How to get started with a ‘change of governance’ petition

On 23rd August 2019 we submitted the largest petition ever submitted (26,419) for a change of governance in England.  Sheffielders used their community rights under the Localism Act 2011 which, because we got more signatures than the required ‘verification number’ (5% of the Sheffield electorate – 20,092), statutorily required our Council to hold a city-wide vote on a change of governance from the ‘strong leader’ model to a (modern) committee system. This referendum was held in May 2021, and 65% of Sheffielders voted for change.

Individuals and groups are contacting us from around the country to congratulate us, but also to say they want to do the same in their area, and can we provide any advice! What follows are a few pointers from our campaign.  They are based on some of the things we have learnt throughout the Sheffield People’s Petition and Referendum campaigns and we hope they may be useful.  Of course, there is no substitute for locally based community members getting together and really tailoring your campaign to your local area – and that’s what we did.  But we would certainly do a few things differently if we were starting over.   

We should also emphasise that we are just ordinary residents of Sheffield.  We are also an essentially unfunded, small community group (though we did hold a couple of crowdfunder type collections for donations over the year of the campaign, raising a total between £2-3k).  Although most of us in the Coordinating Group (of 12) have been involved in a variety of campaigns over the years, and all of us are active in some way in our local communities or city, we did not have any specialist or prior knowledge of local authority governance in particular.   So anyone can do this, even if the notes below seem, at first sight, quite a lot to take in.

Do your research….Firstly, every local authority is legally required to publish its ‘verification number’ for the purpose of change of governance petitions – that is, the number that constitutes 5% of locally registered electors.  This is the number of (valid) signatures you have to hit to force a change of governance localreferendum.  We initially discovered that SCC had made an ‘oversight’ and the number wasn’t up anywhere – on enquiring, this was soon rectified.  So, you need to know the verification number for your local council, it really should be on their website!

Because change of governance petitions have legal force, it is obviously wise to understand the basic legal parameters of what you want to do:

Most crucial are The Local Authorities (Referendums) (Petitions) (England) Regulations 2011 that give detailed stipulations on what is required, procedures etc: 

You will find you return to these again and again throughout a change of governance petition campaign – to check on lots of things.  But they should help you get things right at the outset too eg your petition layout. It’s good if you have someone (or preferably more than one person) who eats this stuff for breakfast, that is, who is good at understanding and applying the detail of the ‘legalese’.  And everyone involved needs to understand just how important it is to get the legal detail absolutely correct for any petition to be statutorily binding. 

We were lucky enough to have access to some free legal advice but this is not necessarily required (though we did ask for advice at a couple of points).

You will see that one of the things that the regulations stipulate precisely is what counts as a ‘valid’ signature on the petition.  You need to make sure your petition captures exactly (has a space for) each statutorily required element – that is, first name (not only an initial), surname, address, and date.

The legislation says that valid signatures are those from “local government electors for the authority’s area“. While the regulations do not stipulate that names must match electoral roll names, the clear purpose of verification of signatures (which is carried out by the local authority) is to identify local electors. This may, later, lead you into some quite detailed discussion about how the council can identify these “electors” versus the technical requirements of the regulations. A strict reading of the legislation’s vagueness would make the local authority’s job very difficult/impossible. Our experience is that a significant number of people are likely to be ‘disenfranchised’ on a technicality eg only putting an initial, using a married name when they are registered to vote using a maiden name (and vice versa) or the use of nicknames that cannot easily be linked to a first name in the electoral roll etc etc.  The council department tasked with validating the signatures will probably want to try to ensure that the result cannot be legally challenged (by both sides of the campaign). You may well get into detailed discussions with council officers about the validation process, as every signatures counts and it is undoubtedly hard work to collect signatures. We suggest all councils should be open to different methods to identify electors who have signed (and when the technical signing requirements are met) – this is entirely appropriate.

In Sheffield, the council employees tasked with validating the signatures recognised the difficulty of validating every signature, according to the wording in the legislation, and basically stopped the validation process when they had validated significantly more than the Verification Number. Our petition was successful even though some signatures were not counted. 

But, we cannot emphasise enough that, at the outset, it is important to be as clear as possible about the legal and technical requirements of what is a statutorily binding petition, and to be aware of some of the potential pitfalls (and so a ‘rejection rate’ that might be higher than you would hope).  If you understand these, you can do quite a lot in collecting signatures to manage the risk of signatures being rejected at validation stage.

Keep on doing your research…..

We didn’t stop really – we know much, much more now than we did at the start of the campaign, but between us we had done a bit of basic reading at the outset – and a couple of us had really studied the statute and regulations.

A couple of us read related material/reports etc throughout the campaign, and extensively.  This helped with some very detailed discussions and questions with some petition signers/local people, including online, but also in liaising with Sheffield council/lors and other political groupings. Not least, it was useful in refuting negative or even malicious ‘attacks’ on the campaign. We have, at times, some toxic local political contexts in Sheffield (one of the main reasons why It’s Our City! exists, and why we organised the change of governance campaign); having some really knowledgeable people (eg about ‘scrutiny’ and the various government reviews/recommendations/critiques) in the group was at least a bit of a help.

Here are a few starters on the reading front – good to look at at the outset:

Institute of Local Gov. Studies, “Changing to a Committee System in a New Era”:

Thinking toolkit:

 Practical issues in changing to committee system:

Backbenchers think strong leader system is bad; cabinet members think it’s good!:

A further good source concerns what is happening (or has happened) in other local authorities. There are some good example of council ‘governance reviews’ out there – that nearly always include consideration of whether governance models should be changed.  Croydon, for example, is currently engaged in an extended governance review and you will be able to find ongoing reports on their council website.  Even smaller councils sometimes undertake really quite detailed (and quite good quality) governance reviews – Guildford Borough Council produced an interesting one, for example, where a change of governance was considered in some detail and Maidstone Council has some good detailed research reports.

On actual change of governance, Cheshire East is currently undergoing a 12-month transition period to a committee system and there are ongoing council reports available on their website.  Their discussions on governance also go back several years and include research reports and the like presented at various council bodies – these are publicly available and show an unfolding story about their council governance. 

Fylde Civic Society has some useful material on the background and development of their petition campaign and subsequent referendum, leading to a change of governance.

And, of course, there are the ‘flatpack democracy’ ideas that have emerged from Frome in Somerset that have been inspirational to many.  Other examples exist too eg It’s Our County in Herefordshire.

Personally, I also liked engaging with some of the more radical ideas and ‘experimentation’ going on around improvements in democracy at local levels (‘democracy’ is still an idea that inspires movements globally….); in the West these probably come under a general banner of ‘radical municipalism’.  For example, the ‘rebel cities’ movement (and Fearless Cities), Democracy in Europe (DiEM) ideas (Yanis Varoufakis), the Barcelona ‘in commons’ experiments (Barcelona En Comu), the practices of Greek activists through their financial crisis, Spanish ‘town square’ activism, ideas that emerged from Occupy, materials from thinktanks like Compass, OpenDemocracy etc etc.  None of this is strictly necessary, but inspirational ideas are out there and can help sustain some people; others may feel these are simpIy not really relevant, and distracting.  However, I always feel there is a danger of being caught up in a dominant ‘local authority speak’ and ‘technocratic’ solutions and these implicitly (if not explicitly) define and constrain the boundaries of what is apparently possible. After all – call me sceptical – those invested in what exists and the ways things are done now, are not really likely to be those that come up with solutions that seriously strive to be about substantive or transformative change.

A change of governance campaign doesn’t come out of nowhere….

Of course, it’s good to consider why you want a change of governance in your local council area, what has led to it, and why now?  Do you have examples of where decision-making/governance has been poor?  If your change of governance campaign is particularly about improving the quality of your local democracy what examples do you have of decision-making being undemocratic?  How have local people reacted/responded so far?  Is there a groundswell (or potential groundswell) of public opinion that you can key into?  Have others raised the issue before now?

All this just helps to start clarifying your story or ‘narrative’, and also helps to draw more people into discussion, and support your campaign.  Understanding your local context and what’s been going on will also help hone your key campaign messages
too, for your publicity and also if you work online. We were able to list of lot of local examples at the press conference where we announced the change of governance campaign, and we feel this helped establish its relevance for communities all across Sheffield.  There were many examples for us, and examples that had been going on over many years…..  There was one issue in our city that had also had widespread national and international coverage – the ‘tree campaign’.  This – and local tree campaigners – had exposed, over several years, a morass – simply layers and layers of, well, frankly, failed governance.  It is true to say that many in this large, live campaign in Sheffield saw, straightaway, the relevance and significance of the campaign. 
But other, smaller community groups and individuals across the city also, absolutely, saw the relevance to their own activities too eg heritage groups, TARAs (tenants and residents association groups) and the voluntary sector
in general. 

And, whilst our campaign was resolutely cross-community and non-party based, local opposition parties (LibDems, Greens, UKIP) supported the campaign too.  Likewise, several Constituency Labour Parties (and local groups) also passed motions to say they wanted to see a change from the strong leader model to a modern committee system……  

So, it is obviously good to understand your own context and local stories/examples to support a change of governance campaign.  It worked well for us to make common cause across a variety of differences, and to work to garner widespread support and involvement. 

Liaise with your council, both councillors and officers

We wrote to our Council Leader’s Office just prior to the campaign launch to say what we were intending to start – perhaps in the vain hope of a positive response that might mean a petition was not necessary.  It was a vain hope – we never received a reply.  However, you will see from some of the reading you do that there are several areas where petitions have begun and councils have then responded positively and changed themselves ie changed their governance model before a petition had met the required verification number, and so without a local referendum being required.  And national advice from the expert bodies – notably the Centre for Governance & Scrutiny – suggests that councils should positively engage and, if necessary, change governance model themselves, in the face of a local petition campaign for a change of governance.  In fact, it is more common for this to happen than for a local petition to go all the way and to ‘force’ a local referendum.

Whilst we were determined to be absolutely focused on each other as local voters and communities (and to get the signatures required), it was always part of our strategy to keep trying to positively engage our council (and keep pressure on via the campaign) to try to enable them to change themselves.  Actually, we failed on this – Sheffield City Council never, to be honest, seemed close to changing of their own accord, despite the monies (our money) that a city-wide referendum will cost.  We were always conscious of this cost – and that the money could be spent on better things for our city.  We only became more convinced of the pointlessness of a city-wide vote as time went on, and from the positive response we received everywhere from local voters across the city.  So, we really tried hard to get SCC to listen, to engage, even to want to make their own governance more democratic via a change to a committee system.  This should not have been so hard with a Labour ruling group – in fact it turned out it was impossible. We also discovered that no one can actually recall if, or when, Sheffield City Council has ever, for example, held a governance review – there seems to be just about no history at all of our council evaluating or even considering broad questions about its ‘strong leader’ governance model and how this might be working – or not.

We have a clear paper trail from prior to the campaign launch, then, that details the times and ways we tried to alert and engage Sheffield City Council to take positive steps forward, and to change from the strong leader model themselves.  This did not work, and it is sobering to realise that even when something has statutory force, our council has not listened and responded; what hope, then, communities without the lever of legal force? Instead, Sheffield City Council (and, by this we mean the ruling group) did not respond by changing themselves, they – scandalously – chose to spend what is a significant amount of city money on an unnecessary city-wide referendum (especially because the referendum was won with such a significant majority for change!). 

However, the up side of continuing resolutely to collect signatures on your petition is that the longer the campaign goes on, the more local voters become aware of the governance issues.

But… consider whether your council might be likely to change their own governance model themselves, and whether it should be part of your strategy to keep asking them to (listen and) respond positively.  And do consider the best ways you might do this.  Basically sound and responsive councils will (and should) listen to local communities.

It is highly advisable to meet with relevant council officers before you start your campaign.  We arranged to meet with Sheffield ‘Democratic Services’ officers before the launch of Sheffield People’s Petition.  There is no reason to expect that relevant council officers won’t meet with local residents/a group about to start a change of governance petition and relevant council officers are in an important position to advise of some basic things.  We wanted to clarify things like the Verification Number for Sheffield, to get advice on various early procedural matters, to discuss data protection, to ask about the possibilities of an online version of the petition (see below), to discuss how it was best to liaise through the year and, not least, to simply inform relevant officers about some basic reasons for the campaign. Having done some explorations of the statute and regulations about governance change we had plenty of questions anyway – as you will.  All this is likely to be a first for them, too, and so these are really quite interesting discussions for all parties.  One of the benefits of meeting early is that this is an opportunity at the outset to establish a decent working relationship with relevant officers; you will have later contact too.

So – we would strongly advise that you meet with relevant council officers to explain what you intend to do, and to ask your questions and hopefully get good advice.  We, for example, made sure that council officers looked over our petition sheet and associated information before we launched – to get their view on its acceptability.  We felt this was particularly important in respect of our online version of the petition – see more on this below.

We are, of course, also dealing with a large paper (hand written) petition – we discussed this with officers prior to launch as we were aware they would have to check every single name against the quite specific regulations.  We discussed and agreed to transfer paper petition names to a database, to help their task – of course, all the originals had to be submitted alongside this too (it is these that count as the legal submission).

In the early couple of months we submitted a sample of petition signatures so that we could check on validity; SCC officers also used this to check on their own systems (and, we thought, to develop a bit of software to help assess validity – though they actually did this later on).

During the middle part of our campaign – the bulk of the period collecting signatures – we did not have much overall contact with the council officers.  In retrospect we wish we had, perhaps, booked in a couple of further meetings to properly review where we were up to, perhaps at three-month intervals.  Later on, in the few weeks prior to formal submission it was actually necessary to meet a few times – it felt like we were catching up a bit.  There was much to discuss, then, in terms of petition submission and delivery legalities, receipting, and an actual schedule for submission (paper batches, online batches, database, and organising submission of the final batch on a Saturday which was when the last day of the 12 months allowed fell).

All of this may be less relevant (though not necessarily so) if you are in a much smaller council area collecting far fewer names.  We would certainly say, however, in a large unitary authority like ours, it is certainly advisable and important to establish an open and positive working relationship with relevant council officers, and to meet with them regularly to review.  With a large number of signatures, with signatures collected for a statutory purpose, and with detailed regulations to follow, it really is important to be as organised as possible, and we think this includes good liaison with relevant council officers and trying to ensure you are on the same page in terms of requirements.

What about an online petition?

The relevant regulations (above) do not mention a change of governance petition as being online.  The statute was drawn up prior to online petitions becoming, now, standard.  We sought legal advice on this and the answer was that our local council may well agree to this – though, strictly, they did not have to.  In the event ours did agree fairly readily (and in recognising the general change of practice that has come about since the Localism Act was drawn up and the much easier task of processing and validating an online version), but it’s absolutely vital to get this agreed (in writing) before you start a petition for a change of governance campaign.  We also made sure officers ok-ed the wording on this, particularly the legal bits – data protection, petition organiser details and so on, and to ensure it entirely mirrored the paper version of the petition.  You can still see our online version here:

If your Council refuses to accept an online petition, you will need to read the legislation regarding petitions in detail to see if you think running an online petition is allowed. The legislation does not explicitly prevent an online petition, but just talks about what is required on petition ‘sheets’ (which implies ‘paper sheets’). You may decide that having an online petition, but then printing out all these signatures onto ‘sheets’ fulfils the requirements of the legislation – although you will then need to be prepared to act if your Council rejects this at the point of submission. Much better to get a clear agreement from them before you start!     

Please note that we looked at the various online petition sites quite carefully to make sure that the one we chose would ‘work’ to fulfil the requirements of the legislation, and that looked like the most appropriate.  There were a couple of issues eg the ipetitions site does ask whether you would like to donate at the end of the process (this is to ipetitions itself, not to It’s Our City!, nor is a donation required at all, but it did throw a few people).  At the absolutely eleventh hour (literally 48 hours before the relevant online submission point), the ‘back end’ of the ipetitions site broke (ie the bit from where the data was downloaded so that we could submit it!). This was a big (and stressful) headache, although ipetitions support personnel (based in the US) were very helpful in resolving the problem, despite the added problem of the significant time difference between the US and UK.

Please be aware that an online version of a change of governance petition does also require some management and it will be important to have someone with some technical competence doing this.  You can also mitigate rejections eg by checking to ensure that names/addresses from outside the council area (who are automatically invalid) are removed and, likewise, if any duplicates are obvious.  Further, it might be important to monitor for ‘malicious’ signers eg those that sign with obviously fake names etc.  We spotted a couple of instances of this – that were easy to spot – the name of our council leader was clearly fake, and this was followed by Ivor Bigun. Hmmm.  The ipetitions site does allow mitigating actions, for example, placing time barriers on signers from one IP address so that someone could not simply sit at home and insert name after name.   We employed these mitigating actions at various points when we suspected a problem (though, of course, it also limited eg quite legitimate housemates or couples signing in immediate succession at times).

Through other points of contact (eg facebook page/group) you may also get queries from people who have hit a glitch in terms of signing the online petition and obviously you will need to respond to these in a timely manner. 

The point of careful (risk) management and monitoring of any online version of your petition is that you can gain a much clearer idea of actual likely valid numbers of signatories, you can take mitigating actions to minimise invalid signatories, and you can collate petition data as you go along.

Be prepared and ready to go when you launch

Good planning and preparation is your best friend.  We lost some time at the beginning of our twelve month period as we did not have everything totally ready.  It may be impossible to have everything ready, and it is also important, of course, to be able to adapt and respond to things that might happen in the course of a long campaign too, and through local trial and error.  But we probably should have had more ready.  This partly reflects a lack of understanding/experience about the pretty unique thing we were about to embark upon (despite the preparation work we had done. Would it be easy?  (could we rely on the online petition to sail past the number required in a few months?  Absolutely not.)  Would it be hard?  (Yes, yes and yes – see below).  Not having everything ready – and this includes the fact that we had not, at the launch stage, yet printed a basic leaflet – also reflected some  lack of clarity in what might be our overall ‘line’ or ‘message’ – to best effect.  In turn, this probably reflected an uncertainty as to our best strategy for collecting signatures….

Some of this might have been avoidable.  To spend six weeks getting a leaflet together and printed was not good and did cause some frustration and difficulty for early signature collectors on the streets of Sheffield.  A local community campaigner did contact us early on and got a few of us together to get us to think about things like ‘branding’, key messages and so on, and these kinds of activities did help as we got down to it properly.  But, we launched at the end of August and by the time we really got into our stride the dark nights and increasingly inclement weather was upon us.  (Yes, weather makes a huge difference if you are collecting signatures from local voters! Our signature collection rate soared once we hit spring and summer – yes, because we were able to bring more collectors on board, but also definitely because of better weather.)

Have a signature collection strategy

…or, if this is not easy to completely tie down at the start, at least be mindful that you will need to become very aware of what
works best in your local area as it becomes clearer through trial and error.   Our strategy emerged in exactly this way as we became attuned to what was working, and what could work better.

We soon realised that no online petition about governance change is going to be ‘clickbait’ – as someone commented, “It’s not exactly Love Island is it?”  Apart from an initial surge of signers from known and established campaign groups who knew about the launch of Sheffield People’s Petition, early on it looked like the online petition was going to flop almost entirely. 
The key for the online petition in the end seemed to be managing to force it out of a bubble – simply echoing around a limited number of people.  Publicity for the campaign, talking to more and more people and getting leaflets out and, in particular, the more efficient creation of multiple graphics/images and short videos, plus, scarily, the use of promoting some of our facebook posts – all helped to make the online petition work.  In the end, the online petition got to almost 10,500 signers. 
Careful management/monitoring also means the indications are that the online petition will have a pretty low rejection rate (we believe c.10%).  If we were doing the campaign again, we would probably attempt to force the online petition out of its bubble earlier in the year (eg through a concentration on earlier, suitable content generation and a greater use of facebook promotions – though this latter requires money that we never really had).

As for the paper petition, early days effectively made us realise that every single signature required a conversation.  Almost no one knows about their council constitution, different governance models, the ‘strong leader and cabinet’ terminology, what the alternatives can be etc. (and, indeed, why would they?).  Straightaway we realised that we were embarking on a very significant information sharing exercise, and that it would all be based on individual (and some small group) conversations.  At one of the earliest point we worked out that if we set up with our clipboards on a city centre street it was effectively taking 15 minutes per signature…..that did not look do-able by what was then simply a handful of busy people, even over a year (5000 hours work for
20000 signatures?!).

There were a few things that helped, and some of the key ones were: 

  • Getting much more efficient at explaining what we were doing (our ‘script’); sometimes we still had very long, involved conversations however, and people did ask lots of questions.  And, of course, they also wanted to talk about their own experiences of SCC.
  • Using a visual aid (which was a distillation of our key message about representation)
  • Getting more people involved actively in signature collection; this included a couple of locally based groups, and a group which concentrated on door knocking
  • Recognising the potential of Sheffield parks (where, for example, people are more relaxed than when they are busy and rushing through city centre streets)
  • Improvements in the weather were hugely important – we also got lighter evenings.
  • Systematically attending city events, fairs, galas, parades, markets etc where we booked stalls.  By early summer, at a good ‘event’ with a handful of (rotating) people there all day at our best we could get 1000 signatures or more….
  • ….at the same time, little and often worked too; a few of us who were available during the weekdays could simply plug away in a few park sessions through the week, or doorknockers would be out – the signatures all mounted up
  • Good coordination in deploying people across the city when there were several events on – Sheffield is full of community activities and events.
  • When we really needed to make headway we did concentrate on areas/wards of the city where turnout in local elections is much higher than in others; it was obviously harder to get valid signatures in wards with 20% turnout, than in those where it was over 40%.  However, we did make sure we went extensively to all areas of the city – a city-wide approach was really important. 
  • Each Saturday evening we captured an overall count and, from spring onwards, publicised this; this was hugely motivating as we begun to see efforts pay off
  • Everyone out collecting signatures became much better at ensuring that signatories filled the petition in entirely correctly, and that signatories wrote legibly (or we clarified with them there and then what they had written eg for their address) – this was important.

Of those who stopped to speak to us, wherever we were, between 80 and 90% of people signed Sheffield People’s Petition.  We estimate we had pretty close to 20,000 conversations, from very short to very long conversations….whilst collecting signatures in this way was tiring, for many of us the conversations we had were by far the best and most rewarding part of what was a community-based and led campaign.

It became clear to us towards the end of the campaign that it would not be possible for us to stop collecting signatures until the very last day.  We had hoped early on that there would be a point at which we could stop as we had “enough” signatures.  However, not knowing what the rejection rate would be, we gradually realised that we had to keep going especially as in an early trial batch of paper petition signatures 26% of these looked like they would be rejected; a later batch showed a welcome significant reduction in rejections.

Spin offs…

We were contacted by a local, published novelist who suggested we invite submissions of poems based on the aims of the campaign.  A local published poet also joined the small group looking at this and the submission invite went ahead.  All poems submitted are on the it’s Our City! website and we have a publisher who will publish our poetry anthology early next year.  This ‘spin off’ was successful in garnering extra publicity, and will be a different kind of legacy for the campaign.

Social media and local media….

We launched a Facebook page, and a Facebook group, centred on Sheffield People’s Petition campaign. These generated lots of comment, conversation and questions, the latter requiring some detailed explanations and answers.  We had a bit of ‘trolling’.  We had a small group of It’s Our City! tweeters.  We sought to link with other locally based online communities eg locally based community forums such as Crookes Community Forum, and particular groups such as SEN parent groups, tree campaign and heritage campaign groups, where we tried to post regularly with petition reminders.

We got some local media coverage on radio and in print.  Our local media outlets were not always good at printing entirely accurate or up-to-date information, nor about always contacting us for comment.  They were obviously more interested in shock/conflict/scandalous news related to our campaign, rather than actually educating the public about the real reasons for our campaign our the real democratic choice voters had at the referendum. However, direct coverage about the petition and its objectives was generally positive.

All this activity required significant resource and we were very stretched for much of the year…

…Prepare to commit, this is hard work….

As indicated, we started Sheffield People’s Petition as essentially little more than a handful of core people.  This group expanded through the year, and it needed to, in order to successfully collect the almost 26.5k signatures we did.  It required a huge amount of dedication to get the number of signatures required.  A few of us had to put other aspects of our lives pretty much on hold for long periods of time while we concentrated on the campaign.  We know our experience in terms of the commitment required mirrors the two other local change of governance petition campaigns that have ended up in local referendums (West Dorset Council and Fylde Council) and that have then successfully achieved change through those referendums. 

Despite all the above, we have no regrets, have informed over 26k residents, made many new friends, shook up the ruling group and the overwhelming success of the referendum to change our local governance for the better.