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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
National Journal
By Alexander Howard
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By Alexander Howard
Sept. 9, 2011, 11:46 a.m.

The First Amend­ment of the 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.

Ques­tions From We the People

Phil­lips took ques­tions for White House about We the People, us­ing the feed­back form at White House.gov 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 ht­tp://1.usa.gov/p7n8HR.”

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 wh.gov.”

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 act.ly, 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 white­house.gov 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 Fix­City.org.

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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