 words when just 33 would have sufficed. Summed up, ‘the Government believes the US President should be extended the full courtesy of a State Visit; the date and arrangements have not been finalised; and the government does not agree with the petition.’

It is responses like this – that treat the public with dismissive, high-handed disdain – that infuriates people, in this case those who had bothered to sign the petition.

Whether you agree with the e-petition or not, 1.8 million of our fellow citizens clearly felt strongly enough to support it. The request was, as one petitioner put it, ‘responsibly and temperately expressed’ - they hadn’t called for Trump to be banned from Britain, merely that he ‘not be honoured beyond the bare essentials due to his office’.

The government’s response has variously been described to me by correspondents in recent days as ‘rubbish’, ‘dismissive’, ‘anodyne’ and ‘abrupt’. The tone and content conveyed the impression that the government couldn’t be bothered properly engaging with petitioners’ concerns.

E-petitions are a great way to get an issue on to or higher up the political agenda. They can attract public and media attention and serve a useful ‘fire alarm’ function, providing citizens with an opportunity to air their views on a national platform. But they are also a means for our politicians to engage citizens on the issues and to facilitate deliberation on the complexities and nuances that underpin public policy.

With some thought, the government could have sent a fuller, more nuanced response which sought to grapple with the issues surrounding this debate. It’s clear that many people – including lots of MPs and journalists – don’t know how state visits work; how many there have been and by whom; and what role Parliament plays. (My colleague Brigid Fowler has crunched the data so you don't have to!)

Providing some background and context might have been useful; it would at least have given the impression that the government was making an effort to engage and explain the issues. It could have set the matter in historical and foreign policy context: the data suggests, for example, that historically the US has been neglected when it comes to state visits (and in doing so perhaps they might have answered the intriguing question of why Mexico has had four state visits but the US only two!). They might even have referenced the suggestion from the Lord Speaker that the rules governing the use of Westminster Hall and the wider parliamentary estate for State Visits be reviewed, so that the process is more transparent and open in the future. But instead they chose the path of least effort and so squandered a great public education opportunity.

Our annual Audit of Public Engagement shows that the public is generally more likely to sign a petition than they are to engage in most other forms of democratic activity apart from voting. The e-petitions system thus has symbolic as well as practical value in better linking Parliament and the public. Five years ago we published a report What Next for E-petitions? outlining the reforms necessary to improve the system. Many of our proposals, including the setting up of a Petitions Committee, were subsequently adopted wholesale by the House of Commons and form the backbone of the system we have today and which is largely regarded as much more effective than was the case in the last Parliament. But this incident shows there is no room for complacency.

The government has to decide how responsive it is prepared to be to public concerns; it doesn’t have to agree with petitioners, merely be prepared to go the extra mile to communicate with them in a way that seeks to improve their perception of the process. If petitioners don’t get more thoughtful, nuanced responses the system will simply feed the anti-politics mood of cynicism and disdain.

Parliament has significantly enhanced its public engagement efforts through the new Petitions Committee (as Prof. Cristina Leston-Bandeira has explained here). The Government should now do the same. Departments spend millions of pounds hiring consultants to put together public education advertisements for TV and social media. E-petition responses can similarly reach millions of people – so it should start treating the petitioning system as a mass civic education exercise rather than a political nuisance.

Photo Credit: Jay Allen provided under a CreativeCommons licence.

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