The White House's New We the People Petition Website

The president should be applauded for launching this democratically enhancing but politically risky initiative. However, We The People will probably only have a short life.
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On September 22, 2011, the White House quietly launched the We the People petition website. The White House explained the website as follows:

The right to petition your government is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. We the People provides a new way to petition the Obama Administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country. We created We the People because we want to hear from you.

At launch, the public was told that if it got 5,000 signatures (subsequently increased to 25,000), White House staff would review the petition, send it to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.

The president should be applauded for launching this democratically enhancing but politically risky initiative. Since the U.S. Constitution says that the public has a right to petition its government, the president's We the People website may be viewed as merely implementing this basic right. But many basic rights contained in America's Founding documents, notably the phrase "all men are created equal," have been notoriously difficult to implement. Blacks, for example, weren't given the vote until decades after those words were written and a civil war that killed more than 600,000 Americans.

However, We The People will probably only have a short life. This is because the interests of the public and elected officials differ. The public is inclined to ask politicians to take controversial stands that politicians have no rational self-interest in taking. Most rational politicians avoid clearly or truthfully answering controversial questions like the plague for they know that they have more to lose than gain by doing so.

Not surprisingly, in its short term of existence, the We the People website has gotten more than its fair share of controversial petitions. Consider these:

  • Legalize and Regulate Marijuana in a Manner Similar to Alcohol.
  • Edit the Pledge of Allegiance to remove the phrase "Under God".
  • Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.
  • Preserve 6 Day Mail Delivery

My own petition to the White House is similar in that I cannot imagine the White House would have any political self-interest in answering it clearly or truthfully. It reads: We petition the Obama Administration to require that spectrum lessees be charged market rates like other lessees of public assets such as land and buildings. There are good political reasons but not good public interest reasons why the Federal government, including the Obama Administration, has given away tens of billions of dollars worth of spectrum assets without public compensation. If the president were to acknowledge that a multi-billion dollar giveaway of public assets to some of America's richest individuals and most profitable corporations was indeed the likely effect of the spectrum policy he proposes in the American Jobs Act, he would merely anger potential voters who would otherwise be quiescent. Why step on a hornet's nest if it can be avoided?

Unfortunately, this political logic may already be playing out on the We The People website. The parts of the website allowing people to create petitions and register to be able to sign them have frequently been down with no notice as to when they would be up again. Policies have also changed with minimal notice. A hurdle of needing 150 signatures before any petition can show up on was apparently added as was an increase from 5,000 to 25,000 for the amount of signatures needed to secure an official White House response. The latter change appears to have been applied not only discreetly but retroactively for those creating petitions after October 3, 2011.

These changes may help explain why the rate of new petitions being shown on the White House website has slowed. As of September 26, five days after the low profile launch, the website had 68 publicly posted petitions. As of October 10, 2011, twenty days after the launch, there were only 176 publicly posted petitions.

The first prominent use of a petition website was by the British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street, the equivalent of the White House website. It may be telling that that website is now defunct. One of the petitions, indicative of the type of political annoyance these websites can generate, was "We the undersigned petition the prime minister [Gordon Brown] to resign."

The Obama Administration has a long track of record of introducing idealistic open government initiatives and then not implementing them as promised (e.g., see A Case Study of Open Government's Achilles' Heel: Agency Corruption). My impression, after listening and chatting with several of them, is that the public officials who implement these policies are sincere democratic reformers. But again and again they seem to run into practical political obstacles that subvert their idealistic goals. A Machiavellian might say that the Obama administration wants the democratic legitimacy that comes with open government without the political cost of actually implementing open government. But at least for the officials who develop the open government initiatives, I don't believe this is the case.

To improve the We The People website, I propose a number of changes. The contract between the president and the citizens who create and sign petition, called the Terms of Participation, is generally excellent but needs improvement. When key terms of the contract are changed, such as the voter thresholds to post a petition on the White House website (e.g., from zero to 150), or to get an official response from the White House (e.g., from 5,000 to 25,000), copies of the earlier contracts should be publicly archived and the changes clearly posted in a date-stamped log next to the current contract.

One of the greatest hurdles in getting people to sign a petition on the website is fear of giving their signature to the White House. This appears to apply equally to liberals and conservatives. The White House needs to find a more credible means of assuring the public that the email addresses used to sign in will actually be used as promised and that the White House won't suddenly and without meaningful acknowledgment change the terms of email use as it has changed the other terms of participation on the website.

The general philosophy behind these proposed changes is to make it costly for the White House to engage in the typical political gamesmanship of making a great public show of favoring public participation while actually working behind-the-scenes to control the participation as much as possible. The beauty of a public petition website is that it is should be much harder to play these games than, say, at a typical politician's campaign appearance or public hearing. But thereon also lies its greatest potential political weakness.

Overall, We the People is a very exciting open government initiative designed to enhance public participation. It has unleashed great grassroots energy and added new issues to the national public agenda. Most of the issues raised are not especially risky for the president to add to his public policy agenda and may win him new supporters (e.g., my wife's petition concerning safe, healthy, and educationally sound public high school start times may fit into this category).

However, one can readily imagine the struggle currently going on behind the scenes between those in the Administration who genuinely favor this type of public participation and the political strategists who recognize the political danger in giving potential opponents a platform to mobilize support on politically controversial issues that no politician in his right mind would want to answer clearly or truthfully.

For now, the White House should be granted the benefit of the doubt as it tries to develop workable policies on its new petition website. For example, the numerous unexplained shut downs of parts of the White House website can probably best be attributed to a combination of inconsiderateness and behind-the-scenes conflict, not a desire to suppress the public's newly granted ability to exercise its First Amendment right to petition its government. Although I predict a relatively short life for the We The People website, one that probably won't extend beyond the president's first term of office, I hope, for the sake of our democracy, that I'm wrong.

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