Is Online Transparency Just a Feel-Good Sham?

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., left, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, speaks about the Boston Marathon explosions during a news conference of House Republican Leadership on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. 
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Aug. 20, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

It drew more than a few laughs in Wash­ing­ton. Not long after the White House launched its We the People web­site in 2011, where cit­izens could write on­line pe­ti­tions and get a re­sponse if they garnered enough sig­na­tures, someone called for con­struc­tion of a Star Wars-style Death Star.

With laud­able hu­mor, the White House dis­patched Paul Shaw­cross, chief of the Sci­ence and Space Branch of the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget, to ex­plain that the ad­min­is­tra­tion “does not sup­port blow­ing up plan­ets.”

The in­cid­ent caused a few chuckles, but it also made a more ser­i­ous point: Years after politi­cians and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials began us­ing In­ter­net sur­veys and on­line out­reach as tools to en­gage people, the res­ults over­all have been ques­tion­able.

While there is no doubt that on­line ad­vocacy works in cam­paigns, crit­ics say that many of these gov­ern­ment pro­grams are geared simply to per­petu­ate the feel-good no­tion that Amer­ic­ans can par­ti­cip­ate more dir­ectly, with few tan­gible res­ults to ar­gue that they work. Pro­grams that are rigged to provide par­tis­an re­sponses, or to gath­er donor in­form­a­tion, have raised more ques­tions still.

“It’s messy,” said J.H. Snider, pres­id­ent of iSo­lon.org and a non­res­id­en­tial lab fel­low at Har­vard Uni­versity’s Ed­mond J. Safra Cen­ter for Eth­ics. “What the ac­tu­al bal­ance is between top-down and bot­tom-up mo­tiv­a­tions only time will tell.”

In June, House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., an­nounced the launch of Co­spon­sor.gov, an ex­pan­sion of the House GOP’s earli­er Cit­izen Co­spon­sor Pro­ject. The idea is that Amer­ic­ans can show law­makers which bills they most sup­port and track the pro­gress of the le­gis­la­tion. There are now al­most 3,500 bills sponsored by Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats to choose from.

“We are listen­ing,” Can­tor de­clared in a state­ment June 4 that an­nounced the pro­ject.

And so, cit­izens have been click­ing away, let­ting their on­line voices be heard through a Face­book app. So far, bills to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act or to tight­en bor­der se­cur­ity — both ma­jor pri­or­it­ies of House Re­pub­lic­ans — have not emerged as the most pop­u­lar (though they do make the top 10).

Rather, the top two choices are bills to ab­ol­ish the In­tern­al Rev­en­ue Ser­vice and re­place the in­come tax with a na­tion­al sales tax (more than 1,400 cit­izen co­spon­sors) and to start the pro­cess for Pu­erto Rico state­hood (more than 1,300 cit­izen co­spon­sors).

But does that mean House Re­pub­lic­ans will soon be tak­ing ac­tion to dis­solve the IRS and make Pu­erto Rico a state? “Not ne­ces­sar­ily,” Can­tor spokes­man Douglas Heye said in an e-mail.

“Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Can­tor strongly be­lieves that open le­gis­lat­ive data and more dir­ect par­ti­cip­a­tion leads to more know­ledge on the is­sues we face and, ul­ti­mately, bet­ter gov­ern­ment,” Heye said. “That’s why he has cham­pioned in­nov­a­tions such as Co­spon­sor.gov.”

Some pro­grams do draw large num­bers of par­ti­cipants — and all the prob­lems that come with it. When it began, the White House’s We the People site re­quired 25,000 sig­na­tures with­in 30 days to get a re­sponse from the ad­min­is­tra­tion. That threshold was in­creased to 100,000, on the heels of a bom­bard­ment of pe­ti­tions, in­clud­ing ones for the Death Star ef­fort.

Top­ics of pe­ti­tions have run from the ser­i­ous to the ri­dicu­lous. For ex­ample, earli­er this month the White House re­jec­ted a pe­ti­tion idea that called for es­tab­lish­ing a “Gun Free Zone” around the pres­id­ent, vice pres­id­ent, and their fam­il­ies, which would mean no armed se­cur­ity. The pe­ti­tion was seen as the product of an or­gan­ized ef­fort by gun-rights ad­voc­ates, angered by the pres­id­ent’s gun-con­trol ef­forts fol­low­ing the New­town, Conn., shoot­ings.

In­de­pend­ent of the White House, an­oth­er web­site, wh­peti­tions.info, is now provid­ing num­bers and de­tails about the total pe­ti­tions sub­mit­ted to We the People; the num­ber of those that have re­ceived enough sig­na­tures for a re­sponse; and which of those still have not re­ceived re­sponses.

The site — which claims to be “Help­ing the White House Keep its Prom­ise” — shows that 232 pe­ti­tions have met the sig­na­ture threshold, but that the White House has not re­spon­ded to 30 of those. The av­er­age wait­ing time so far for those 30 un­answered pe­ti­tions: 244 days, ac­cord­ing to the site.

Among those pe­ti­tions are calls for the par­don­ing of fu­git­ive Ed­ward Snowden; that stand­ards for glu­ten-free la­beling be fi­nal­ized; that sev­er­al U.S. pro­sec­utors be fired; and that Tesla be al­lowed to sell dir­ectly to con­sumers in all 50 states. Some of these pe­ti­tions ap­pear to be driv­en by or­ches­trated sig­na­ture ef­forts out­side of the United States, which might ex­plain why they’ve been un­answered. For ex­ample, one pe­ti­tion calls for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to try to per­suade South Korea to ac­cept a Ja­pan­ese pro­pos­al on ter­rit­ori­al dis­putes.

Of course, pro­grams like We the People do draw thou­sands in­to the pro­cess. The web­site “has un­doubtedly helped mo­bil­ize the un-mo­bil­ized,” Snider said, “which I gen­er­ally con­sider something that strengthens demo­cracy.” Con­gress too has had some suc­cess.

Even be­fore House Re­pub­lic­ans won their ma­jor­ity in 2010, their Pledge to Amer­ica was pre­ceded by an on­line pro­gram called Amer­ica Speak­ing Out, which was headed by Rep. Kev­in Mc­Carthy of Cali­for­nia, then the chief Re­pub­lic­an deputy whip. Nearly 16,000 policy ideas were pos­ted on the web­site and roughly 1 mil­lion votes were cast.

“Amer­ica Speak­ing Out provided the frame­work to our Pledge to Amer­ica, which still to this day guides our Re­pub­lic­an Ma­jor­ity,” said Mc­Carthy, now the ma­jor­ity whip, through his of­fice.

But skep­ti­cism over the value of these pro­grams — and their genu­ine­ness — re­mains strong. Peter Lev­ine, a pro­fess­or at Tufts Uni­versity’s Jonath­an M. Tisch Col­lege of Cit­izen­ship and Pub­lic Ser­vice, said pro­grams like on­line pe­ti­tion­ing and cit­izen co­spon­sor­ing do not ne­ces­sar­ily pro­duce a real, rep­res­ent­at­ive voice for the people.

It can be “pretty easy to over­whelm these ef­forts with de­lib­er­ate stra­tegic ac­tion,” he said, not­ing that sim­il­ar pe­ti­tion­ing ef­forts in the European Uni­on of­ten find marijuana leg­al­iz­a­tion as the most pop­u­lar meas­ure.

Snider notes that on­line ef­forts are also of­ten polit­ic­ally mo­tiv­ated, a way for politi­cians to build lists and gain con­tact in­form­a­tion.

“These ef­forts are akin to the end­less so­li­cit­a­tions polit­ic­al parties send out to po­ten­tial con­trib­ut­ors that first ask them to fill out a sur­vey and then ask them for money,” he said. “Do they really pay much at­ten­tion to the sur­vey part? Prob­ably not. But they sure pay a lot of at­ten­tion to how the sur­vey gen­er­ates con­tri­bu­tions.”

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