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In Defense of 'We the People'

BY Nick Judd | Friday, November 11 2011

Anil Dash defends the utility to citizens of We the People, the White House's new e-petitions platform:

For every cockamamie "tell us about the space aliens!" petition or every obligatory "legalize it!" appeal, there are detailed, thoughtful, respectful responses. The White House can't be delighted that those were among the first policy conversations to cross the threshold of earning a response from a policy maker, but there they are.

And this is the key thing: These conversations are visible. [Emphasis Dash's]

I'm no pollyanna about the Magical Power of Transparency, but I know it has an important role to play in fixing the ways that government is broken. Systems that require policy makers to be accountable even on uncomfortable or inconvenient topics, simply due to the prominence of those conversations, can be very effective at raising the priority of those topics.

The issue held by people who Dash calls "the cynics" is that the conversations that are visible are conversations that have already been held in the open; when I covered petitions being used as protest against the direction the petition site appears to be going, I referenced a petition that begins this way:

Although the ability to submit petitions directly to the White House is a noble and welcome new feature of the current administration, the first round of responses makes blatantly clear the White House intends to just support its current stances and explain them with responses everyone who has done any research already knows.

In other words, the positions outlined in all of the responses so far — with the exception of the first, noteworthy response pertaining to student debt — are positions the White House has already taken in public. In the case of student debt, a petition coincided with things the White House wanted to do, issues the White House wanted to address, and tools already at the White House's disposal — namely, an initiative to accelerate the pace of programs provided for in existing legislation.

Over at NextGov, Joseph Marks has passed along an interesting theory: That these petitions will provide the greatest utility to citizens when the subject matter relates to a new, little-known or little-covered issue. In other words, the petition site might turn out to work best for people who haven't been able to get the kind of open, public conversation about their issue that the marijuana people, debt people or aliens people have already had.

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