Organising a petition

Using a petition as part of your campaign

What is a petition?

A petition is list of names of people who want a particular change to happen. It shows that a lot of people all agree with each other, which helps put pressure on decision makers.

Is a petition useful for your campaign?

Petitions are most useful if used as part of a well-planned campaign. They can show that a lot of people feel strongly about an issue. This is especially useful if the number of people who agree is very large.

Before you start campaigning, think through:

  • What’s the problem you want your campaign to address?
  • What’s the solution to this problem? Do you think it is possible to make this happen quickly?
  • If this solution is a very big change that you are unlikely to achieve straight away, are there smaller changes that would be moves in the right direction?
  • Who has the power to make the change(s) you want to see?
  • How will you put pressure on these people to make the change(s)?
  • What change(s) would make your campaign a success?

Macmillan have a useful guide to campaigning for small local groups.

If your campaign is unlikely to engage a very large number of people, other campaigning tools may be more useful. A letter-writing campaign has more impact than a very small petition. A press release can raise awareness. A public meeting can encourage more people to get involved.

Planning a petition

Before drawing up a petition you should decide:

  • Who you are petitioning
  • What you want them to do
  • What format your petition will be in. Will it be paper or online, or both? This may depend in part on who you are petitioning – the government and local councils have their own systems for receiving petitions, so check this out first. See Submitting a Petition below. If you want to make an online petition, we have a list of websites that you can use.

Here are some tips for effective petitions.

State clearly what change you want to make.

Make this realistic and concrete. For example, rather than saying “clean up our streets,”, say “employ more street cleaners and provide more public bins”.

Direct the demand to the right people or organisation.

For example, if you want to extend the opening hours at your local council-run library, direct the petition to the council. If you want a change to national policy, target the government or specific ministers or MPs. Petitions directed to a named individual tend to have more impact than petitions to a whole organisation.

See below for specific information on petitioning Brighton & Hove City Council and petitioning the government.

Include accurate information and evidence.

To get a lot of signatures you will need to persuade people who don’t already know a lot about the issue. For example, to persuade people to support a petition to install a zebra-crossing, include information about the number of people who need to cross at that place, and any accidents that have happened.

Get your timing right.

For example, if you are petitioning against a new development, submit the petition before the plans are approved. You are less likely to have success if the building work has already begun.

Publicise it well, to the right people.

If you are campaigning on a local issue, you need to reach  as many local residents as possible (e.g. in newsagents, schools, community centres, door-to-door). If you want to get thousands of signatures from all over the country, think carefully about how to use social media to get as much coverage as you can. See below for more tips on collecting signatures.

Make sure it is a clear and valid record of people’s opinion.

Ask people to give their postcode, as this helps show that they are real people and, if relevant, that they live in the area affected by the issue. Include the petition text at the top of every page of a paper petition, so that all signatures are clearly below the demand.

Writing your petition

People  need to understand what they are signing quickly and easily. Make sure your petition is clear, accurate and concise. Do not use overly formal or legalistic language.

Online petition websites will tell you what to include in your petition. There is an example paper petition at the end of this sheet. As a general guide, a good petition will include:

  1. Petition demand. Keep this to a few words. If the petition focuses on a local area, make this clear. For example “Extend library opening hours in Brighton”.
  2. Who you are making the demand to. This should be someone with the power to make the change you are asking for.
  3. What exactly you want them to do. Be concise and specific.
  4. Why you want them to do it. This is where you put information to back up your argument. Keep it short and simple. You can include facts (e.g. libraries are used by x number of people each week), and stories people can relate to (e.g. a quote from a person who needs to use the library in the evening).
  5. Relevant information about the person signing the petition. If your petition relates to a local area, make sure you ask for people’s postcodes.

Collecting signatures

Collecting signatures online

If you are using an online petition, you need to get it beyond your own immediate networks by getting it shared widely on the internet. Here are some tips:

  • If possible, share it using your group’s Facebook Page or Twitter account, as well as your own personal accounts. If you have an email list of people who support your group, send it out on that.
  • Post it on any Facebook Groups that have members likely to support the petition. For example, maybe your neighbourhood has a Facebook group of local residents, or perhaps there is a Facebook Group of people with a particular shared interest that relates to your petition.
  • When sharing on Facebook, write a short, clear post to accompany your petition link, explaining what the petition is and why people should sign and share it.
  • When sharing on Twitter, use a #hashtag. A hashtag should begin with # and contain no spaces. It should be short (one or two words). It will help people find your tweet if they are interested in the topic of your hashtag. You can use a hashtag that already exists, (Twitter will give you options when you start typing after #), or make a new one.
  • Ask other organisations to share your petition. Some campaign groups have hundreds or even thousands of followers. Try to think of organisations that might support your petition and see if they will help you publicise it.
  • Be repetitive. Facebook and Twitter are very fast moving, so if you want something to stay high profile you need to post about it at least once a day. Early morning and early evening are good times to post, because lots of people look at Facebook and Twitter at these times.

Collecting signatures on paper

Collecting signatures in person is a great opportunity to discuss the issues and raise awareness. It is also very time consuming. Whether you are going to talk to passers by in the street or go door to door, we suggest you:

  • have as many volunteers as possible
  • produce a briefing sheet for volunteers so they can respond to any queries (see State your Case)
  • print flyers to give to everyone who you ask to sign the petition, explaining what the petition is about, giving the contact details for your group and inviting them to get in touch and get involved
  • have a separate form for the contact address/email of people who are interested in receiving more information or getting involved, so you can add them to your mailing list
  • have a date by which the petitions have to be returned to a central person or place (give yourselves time to chase up anyone who does not return them on time)
  • make a large sign if you are petitioning in the street so people know why you are there

If your group is based in Sussex you can print petitions, fliers and posters in the Resource Centre print room. We also have folding tables, a free-standing sign and clipboards available for hire.

Submitting the petition

If your petition is to Brighton & Hove City Council or the Government, see below for guidance. If it is to another local council, contact their Democratic Services department to find out how to submit a petition.

In most other cases, you should try to talk directly the decision maker you are targeting. This might be a headteacher, a small business owner, or the CEO of a big company. Send your petition by email or post, and follow up with a phone call or visit to arrange a meeting. To find the right contact details, you might need to go through a switchboard or a PA. You may have to be persistent, but speaking directly with the decision maker will increase your chances of success.

Before you speak with the decision maker, be clear about what you are asking for. Write down your demands so that you can refer to them in the meeting. Know in advance what “winning” would mean. A change of policy? A promise to consider it? What will you do if you don’t “win” straight away? How can you use this to publicise your campaign and gain more support?

Change.org have a very good guide to talking with decision makers.

Petitioning Brighton and Hove City Council

You can present paper petitions and online petitions to the City Council. It is your choice which method you use, or you can do both at the same time. If you want to use an online petition, it’s easiest to use the council’s own petition website, as it will help ensure your petition will be considered valid by the council.

When the council receives a petition, the lead petitioner is invited to speak about it for 3 minutes at a council meeting. You can also ask a Councillor or somebody else to speak on your behalf. (Having a Councillor involved in your campaign can be helpful because they could follow up your petition by making further proposals and arguments at future council meetings.)

Before launching your petition, decide which meeting you are aiming to present it at. You will need to inform the council of the wording of the petition and the number of signatures 10 days before the meeting, so start well in advance. You can present the petition at a Full Council meeting or a Committee meeting. (Different Committees deal with different areas of council policy). Information about the council structure is on their website. If you are not sure where would be best to present your petition, a local Councillor might be able to help. You could also talk to Democratic Services for advice.

If a petition receives more than 1,250 signatures, it can be debated by Full Council. This means Councillors will discuss the issue for up to 15 minutes after the petition is presented.

Once a petition has been received by a Committee or Full Council, they might:

  • Note it as a piece of information to consider when making decisions on the issue;
  • Ask council officers to investigate the issue and provide more information to be considered at a future meeting;
  • Respond to the petitioner explaining why the Council does not intend to take the action requested;
  • Decide to take the action requested.

Brighton & Hove City Council guidelines on petitioning provide more information on how to present a petition and what happens next.

Note that, if the Council is running a public consultation, or inviting responses to a Planning Application, a petition is considered as just one representation. In these cases, asking people to write individual letters can be more effective. See our page on organising a letter-writing campaign.

Petitioning the Government

If your petition is about a national issue, you may want to present it to the Government. You can do this online via the Government petition website. Your petition will automatically be submitted to the government. They will respond to it if it receives over 10,000 signatures, and will consider a debate in parliament if it receives over 100,000.

You could also present a petition to a particular government department. Try contacting your local MP to find out if s/he will support your petition and ask for advice on who to present it to. To find out who your local MP is go to http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mps/ and enter your postcode, or phone the House of Commons Information Office on 020 7219 4272.

Example paper petition layout

Save Anytown Skate Park
Petition to Godrick Goofberry, Leader of Anytown Council
We, the undersigned, are opposed to the proposed closure of Anytown Skate Park, which is used by hundreds of local young people. We call on Anytown Council to:

  1. reject the proposed plan to close the skate park
  2. fully consult with local residents on any future proposals
Anytown Skate Park was used by over 1000 young people last year. The skate park provides a unique opportunity for young people to spend time together, socialise and keep fit. The council’s own targets include encouraging young people to get more exercise and play a more active role in the community. The skate park is a key way that young people can keep fit, meet neighbours and build positive relationships.
Name Address & postcode Signature
1.
2.
3.

More information

For more tips on running campaigns, see our pages on:

Organising a letter-writing campaign

Organising a public meeting

State your Case

Writing a news release

Radio and TV interviews

Local media contacts

Updated February 2017