Will The White House's New Civic Engagement Site Make The Government More Responsive?

We The People, the Obama administration's new online-petition engine, will let any citizens who get 5,000 signatures get an official response from the White House. Will it increase civic engagement?

Want to bend the president's ear? You don't need a big advocacy group's help anymore. If you've got a compelling cause, all you need is just 4,999 more signatures.  

The White House is launching We The People, an official White House petition site, where anyone can petition the President on any issue.  Designed to streamline communications between citizens and the White House, We The People is creating a stir in across the gov 2.0 community for taking the petition process in-house and committing to providing an official response if a petition gathers 5,000 signatures in 30 days.


Macon Phillips, White House director of digital strategy, is heading up the project for the White House. "I think that petitions are a well understood concept," he says. "They're named in the constitution itself, they're a big part of our democracy. They're a popular and understood way for people to come around for common concerns. There hasn't been a historic place to gather around. We thought this would be a step forward to create an efficient, effective place for online engagement." In We The People, the White House is interested in creating a simple space where individual citizens or communities can rally around an issue and, if they meet the 5,000 in 30 days benchmark, get the administration's response and get that issue on the president's radar. "What we the people offers is the opportunity for groups of people to unite around a common issue and a common message," said Macon.

When I first saw We the People, my hunch was that it was a response to the overwhelming quantity of communications the White House receives and the inadequate tools for managing those millions of emails, petition signatures, phone calls and form letters. Phillips says the site was a response to the chaotic process of managing millions of advocacy communications that come in all shapes and sizes.  

"It's an ongoing challenge to deal with the public comunication the White House receives. The site is intended to offer a way to efficiently engage." Macon continued, "There's a lot of this civic activity happening elsewhere online. We have a strong footprint on Facebook and Twitter. We wanted to create a  create a place where individuals--not just organizations--could start petitions directly." We the People might be a way for the White House to consolidate communications in a way that helps staff more easily respond to, and monitor, citizen's issues. For now, it's not going to replace historic (hard copy letters and email) and modern venues (Twitter, Facebook) for communicating with the White House, but with a guaranteed response back to high-volume petitions, it seems like the new, surest way to have your issue recognized by the executive branch.

"We the People isn't meant to replace means of communication with the public, it's  meant to expand it. The other channels will continue moving forward. The president reads 10 letters from the people every day; he values hearing from people and their stories."

The White House isn't the first to launch an in-house petition site. The UK's former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, launched a 10 Downing Street petition site managed by My Society, a UK technology-driven citizen involvement organization.  That petition site was taken down when newly elected Prime Minister, David Cameron, stepped into office. Cameron's team has just relaunched a petition site, developed by in-house technical staff.  

Tom Steinberg, executive director of My Society, thinks We the People is a good idea. "...what makes me most pleased about what I see of the White House plan [is that] there are proper policy officers, who hopefully will understand that, although they might have to write a lot of rebuttals, their job is also to spot the good ideas that should be adopted and celebrated." Steinberg thinks that the White House has likely learned lessons from 10 Downing Street's example, and created mechanisms (like the 5,000 signatures in 30 days) which help them manage the flow of communications, respond to them, and find the best causes championed by Americans. Steinberg posted to Quora recently, offering up lessons for the White House, based on his work with 10 Downing.

But will the advocacy community embrace using a petition solution hosted by government? I'd heard grumblings from some in the advocacy technology community that this in-house tool might not play nice with existing tools like Care2 or The Petition SiteAlan Rosenblatt, associate director of online advocacy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, thinks those grumblings will fade. Rosenblatt points out that, "Very few of those sites send (petitions) to the White House. And, those sites are a vehicle for list building for advocacy organizations, not for direct petitioning to the White House. You can still have all the petition interfaces that you do elsewhere. It's apples and oranges."

We the People has the potential to create a much greater impact for communities advocating at the federal level by guaranteeing a response (and consideration) by the White House. While I agree with Steinberg and Rosenblatt that the petitions can drive interaction with citizens and perhaps create a new level of accountability to citizens, my hunch is that We the People may begin to outweigh personal communications to the president.

Based on my research analyzing communications technology and culture within government, it's usually the personal stories of constituents that can reach out and shape policy. Though more advocacy boils down people's opinions and experiences to numbers, the less compelling the cause becomes. There's definitely a space for government-house advocacy tools like We the People; the trick for the White House will be balancing personal appeals with massive petitions, astroturf campaigns versus heartfelt requests for assistance. It's not a new challenge, but it's exciting to see new tools being implemented to increase meaningful citizen engagement.

Sarah Schacht is an open legislative information and technology advisor. She is the founder and director of KAsPower and OpenGovWest. Follow her on Twitter.


[Image: Flickr user tarsandsaction]

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