Thursday, September 1, 2011

White House Announces 'We the People' Online Petitioning Feature

Do you get emails almost every day from progressive activist groups urging you to "tell President Obama to do/not do [insert action on [insert issue] here]?"

I do. Generally, I find them annoying, but I support the grassroots activism they represent. Some of them I ignore. Most of them, I sign, figuring it can't hurt. But does it really help? I often wonder what effect online petitions (or even physical ones) really have on policy decisions, at all levels of government.

But today, the online petitioning process became a little more interesting to me. Macon Phillips, director of the Office of Digital Strategy, announced that the Obama Administration will soon launch "We the People," an official online petitioning feature on its website,

"We the People" is designed to give Americans an official and easy-to-use tool to petition their government, as prescribed in the Constitution, and - and this is the really important part - get an official response from the administration.

How's it gonna work? It seems pretty straightforward: You, or any other individual, go to the website and start a new petition on "a range of issues." I'm assuming that means there will be broad headings like "Health Care" and "Tax Reform" and so forth. You create a petition that clearly states the policy action you are calling for. Simple!

Then comes the hard part: you have to garner support for your petition, which means getting people to sign it. The White House has tried to ensure a grassroots approach by not making the URL of newly-created petitions visible on their site until the creator has convinced 150 people to sign it. This means that no activist group searching could come across a relevant new petition accidentally and drive traffic to it independent of the efforts of the originator. If you create a petition, it's up to you alone to get those first 150 signatures.

According to Phillips, the initial policy will be that petitions amassing more than 5,000 signatures in 30 days "will be reviewed and answered." The review process will be conducted by "a standing group of White House staff," which will route the issue to other relevant offices to "generate an official, on-the-record response."

I have to say, I like this idea, because I see it as empowering all citizens to get the ear of the White House, rather than just the PACs and other activist groups that I see in my inbox every day. Frankly, I often decide not to sign a petition from Move On or or whomever largely because of the way they word the email that urges me to support their cause du jour. If the email says, "Tell President Obama he can't hide behind the coattails of corporations any longer!", I'm closing the email without signing, even if I support the action they're calling for. I don't respect hysteria or deliberate mischaracterizations, and I don't want my name associated with people who use them for political purposes.

However, with We the People, I could start a petition of my own calling for the very same action, and the messaging would be under my control. I'd be writing the emails urging people to go sign it. I'd be authoring the blog posts. And then, other people would forward my words to others as they sought to help me get my 150 signatures, and then 5,000 signatures.

So yeah, this sounds great! Let's go start a petition right now!

Slow down there, Sparky - the program hasn't launched yet. The White House is telling us about it now, before the launch, so that we can have time to think about the issues and the actions we want to see. This will (it is hoped) result in petitions that are thought through and carefully written, which will make them more likely to achieve the signature tipping points and more likely to get to the review process.

Here's a video with Macon Phillips explaining the new program.

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