White House offers “We the People” online petitions at WhiteHouse.gov

With We the People,” the White House has added a new page to WhiteHouse.gov and has announced a potentially disruptive feature for an American public that increasingly turning online for government information and political action: online petitions.

“When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens,” reads a statement by President Barack Obama at WhiteHouse.gov. “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.”

There’s a big idea embedded in this launch, going back to the original compact between the American people and its government. The First Amendment of United States Constitution gives citizens the right to petition their government. In the 21st century, the Internet provides a new means for such petitions to be made.

“With We the People, we’re offering a new way to submit an online petition on a range of issues — and get an official response,” writes Macon Phillips, White House director of digital in a WhiteHouse.gov blog post announcing We the People.

He explains more in the video embedded below and invites people to sign up for email updates when We The People goes live.

Phillips explained the basics of how the White House e-petitions will work on the White House blog. Here’s the key takeaways:

  • Citizens can create or sign e-petitions on a “range of issues” — it’s not clear yet whether citizens can define their own issues or will have to choose from a list.
  • If an e-petition gathers more than 5,000 signatures in 30 days, White House officials will review and answer it.
  • Initially, an e-petition will have a unique URL that only its creator knows. “It’s up to that person to share it in their network to gather an initial amount of signatures – initially 150 — before it is searchable on WhiteHouse.gov. ” It’s not clear what a “network” means but it likely refers to Twitter or Facebook, like the way act.ly works.

There are still many questions that remain in terms of how this is going to work or how it’s going to fit into a 21st century e-democracy. As Phillips recognized, the United States isn’t the first to try this: the United Kingdom offers e-petitions, and according to Phillips, “this work was very helpful as we developed our own.”

The sticky e-widget there is that the UK dropped e-petitions late last year as the new prime minister came into office, due to negative publicity and other issues. Reasonably, we can expect there to be similar challenges with the White House version. The UK has since relaunched its e-petitions site, as Phillips points out, and sharedplans to release the e-petitions code on Github.While it’s not clear yet who built the White House version, it’s possible that they used this code, given the support for open source that Philips has demonstrated over the past three years. The White House built the system in house, according to Phillips.

The initial response online ranges from celebration, including a “high five from PopVox,” to extreme skepticism.

Open government godfather Carl Malamud the long view: “Nice job on We The People,” he tweeted. “Treading in the footsteps of the Founders, petitions have a long and honorable history in our republic!”

“What difference do they make?” tweeted FutureGov Dominic Campbell. “None. Just a distraction technique to pacify the masses. Need new politics not gimmicks. Backbenchers are generally as influential over govt policy as my gran. And she’s dead. Petition / precise tech tool is irrelevant, it’s all about political culture. Petitions are lame. All power is in the hands of govt. Not game changing. More make u feel better/doing *something*.” While the UK petitions have come back, “You’d be hard pushed to find anyone in UK speak +vely of them. Waste of space… think they just reinforce status quo and reward loudest/best organised. Not democracy. ”

Former Sunlight Foundationer Jake Brewer dug into some of the structural issues that exist with this approach. The “only reason “We the People” would [be] useful vs other tools is if @WhiteHouse can convince all they are listening & meaningfully responding,” he tweeted.

“It strikes me though that “giving people a voice” is not at all the problem in gov. Many ways to talk AT gov. Few ways to do so usefully.We simply don’t need more ways to send petitions or gather ideas. We need better ways to listen & operationalize good ideas. What will be an agency’s incentive to take any action based on a petition? Will Whitehouse pressure? Petitions to Congress (theoretically) work because Reps want to be responsive/re-elected. Exec not the same, so how to handle? Guess I’m having a hard time seeing “We the People” as anything more than gov 2.0 theater, and I’d like to be wrong. We simply don’t need more ways to send petitions or gather ideas. We need better ways to listen and operationalize good ideas.”

Questions for We the People

The White House is taking questions on We the People using the feedback form at White House.gov and on Twitter, using the hashtag #WHWeb, where Phillips is listening as @macon44.

Why do petitions at all? “Online petitions are commonly understood, and petitions have been part of our democracy since the beginning,” he tweeted.

When asked by Nancy Scola whether the thinking with We the People is to “have @whitehouse act as [a] clearinghouse for petitions directed towards agencies,” Phillips replied: “People shouldn’t have to decipher how the executive branch is organized in order to speak out about an issue. Processing incoming petitions handled by WH, but relevant petitions will be coordinated w/others as needed, including Agencies.”

In response to a question by @abc4all, Phillips tweeted that “participation in We the People is open to the general public (13yrs+) & requires a valid email address.”

When Alex Rose asked if “WH have a profile of citizens based on petitions we support on We the People? Who can access aggregated data?,” Phillips replied that “only a small group of wh staff will have access to administrative data We the People will be subject to a public privacy policy.”

Here are the questions I’ve tweeted out and their answers:

Who built the e-petitions function? Is it the the same code as the UK tool?

Answer: “System design and development of We the People was developed in house,” tweeted Phillips.

How will identity be handled? How will the White House authenticate citizens to e-petitions government?

Answer: “Lightweight – participation will require an email verification step,” tweeted Phillips. “For now we are using first party WH accounts that verify an email address. Plan to incorporate NSTIC rec’s in future http://1.usa.gov/p7n8HR ”

Do you have to be a citizen?

Answer: “Right now the system only requires valid email and does not verify citizenship,” tweeted Phillips.

How will social media be integrated? 

Answer: “when you create a petition you get a unique link. How you share that is up to you. Will have @facebook & @twitter share [buttons],” tweeted Phillips. yes, just like other content on wh.gov

Can citizens ask questions using We The People on whatever topic they wish or will these be predefined? The screenshot below implies the latter categorization: taxonomy, not folksonomy.

Answer: “there will be a defined set of topic people can choose from but its a wide range, and there will also be ad hoc tags,” tweeted Phillips.

Will there be an API so that civic developers can visualize and analyze them to see if there are duplicates or emerging themes?

Answer: “Not now; API’s for analysis & extending petition functionality on a long list of features we we are considering for future. With [federal CIO] Steve upstairs now, thinking through how that can best work is both a priority & more informed.”

Why build this when services like PopVox, Votizen and Change exist to create social e-petitions?

Answer: “Developing We the People ourselves [...] offers the flexibility to adapt to the public response to improve engagement,” tweeted Phillips. “It’s a false choice to say _either_ We the People _or_ others – there’s lots of collaboration ahead, this space is still young.”

There’s another key detail: these e-petitions would go to the executive branch, whereas Votizen and PopVox are targeted at Congress and constituent communications.

The creator of act.ly, Jim Gilliam, offered some of his own perspective and questions. “I built a petition/priority tool White House 2 back in 2008. I learned a lot, happy to share,” he tweeted to Phillips, linking to his post on White House 2.0. On this count, the White House was listening: Phillips asked Gilliam to “dm him his email address.” Here’s a look back at “imagining White House 2.0″ from the 2009 Personal Democracy Forum:

“I figured out all the problems, except for one. getting the white house to pay attention. (or maybe it just took 3yrs),” tweeted Gilliam.

He highlighted two issues, one for advocates and one for White House technologists: “”How will the white house use all the email addresses it collects with new petition tool? Advocacy groups will have to decide whether to send their people to whitehouse.gov at the expense of their own list building,” he tweeted. “White house will need some serious anti-spam jujitsu to knock back the tools that scrape congressional forms.”

Perhaps most important, how will citizens know that they’re being heard by the White House, that these e-petitions matter, and that this will not be a public relations exercise that ends with a thank you letter from staff?

This goes to the issue of connecting e-petition action to results. “OpenGov has the equivalent of a “last mile” problem: a culture+digital-infrastructure gap at the workgroup level,” tweeted Dan Latorre, leader of Digital Placemaking and creator ofFixCity.org.

For instance, if enough people sign e-petitions on withdrawing from Afghanistan, supporting gay marriage, legalizing marijuana or opposing ICE takedowns of websites without judicial review, will the White House change its policy?

Stay tuned for answers [See above] and upon launch, outcomes.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.