The White House's We The People Petition Website: First Year Report Card

Author: JH Snider
Coverage Type: op-ed
The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC, 20500, United States

[Commentary] A year after the White House launched its We the People petition website, it's time for a report card.

Fortunately, the White House has released a wealth of statistics touting the success of We the People, so we can make some educated guesses. A key finding is how remarkably difficult it is to create a petition with enough signatures to generate a White House response. The odds of creating a successful petition have dropped to one in a thousand. As of September 5, 2012, there were only 16 active petitions. Two factors help explain the dropoff. First, public officials don't like to explain their political positions clearly. As the saying goes, "ambiguity is the mother's milk of politics." Second, citizens don't like to waste their time. Although We the People was supposed to help unorganized interest groups find a voice, its 30 day signing limit and hoarding of names may have achieved the opposite result. Only well-organized interest groups could easily reach the 25,000 petition threshold within the allowed 30 days (and they presumably have other, more effective ways to get their voices heard). Meanwhile, unorganized interest groups may waste a huge amount of resources because the White House retains exclusive control of the names of those who sign a petition.

The government should provide two petition services. First, it should develop a system for verified petition signing. Politically, this is an extremely hard problem, analogous to the problem of developing a trusted online voting system. But if Estonia can solve the problem, the United States can, too. Second, it should develop a standardized data system, analogous to its election markup language (EML), to facilitate the exchange of petition data.



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