What does the rise of 38 Degrees and Change.org mean for public policy?

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Over the last five years a new type of political group has emerged. Part pressure group, part movement - I am talking about the likes of 38 DegreesChange.organd avaaz.org. While the numbers who engage with these organisations are hard to disaggregate given that they are global platforms, the UK-focused 38 Degrees claims that it has 2.5 million members who have undertaken 19,493,832 actions since their platform was launched. In other words, the sort of numbers that political parties can only dream of. 

More recently, these sites have been joined by low cost online campaigning platforms, such as NationBuilder. These have given small groups access to the sort of infrastructure that would have cost them in excess of £100k only a few years ago to build and maintain.

And let's not forget Facebook and Twitter. The grandparents of online campaigning, perhaps, but these behemoths of the social networking world mean that everything from people not wearing makeup to pouring icy water over themselves can spread around the globe without central direction. 

To their users, these sites are giving people power and making politicians more accountable and responsive to their electorates. To their critics, they are doing little more than creating an online rabble capable merely of sending an email before it moves on to the next ’cause’.

So where does the truth lie? And what do these sites mean for public policy?

Helpfully both Change.org and 38 Degrees are keen to blow their own trumpet about their successes and, on the surface at least, there appears to be evidence that these platforms have influence.

For example, 38 Degrees points to successes including: an amendment of a bill in the House of Lords concerning hospital closures, the Government abandoning attempts to remove the statutory duty on councils to monitor air quality and, most famously persuading Ministers to drop attempts to sell off the nation's forests. And it is not just governments that these platforms claim to be influencing.

Companies are also in their crosshairs. 38 Degrees claims to have forced eBay to remove the sale of chemicals dangerous to bees, while  Change.org claims credit for pushing Olympic sponsors from taking tax breaks. 

Impressive stuff, but how much credit should they be getting?  It's hard to say, but what we do know is that MPs have complained about these groups tactics in the past. This complaint has largely focused on the inability of their staff and House of Commons IT team to deal with the deluge of emails.

But are they influencing people? Does a huge number of the same emails from constituents actually carry real weight? In my view yes. I say this based upon my experience of working for two industrious constituency MPs. For them a full postbag on a topic prompted reflection about the issues being raised. And I think this is where you can see the real power of these platforms.  

But perhaps it’s not that these platforms are winning people over, so much as giving MPs and companies a push to do what they want to do anyway. While 38 Degrees can point to the forest campaign as a success, it was ultimately a bad policy which, had the Downing Street operation at the time been sufficiently savvy, would surely not have seen the light of day. I suspect that even without the intervention of campaigners using 38 Degrees the policy would have been dropped in the end. All the campaign did in this case was help generate more political noise more quickly on the issue and hasten its end.

The same could be said of eBay. The revenue that eBay would have been generating from the sales of these chemicals would have been tiny in comparison to the potential reputational damage from the bee issue. All that this campaign did was speed up their taking action to address the issue.

These platforms could also have power and influence in another way when combined with a small Conservative majority in the House of Commons. This combination could well cause some trouble for Cameron.

Digital is increasingly reaching into Parliament, Whitehall and the boardrooms alike. And this great strength of been able to mobilise large numbers is hard to ignore, even if they are only armed with an email address.

For those working in public affairs it means that the days of the well-argued memo, the round table event, and the private dinner to influence the public discourse are necessarily be joined by new activities like blogger and twitter engagement. Infographics and videos are increasingly needed to explain complex and difficult issues to politicians and the general public. Finally, these old and new tactics will need to be combined into a strategy that sees each part supporting the other.

As technology develops and the likes of 38 Degrees and Change.org evolve the strategies that others will need to employ will also have to keep pace. However, what won’t change is the need to ensure that digital is built into these strategies from the outset. 

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