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How "We The People," the White House e-Petition Site, Could Help Form a More Perfect Union

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, November 20 2012

Ever since Election Day, the White House's "We the People" page has experienced a surge in e-petitions from people who, to put it kindly, don't especially like the Obama Administration. Petitions calling for individual states to be allowed to secede from the USA and form their own governments have received more than 900,000 signatures so far. Considering that as of mid-September, "We the People," which was launched a year earlier, had just hit a total of 3.4 million signatures, this is a big surge in public engagement with the platform.

The secession boomlet has drawn a wide range of media attention, from gushing coverage in the rightwing Daily Caller to bemusement and derision from all over the liberal left.

Signers of the petitions seem mainly to be venting their frustration with the election results, and as a way to make a symbolic statement of opposition. "We're doing this to let the White House know we're not devastated," Cathy Cloud, a Tennessean, told the Washington Times. "I've signed a bunch of these petitions. They tell people, 'You're not alone,' and that's what keeps you from jumping off the ledge or moving to Canada." So far, the petitions from seven states (Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama) have topped the 25,000 signature threshold that triggers a review and eventual official response by the administration. None has been made so far.

Before everyone dismisses this episode as yet another example of online platforms being "gamed" by their users, I'd like to make a modest suggestion. This flowering of civic unhappiness on the "We the People" petition site ought to be seen not as a nuisance but an opportunity for some badly-needed open public dialogue. America is divided, yes. But so far, with just a handful of extreme exceptions, Americans agree that they have one set of political institutions to use for settling their differences--one Congress, one White House, one Supreme Court. The Internet may be intensifying discord in some ways, but in others--think of Wikipedia--it also works to manage disagreement and even synthesize consensus.

Thanks to the way "We the People" is structured, the White House has not only the obligation to reply to the signers of these petitions, but a chance to engage them--and the rest of America, by extension--in a richer conversation about where we are going as a country.

…In Order to Form a More Perfect Union
One inkling of how they could start such a conversation is already obvious. Starting a few months ago the White House began including a link at the bottom of its replies to qualified petitions, inviting people's feedback on the whole process. I'm told that roughly two to three percent of the recipients of those emails hit reply, and by and large their comments were positive--even if they had just been told why their petition had been rejected. Nearly nine in ten said they would create or sign another petition, 78% said the response from the administration was helpful to hear, and half said they learned something new.

Building on that simple step, what if the White House used its reply emails not just to get feedback on the petition process, but to actually solicit more public comments from signers, inviting them to explain themselves further, either privately, or publicly by posting comments. Another option would be to invite people into a live conference call with White House staff, as was done earlier this year in response to a much friendlier petition calling on the government to give green cards to foreign students with advanced degrees.

There's no reason why "We the People" can't experiment with ways to help Americans form a more perfect union, especially as most of the other venues for public discourse--talk radio, cable news, and political blogs--tend to be places where political partisans throw thunderbolts at the other side.

The question, of course, is whether "We the People" is mean to be a genuine sounding-board for Americans of all stripes to share their concerns and actually be engaged in a meaningful way by top government policy-makers, or just another bit of "participation theater." Given how the White House has mainly chosen to highlight responses to petitions that tend to ratify something the Administration was already planning to do (such as come out against the SOPA/PIPA legislation in favor of reducing student college loan costs), members of the public have every right to be cynical.

But that's not the only challenge. The truth is that there is very little knowledge inside government as to how to host or conduct meaningful civic conversations that goes beyond "fill in this form to give us your feedback."

Mike McCurry, the former White House press secretary who is now co-chair of the Presidential Debates Commission, says "I think the lesson we learned from the debate experience is that engagement must be authentic, it must be two-way, and it must be real in the sense that participation actually makes a difference." He adds, "We have a ways to go with that on the debates front, so I am hesitant to advise others on how to do it better."

And not everyone believes that online forums like "We the People" should even be thought of as offering anything like serious public engagement. That's the view of Peter Levine, a Tufts University professor who directs CIRCLE: the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement and writes an engaging blog on this topics. Such forums, he says,

"…seem to draw cranky people and advocates with narrow or radical agendas. Also, to me, making a comment and getting a reply isn't the best form of engagement. I'm interested in collaborative problem-solving.

Online, that means activities like crowd-sourcing patent apps or collaboratively analyzing public data. Offline, it means federal programs that encourage citizens to collaborate—programs like Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) within EPA, or YouthBuild within the Dept. of Labor.

In my view, when people actually collaborate to address a problem, their ideas and comments become much more useful. Thus what I would advocate is much more support for programs like CARE and YouthBuild, plus a shift in big policy areas toward more participation. For instance, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top did nothing to promote parents' voice in schools; the next education reform could.

On the other hand, since the White House has got an open petition site, they'd better engage with their critics there. They can't just leave comments and petitions unaddressed. Is there some way for them to respond that communicates respect and civility for the commenters?

Obviously, White House staff can't possibly get into direct conversations with hundreds of thousands of petition signers; hence the tendency to hold symbolic performances of engagement as a stand-in. Even if you didn't bother to get on that conference call about immigration policy, you know some members of the public did, and thus some kind of two-way dialogue occurred. But direct dialogue from top to bottom just doesn't scale well.

That said, one new thing that "We the People" could offer petition signers, in addition to an official response to their concern, is the chance to talk to their fellow Americans about the issues they care about, and specifically to hear other points of view. At the moment, the White House is sitting on the email addresses of at least three million people who have signed one or more e-petitions. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to give petition signers who want to engage further the opportunity to talk with other Americans of different viewpoints, as a way to nurture a little more civility in public life.

"I don't think that's a crazy idea at all," Levine comments. "In this project -- Our Budget, Our Economy -- Tea Partiers and Occupiers (and lots of people in between) were recruited to talk together. They overwhelmingly reported that they valued that opportunity and were glad that they'd had a chance to hear from people who disagreed with them."

"If the White House could pair people up with their ideological opposites, that could work," he adds. "The only question I have is whether the White House (which is a partisan entity and a lightening rod for criticism) can organize a process that citizens will trust. I would think their process would have to be super-simple and transparent."

A Fresh Start?
The secession petitioners may not be smartest place to start such an experiment, since what they're calling for is, by definition, outside the boundaries of a shared public arena. But another post-election petition that just cleared the 25,000 threshold could be a plausible launching pad. That's one asking to "Allow Any American to Voluntarily Opt Out of 'Obamacare' [The So Called Affordable Care Act]." It was created a week ago by Todd Herman, the former Republican National Committee digital director, who, as anyone who follows him on Twitter already knows, is a pretty ideological guy.

But Herman insists that his petition isn't just a venture in trolling the White House. I asked him yesterday how he would respond if his petition got a response inviting all its senders into some kind of dialogue on Obamacare. His response is worth quoting in full:

The petition site of the White House could become a great step toward making our Republic more participatory. To live up to that promise, two things need to occur.

First, I would hope to see serious petitions that are not about silly things like beer recipes or crazy things like the tremendously disturbing petitions calling for un-saving our precious Union. Secondly, the White House must treat serious petitions with the gravity they deserve. I launched what I think is clearly a serious and sober petition because the White House owes voters the same choice over their health care that they gave the SEIU and AARP and many other powerful interests. After all, these cohorts of President Obama spent huge money to push ObamaCare and then got waivers from the administration so they will not have to live under the moral and economic costs of the law.

To their credit, the administration has promised a response to all 25,675 people who took it seriously and signed our petition in five days out of the thirty the site gives petitions to reach that number. The White House could take this opportunity to show that their petition site is more than a place for people to vent, (while the White House data-heads study how viral ideas spread out among networks.)

If this administration is sincere about leveraging this site to govern at a more connected level, I would expect to see a platitude-free rejection of our petition based upon some hard reality created by this flawed legislation, probably based upon the fact that the entire law is funded by forcing people like me into “exchanges” or, they could totally blindside conservatives and other people who’ve grown cynical about their governance and actually allow the American people to opt-out, just as they have allowed thousands of other groups to do the same.

But, if the White House really wanted to make something special of this, they could invite some of us onto a phone conference or a Skype session to hear why, after nearly three years, we still want to opt-out of ObamaCare and make a decision based upon an actual discussion with their actual bosses; that would be groundbreaking but, I highly doubt that will occur.

If, on the other hand, the White House replies with the feel-good-isms of press release banter, the site will prove to be a marketing platform designed to make the White House to appear transparent and, under the surface, a powerful site for mapping the spread of pro and anti-administration memes amongst highly involved citizens.

The odds of this White House watering down its signature health care legislation seem close to nil, but would there really be much harm in acknowledging that other points of view persist? Active citizenship is a two-way street and a never-ending process; it requires serious engagement from citizens and leaders alike. Right now the Obama White House is at a fascinating crossroads. Freed from the demands of another election and blessed with some of the smartest technologists in the country, his Administration could begin the work of constructing a real digital public square, not just another e-Potemkin village. Will they?

[Bonus link: Technologist Anil Dash calls for a "Secessionist Beer Summit" at the White House.]

Note: This post has been amended after publication. I heard from several sources that the White House's decision to come out against SOPA/PIPA was materially affected by the rapid success of anti-SOPA petition, making that a bad example to point to of the administration choosing to highlight successful petitions on topics that it already was comfortable embracing. The perception remains that the "We the People" platform exists to promote things the White House already wants to promote; all the more reason to experiment with approaches that allow for a wider range of viewpoints to be expressed and highlighted.