Update: The signatures threshold for petitions on the We the People platform to receive an official response from the White House has changed since this blog post was published. See the latest signature thresholds.
Since the White House announced We the People, a new way for the public to petition the Obama Administration on a range of issues, we've been putting the final pieces in place, kicking the tires and getting ready for launch. We're excited, but it’s a little nerve-wracking, nonetheless. Why?
We're not quite sure what to expect.
We hope to see petitions with a broad range of viewpoints that challenge the Administration – on issues core to President Obama’s priority of creating jobs and restoring the American economy, as well as other topics we haven't publicly addressed in a while (and, yes, some that already have been).
Even with all the preparation and thought that's been put into it, we're going to learn a lot more from how the public uses We the People in the first few weeks. What we learn will almost certainly help us improve the platform’s content and functionality, and we may also find that we will need to raise the threshold for responses.
Even though we haven’t launched yet, we’re already seeing a number of questions and comments that are worth addressing (thanks in particular to Tim Bonnemann for gathering some). And as a reminder, we’re always keeping an eye on #WHWeb for feedback about the White House’s online program. Here are some of those questions and our responses:
Q: Will a petition's number of signatures be public?
A: Yes, as will the number needed to reach the response threshold and the time remaining.
Q: Joe Newman (a spokesman for the Project On Government Oversight): “Encouraging citizens’ participation is never a bad thing, [b]ut part of me is very skeptical that they’ll be able to handle the number of petitions that come in and give it any sort of thorough review.”
A: This is a good point. Since we cannot respond individually to every We the People petition received, we use a threshold to set a clear expectation about what will get a response. Depending on how many petitions reach this threshold, we may raise or lower it to ensure that we can meaningfully process and respond to all petitions that reach the threshold. If this threshold is changed, it will not be applied retroactively to petitions that have already been created.
Q: Do the We the People thresholds apply to petitions created on other sites or offline?
A: Not right now. The first version of We the People is very simple and based on direct participation via WhiteHouse.gov. Integrating with existing advocacy platforms is something that we think will be valuable and we're excited to collaborate with other organizations and institutions to extend this system, think about possible API's and introduce some standards into constituent communications generally. While this may seem nerdy, we think it can have a major impact on the way that the public communicates with elected officials. In the meantime, petitions submitted on other sites and offline will continue to receive the same consideration they did before We the People started.
Q: Will this information, such as people's email addresses be shared with other organizations, such as President Obama's re-election campaign or the DNC?
Q: According to the announcement, petitions can call for action by the federal government “on a range of issues”. That seems to imply that issues outside of this range may be off-limits. What, if any, guidelines will the White House provide to ensure participants know upfront which issues they can or cannot address via this tool? And Patrice McDermott (director of Open The Government) asks: “The other test is that range of issues [...] Is it going to be only issues that are only of political benefit to the White House, or — who designs that, and how’s it going to be limited, and will it change over time?”
A: We the People was designed to be a way for people to petition us about actions that fall within the scope of the federal government. To keep the conversation focused, people will be presented with a broad range of issues that fall within this scope. We are also open to suggestions for additional topics. So please give us your feedback.
Additionally, it is important to note that while topics are defined, viewpoints are not. Setting up We the People in a way that only yielded petitions that praised the Administration or shared our opinions would neither be productive or interesting. So there are no restrictions on the point of view advanced by a petition-in fact, we expect to receive more petitions that disagree with government policies than we do petitions that support them.
Q: What are the ground rules that will govern the petition process? For example, will certain kinds of offensive or abusive behavior or language be deemed unacceptable? How will these ground rules be enforced? For example, does the White House reserve the right to moderate or delete content, ban users etc.?
A: We're not interested in a tool to engage with only people who agree with us - and we're pretty sure you aren't either. The goal is to foster broad-based, civil and constructive discourse on the White House website about important policy issues facing our nation. To advance that purpose, there will be a few viewpoint-neutral rules of the road. Petitions that fall outside these rules will be removed from the system.
One important point is that we aren't going to pre-moderate the site. There will also be rules on how the system is used, such as one account per person. If someone creates a bunch of accounts to run up fake signatures, that petition can be removed and the accounts cancelled. All the specifics of these rules of the road will be explained in the Terms of Participation and Moderation Policy for We the People
Q: What will happen to petitions that fail to reach the required minimum number of votes within the 30-day period?
A: Petitions that do not meet the signature threshold within the allotted time frame (initially 5,000 signatures in 30 days) will be removed from the site.
Q: Once a petition has been fully processed (reviewed and answered), how will participants be notified?
A: Easy – we’ll send an email to the person who submitted the petition and everyone who signed it. The response will also be posted to WhiteHouse.gov for anyone else to see.
Q: How does the White House plan to measure the quality and effectiveness of this process? For example, will there be feedback mechanisms that allow participants to indicate whether they are satisfied with the responses?
A: Feedback from the public will be a critical part of making We the People a success. Every We the People page features a link for feedback about the platform itself, and we will be carefully reviewing this to figure out what's not clear to people and where we can improve both the system and the process.
We know there are more questions out there. One common theme we’re hearing is distrust about how seriously the petitions will be reviewed and considered. That's an understandable skepticism and one that is best addressed with action, so we invite everyone to judge for themselves once we're up and running.
Which leads us to another popular question: When will We the People launch?
Soon! Be the first to know.