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COMMENTARY: Got a Problem You Want the White House to Fix? E-Petition It! COMMENTARY: Got a Problem You Want the White House to Fix? E-Petition ...

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Tech / White House

COMMENTARY: Got a Problem You Want the White House to Fix? E-Petition It!

New effort to use online power to push government

White House Online Petition

September 9, 2011

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 "That's what the new We the People feature on 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 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," 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.

Questions From We the People

Phillips took questions for White House about We the People, using the feedback form at White and publicly on Twitter, using the hashtag #WHWeb, where he responded as @macon44.

For instance, when asked by Nancy Scola whether the thinking with We the People is to "have @whitehouse act as [a] clearinghouse for petitions directed towards agencies," Phillips replied: "People shouldn't have to decipher how the executive branch is organized in order to speak out about an issue. Processing incoming petitions handled by WH, but relevant petitions will be coordinated w/others as needed, including Agencies."

Here's a quick rundown of the rest of the questions and answers:

Why do petitions at all? "Online petitions are commonly understood, and petitions have been part of our democracy since the beginning," he tweeted.

Who can participate? "Participation in We the People is open to the general public (13yrs+) and requires a valid email address," he tweeted.

Do you have to be a citizen? "Right now the system only requires valid email and does not verify citizenship," tweeted Phillips.

Who will have access to e-petition data? "Only a small group of [White House] staff will have access to administrative data We the People will be subject to a public privacy policy," tweeted Phillips.

Who built the e-petitions function? Is it the the same code as the UK tool? "System design and development of We the People was developed in house," tweeted Phillips.

How will identity be handled? How will the White House authenticate citizens to e-petition government? "Lightweight - participation will require an email verification step," tweeted Phillips. "For now we are using first party WH accounts that verify an email address. Plan to incorporate NSTIC rec's in future"

How will social media be integrated? "When you create a petition you get a unique link. How you share that is up to you. Will have @facebook and @twitter share [buttons]," tweeted Phillips, "just like other content on"

Can citizens ask questions using We The People on whatever topic they wish or will these be predefined? The screenshot shows the latter categorization: taxonomy, not folksonomy. Phillips confirmed as much: "There will be a defined set of topic people can choose from but its a wide range, and there will also be ad hoc tags," he tweeted.


Will there be an API so that civic developers can visualize and analyze them to see if there are duplicates or emerging themes? "Not now; API's for analysis and extending petition functionality on a long list of features we we are considering for future," tweeted Phillips. "With [federal CIO] Steve upstairs now, thinking through how that can best work is … a priority."

Why build this when services like PopVox, Votizen and Change exist to create social e-petitions? "Developing We the People ourselves [...] offers the flexibility to adapt to the public response to improve engagement," tweeted Phillips. "It's a false choice to say _either_ We the People _or_ others - there's lots of collaboration ahead, this space is still young." There's another key detail: these e-petitions would go to the executive branch, whereas Votizen and PopVox are targeted at Congress and constituent communications.

We the People respond

The initial response online has ranged from celebration, including a "high five from PopVox," to extreme skepticism. Open government technologist and citizen archivist Carl Malamud took the long view: "Nice job on We The People," he tweeted. "Treading in the footsteps of the Founders, petitions have a long and honorable history in our republic!"

Nick Judd reported on the White House going E-to-the-People at techPresident, pointing out that House Republicans have already been experimenting with similar platforms in their embrace of technology for transparency, with ties to legislative action. Judd curated many more reactions to the news as well.

"What difference do they make?" tweeted FutureGov founder Dominic Campbell. "None. Just a distraction technique to pacify the masses. Need new politics not gimmicks. Backbenchers are generally as influential over [government] policy as my gran. And she's dead. Petition / precise tech tool is irrelevant, it's all about political culture. Petitions are lame. All power is in the hands of govt. Not game changing. More make u feel better/doing *something*."

While the UK petitions have come back, "You'd be hard pushed to find anyone in UK speak +vely of them. Waste of space... think they just reinforce status quo and reward loudest/best organised. Not democracy. "

The creator of, Jim Gilliam, offered some of his own perspective and questions. "I built a petition/priority tool White House 2 back in 2008. I learned a lot, happy to share," he tweeted to Phillips, linking to his post on White House 2.0. On this count, the White House was listening: Phillips asked Gilliam to "dm him his email address." Here's a look back at "imagining White House 2.0" from the 2009 Personal Democracy Forum:

"I figured out all the problems, except for one: getting the White House to pay attention. (or maybe it just took 3yrs)," tweeted Gilliam.

He highlighted two issues, one for advocates and one for White House technologists: "How will the White House use all the email addresses it collects with new petition tool? Advocacy groups will have to decide whether to send their people to at the expense of their own list building," he tweeted. "White House will need some serious anti-spam jujitsu to knock back the tools that scrape congressional forms."

Former Sunlight Foundation member Jake Brewer dug into some of the structural issues that exist with this approach. The "only reason "We the People" would [be] useful vs other tools is if [the] WhiteHouse can convince all they are listening and meaningfully responding," he tweeted. "It strikes me though that "giving people a voice" is not at all the problem in gov[ernment]. Many ways to talk AT gov[ernment]. Few ways to do so usefully.''

"We simply don't need more ways to send petitions or gather ideas. We need better ways to listen and operationalize good ideas. What will be an agency's incentive to take any action based on a petition? Will White House pressure? Petitions to Congress (theoretically) work because Reps want to be responsive and re-elected. Exec not the same, so how to handle? Guess I'm having a hard time seeing "We the People" as anything more than Gov 2.0 theater, and I'd like to be wrong. We simply don't need more ways to send petitions or gather ideas. We need better ways to listen and operationalize good ideas."

The question on the minds of many citizens, advocates and media, in other words, is whether these e-petitions matter, going beyond a public relations exercise that ends with a "thank you letter" from White House staff. It's a matter of that goes straight to the heart of whether e-petition actions ever lead to results.

"OpenGov has the equivalent of a "last mile" problem: a culture+digital-infrastructure gap at the workgroup level," tweeted Dan Latorre, leader of Digital Placemaking and creator of

For instance, if enough people sign e-petitions on withdrawing from Afghanistan, supporting gay marriage, legalizing marijuana or opposing ICE takedowns of websites without judicial review, will the White House change its policy?

Hundreds of thousands of people protesting in the streets in 2003, after all, didn't stop the United States from going to war in Iraq. Would millions of signatures of e-petitions gave any bearing on future decisions? When e-petitions go live later this month, the world will see.

Alexander B. Howard is the Government 2.0 Correspondent for 
O’Reilly Media and a technology writer focused on open government, innovation, and online civics.

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