Will the White House Petition Platform help Americans?

E-petitioners will be aware that the White House has launched an online initiative to allow Americans to petition online.

The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States protects the right of the people to "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." When the White House officially launched We the People, that constitutional right was be formally brought into the digital age. 

"When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens," President Obama says 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.”

While some political commentators will inevitably tie this initiative to the gearing up of the 2012 campaign, there is a big idea embedded in this launch, going back to the original compact between the American people and its government. Petitions have played an important role in the nation's history, from the Virginia Legislature to Quakers petitioning the colonial government and Continental Congress to abolish slavery. The White House will not be bound to make policy based upon e-petitions, but they have given the nation a powerful new official way to use the Internet as a platform for collective action, making their digital voices heard. Sites like GoPetition.com have been promoting the "digital voice" for the last ten years, but better late than never for the White House platform.

White House Director of Digital Strategy Macon Phillips announced e-petitions with a blog post at WhiteHouse.gov and a video where he explained how White House e-petitions would work. "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," he wrote.

The initial basis for campaigning incorporated several key ideas:

  • Citizens to be able to create or sign e-petitions on a "range of issues".
  • 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," wrote Phillips. In this context, a "network" means online social networks, like Twitter or Facebook.

Despite that explanation, there are still many questions that remain in terms of how e-petitions will 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, their work "was very helpful as we developed our own." The sticky e-widget there is that the UK dropped e-petitions in 2010 as the new prime minister came into office, due to negative publicity and other issues, before relaunching it again.

One key limitation of the White House site is that it only allows campaigns directed to the White House. State and local jurisdictions are not included. Moreover, the broader concept of private petitioning against businesses, corporations and persons in general, is beyond the scope of the site. In these circumstances, online sites like GoPetition.com offer a broader basis for petitioning and a much more flexible platform. So while the White House site may in fact help many Americans voice their concerns at a Federal level, other site like GoPetition offer more flexibility and options in relation to petitioning both non-federal government and private bodies.

John Pope

This article is adapted from one by Alexander Howard  at http://www.nationaljournal.com/tech/commentary-got-a-problem-you-want-the-white-house-to-fix-e-petition-it--20110909