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With 'We The People,' White House Promises to Go E-to-the-People

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, September 1 2011

What if you could go online to tell the government you cared about something, and it would actually listen?

In a blog post and video Thursday morning, White House digital director Macon Phillips announced that President Barack Obama's administration would soon launch a tool to do exactly that.

Called "We the People," the to-be-launched petitioning tool would allow anyone with a valid email address to float a petition to the executive branch. If that person can collect over 150 electronic signatures, it becomes "searchable" on WhiteHouse.gov, for non-strangers to join in on. If the petition collects 5,000 signatures, the administration promises an official response.

Thursday's announcement raised many eyebrows among thinkers and doers where politics, government and technology collide. It's an idea that sounds like it ranks up there with universal suffrage and apple pie as positive evolutions in American life — a way for regular folks to demand a response from their government on something important, and get a response. Folks who deal with online petitions and online organizing for a living have responded to the announcement with cautious optimism — it sounds nice, they say, but without substantive responses, no one will have any motivation to build a petition. Wait, these organizing pros say, and see what comes of this before passing judgment.

This is not the first foray by a government into online petitions, and Phillips wrote in his blog post that the White House is building on lessons learned from past initiatives. Calling them "e-petitions," the government of British Prime Minister David Cameron launched a new effort several months ago, which is itself a reboot of something Tony Blair's government had previously tried.

While Phillips didn't mention them, the House Republicans have also experimented with petitions of one sort or another for years, beginning with America Speaking Out, a platform built on Microsoft's TownHall software to generate ideas for the Republican platform for 2010. Those experiments continued with YouCut, a platform where visitors could indicate which of a House GOP-selected list of items they would cull from the herd of federally funded programs and initiatives, and AmericanJobCreators.com, a site House leadership quietly launched earlier this year that allows Republican members to collect stories from business owners in their districts about ways government regulation hampers their enterprises.

Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's go-to new media guy, Matt Lira, was, perhaps predictably, unimpressed.

"Welcome to the club," he wrote in an email. "The House has been doing this since 2009. Oh, and unlike the White House's empty PR effort, ours actually led to legislative action."

Another person who has done government e-petitions before was somewhat more supportive.

"Once you're system has proven it's load capability, absolutely the most important of all is lining up a team capable of writing good, constructive, engaged replies to the petitioners," MySociety founder Tom Steinberg, whose organization built the Blair government's e-petition initiative, wrote in a Quora post this morning. "This is where we did least well because we didn't have any power to tell the civil service to systematically scour the petitions looking for genuinely good ideas and try turning them into policy."

The White House is promising each petition that meets the threshold will get a response — not a policy change. That could mean results as trivial as a "letter from staff," as O'Reilly's Alex Howard worries aloud in a blog post about We the People.

"The foremost question in my mind is how rich and meaningful is the interaction between the people who write and sign the petitions and the White House," said Steven Biel, a campaign director at MoveOn.org. Biel leads MoveOn's online petition site, SignOn.org, which launched in April. "I mean if you're just getting form letters in response, and it's not a meaningful reaction, that's the biggest question in my mind.

"If its just another version of the ubiquitous web form," he continued, "I think that will be a missed opportunity for the White House to develop meaningful conversation with constituents."

This let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom attitude is not universal. The Sunlight Foundation's* Jake Brewer, formerly of the Sunlight Foundation*, for example, sees it all as "Gov 2.0 theater."

"We simply don't need more ways to send petitions or gather ideas," Brewer said on Twitter. "We need better ways to listen & operationalize good ideas. #wethepeople"

But. But! What the White House has promised to do is to open an online door for new ideas. There are numerous ways for people to organize around ideas online and try to get them into the halls of government, it is true — Change.org petitions, letters to members of Congress and positions made on sites like PopVox or VisibleVote or any of a slew of similar ones — but there has never really been an official guarantee to process and respond to them.

House Republican initiatives are an exception — they brought ideas voted up from YouCut to the House floor, even if many Republican ideas about spending cuts are dead on arrival as they have no chance of passing the Senate — but they also chose which programs to put on the menu, and were asking very specific questions. There's also an expectation that members of Congress will reply to constituent communications in any form, even if those replies are often form letters, tailored by issue. But it is still 2011 and neither Congress or the White House has an official online inbox for the fruits of collective action — only inboxes served by the United States Postal Service. Not for nothing is this about to change, online organizers say.

"The move is not without risk -- and that is brave," Marci Harris, the CEO of PopVox, wrote to me in an email. She continued:

It will be a little messy -- and that is brave too. It will be good PR -- and good for them! And, there is a real possibility that some important policy perspective will bubble to the top and get real support that will demand real attention in a way not possible before (or at least much more difficult before.) ... If there is an online, user-friendly, front gate portal for getting individual input to agencies (and this is a good start) it could be huge.

The "mess" she's talking about includes a whole host of issues around who gets to sign a petition, how to make sure they don't sign more than once, who keeps petitioners' email addresses, what happens when a petition pertaining to the legalization of marijuana becomes the most popular one on the site — which will definitely happen — and so on.

There are a mix of old and new twists. To use the site, visitors must create an account that's tied to an email address. That's it. The White House would like for each person to only have one account. There's no apparent restriction on petitions from non-citizens.

In order for a petition to go public, the creator has to tap his or her own networks for 150 signatures — a new twist intended to put the onus on the petition creator to go out and put in a little sweat equity that Steinberg suggests might also reduce the creation of duplicate petitions.

There's also the question: Why have the White House taking online petitions, anyway? Isn't that generally something you do to members of Congress?

"When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens," Obama is quoted as saying on a We the People splash page. "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."

That could be what's going on. Or this could be part of an earned-media push. Or it could be a notch in the White House's belt in the run-up to the September unveiling of its action plan for the Open Government Partnership, an international coalition of countries and NGOs pushing each other to make commitments around transparency and open government created in part as a follow-on to some challenges Obama made during his September 2010 address to the U.N. General Assembly. In any and all cases, the usefulness of this endeavor to the American citizen seems like it will rest on the usefulness of the administration's responses to the people who submit petitions.

Meanwhile, Phillips says this is all somewhat of a work in progress, and was answering questions about the project Thursday that were posed on Twitter with the hashtag #WHWeb. A Storify of the questions and answers is available here.

* Personal Democracy Forum's Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are senior advisers to the Sunlight Foundation.

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