The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States protects the right of the people to "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." When the White House officially launches We the People next month, that constitutional right will be formally brought into the digital age.
"When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens," President Obama says at WhiteHouse.gov. "That's what the new We the People feature on WhiteHouse.gov is all about – giving Americans a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most to them.”
While some political commentators will inevitably tie this initiative to the gearing up of the 2012 campaign, there is a big idea embedded in this launch, going back to the original compact between the American people and its government. Petitions have played an important role in the nation's history, from the Virginia Legislature to Quakers petitioning the colonial government and Continental Congress to abolish slavery. The White House will not be bound to make policy based upon e-petitions, but they have given the nation a powerful new official way to use the Internet as a platform for collective action, making their digital voices heard. CNN reported that advocacy groups are eager for e-petitions to go live.
White House Director of Digital Strategy Macon Phillips announced e-petitions with a blog post at WhiteHouse.gov and a video, embedded below, where he explained how White House e-petitions will work. "With We the People, we're offering a new way to submit an online petition on a range of issues -- and get an official response," he wrote, inviting people to sign up for e-mail updates when the function goes live.
Here are the key takeaways:
- Citizens will be able to create or sign e-petitions on a "range of issues" -- it's not clear yet whether citizens can define their own issues or will have to choose from a list.
- If an e-petition gathers more than 5,000 signatures in 30 days, White House officials will review and answer it.
- Initially, an e-petition will have a unique URL that only its creator knows. "It's up to that person to share it in their network to gather an initial amount of signatures -- initially 150 -- before it is searchable on WhiteHouse.gov," wrote Phillips. In this context, a "network" means online social networks, like Twitter or Facebook.
Despite that explanation, there are still many questions that remain in terms of how e-petitions will fit into a 21st century e-democracy. As Phillips recognized, the United States isn't the first to try this: the United Kingdom offers e-petitions, and according to Phillips, their work "was very helpful as we developed our own." The sticky e-widget there is that the UK dropped e-petitions late last year as the new prime minister came into office, due to negative publicity and other issues, before relaunching it again.
Reasonably, we can expect there to be similar challenges with the White House version. The UK has since relaunched its e-petitions site, as Phillips points out in his blog post. Down the road, the e-petitions code on Github from the UK may become available to the public. Given the support for open source that Philips has demonstrated over the past three years, including contributions back to the codebase of Drupal, it's possible that the White House might release the tool to states or nations that are participating in the Open Government Partnership.