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White House announces “We the People” initiative

NCDD member Alex Moll just emailed me about a new White House initiative called “We the People.” I wanted to encourage NCDDers to check out the site and share your thoughts with each other here via the comment field.

White House Director of Digital Strategy Macon Phillips just announced this new way to petition the federal government about issues you want to see action taken on.  Here’s the introductory paragraph from the website:

Throughout our history Americans have used petitions to unite around issues they care about. We the People provides you with a new way to petition the federal government to take action on a range of issues. And if your petition attracts enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it is sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.

Please check out the site at www.whitehouse.gov/wethepeople/ and comment here on the NCDD blog to let the D&D community know what you think.  I’m really interested in hearing NCDDers’ thoughts on this initiative.

Here’s the post shown when you click on “Learn More”:

We the People: Announcing White House Petitions & How They Work

Posted by Macon Phillips on September 01, 2011 at 07:00 AM EDT

Something exciting is coming to WhiteHouse.gov. It’s called We the People and it will significantly change how the public — you! — engage with the White House online.

Our Constitution guarantees your right to petition our government.  Now, 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.

We’re announcing We the People before it’s live to give folks time to think about what petitions they want create, and how they are going to build the support to get a response.

When will it be live? Soon.  If you want to be the first to know when the system is available, sign up for an email alert.

Here’s a video we put together to explain what it is and how it works:

(watch it at www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/08/31/we-people-how-white-house-petitions-work)

Here are the basics:

Individuals will be able to create or sign a petition that calls for action by the federal government on a range of issues.  If a petition gathers enough support (i.e., signatures) it will be reviewed by a standing group of White House staff, routed to any other appropriate offices and generate an official, on-the-record response.

How many signatures? Initially petitions that gather more than 5,000 signatures in 30 days will be reviewed and answered.

There’s another aspect to this meant to emphasize the grassroots, word of mouth organizing that thrives on the internet.  At first, a petition’s unique URL will only be known to its creator and will not show up anywhere else on WhiteHouse.gov.  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.

As we move forward, your feedback about We the People will be invaluable, and there are a few ways you can share it.  Numerous pages on WhiteHouse.gov, including the We the People section, feature a feedback form.  In addition, you can use the twitter hashtag #WHWeb to give the White House digital team advice and feedback.  I’ll also try to answer questions when I have time today — you can pose them to @macon44.

Finally, while We the People is a fresh approach to official, online petitions, the United States isn’t the first to try; for example, the United Kingdom offers e-petitions, and this work was very helpful as we developed our own.

Macon Philips is the White House Director of Digital Strategy
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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Iwanka Kultschyckyj says:

    Greetings All! I will share an opening comment. I am thrilled by the idea and the opportunity to come in “We the People.” In fact, I posted the link on my FB page—next stop twitter. I just couldn’t wait for the formal link. Looks like a democracy could be reviving with the people and the President, since Congress has lost sight of their respective job descriptions. Today, I have a greater sense of hope to get results from a conversation about my country. I signed up for the email updates too.

  2. Jack Becker says:

    I’m concerned and more skeptical about this. How they are going to create nonpartisan, or should I say, less partisan space that the internet is currently producing. Who will moderate? How will blatantly false claims be handled, or comments be responded to?

    To me, there seems to be a dangerous potential to circumvent the D&D process by creating the impression that citizens can have a “direct line to the white house” as Plouffe says. I’ve had this same sense since the white house office of public engagement was created. I believe citizens first and foremost must be working through issues with other citizens before the government takes any action on them. It seems to me that petitions usually rely on organizing rather than D&D or discussion, or other principles folks with NCDD adhere to. The article on the WH websites says you must get 5,000 signatures, what for?

    My most pressing question is, how will the format of the website and process, encourage citizens, and petitioners, to consider opposing viewpoints, deal with tradeoffs, and interact with those who have different views than they? I would recommend active moderation on the website. It can’t just be a direct line to the white house, it must be a direct line to other diverse citizens, with the white house listening carefully.

  3. Tom Atlee says:

    I want to second what Jack Becker says and go one step further.

    I want to reclaim the phrase “We the People” both from partisan groups (like the Tea Party) and from organizations that facilitate individual and partisan group input into government (like this initiative). I want to reclaim “We the People” for its original use: The collective political actor/sovereign generated by diverse citizens in conversation with each other about public affairs, determined to empower – and realize in the real world – what they come up with together. Like the US Constitutional Convention.

    Petitions mean the petitioners are still subservient to the powerholder being petitioned. The US Constitutional Convention didn’t petition England to institute the US Constitution. They realized that We the People are the Sovereign of our democracy. As We the People, they together decided what needed to be done and did it – although they also put it through the States, which is another manifestation of We the People.

    The use of the term “We the People” should be reserved for activities and institutions that give rise to – and empower – a legitimate, inclusive, thoughtful Voice of the Whole community / state / country / world. Specifically, it should be reserved for those activities and institutions that combine random selection or scientific sampling (to create a legitimate microcosm of the whole) with dialogue, deliberation, and choice creating (to generate the wisdom of the whole). Examples include Citizens Juries, Citizens Assemblies, and Wisdom Councils.

    There’s nothing wrong with a petition site. But it should not be falsely elevated with the name “We the People”. Not only does a petition site not reflect the sovereign power of We the People but with each petition it almost inevitably excludes certain (usually sizable) segments of the whole society, putting them outside of “We the People”. This is not OK.

    The D&D community should request that its name be changed to “the Official People’s Petition initiative” and/or that it have a special category of petition which gets special treatment because the petition, itself, was generated by dialogue, deliberation, and/or choice-creating conversation among a diverse, demographically representative microcosm of the country – out of which over 75% of the participants agreed with its final recommendations. THAT would come much closer to a real voice of We the People.

  4. Catherine Reynolds says:

    In the UK we have a similar ‘initiative’ (sic) which is in the guise of e-petitions. “e-petitions is an easy way for you to influence government policy in the UK. You can create an e-petition about anything that the government is responsible for and if it gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be eligible for debate in the House of Commons.”

    How intersting to see the US following the UK (usually its vice versa)

    Just the ticket for the red-top tabloid reader unable to string coherent thoughts together.

  5. John Backman says:

    Good comments here so far. I find it encouraging that the White House is doing at least SOMETHING in this arena–although that may say more about my lowered expectations than about the initiative itself. My biggest concern right now is the text under step 3:

    “If a petition meets the signature threshold, it will be reviewed by the Administration and an official response will be issued. And we’ll make sure that the petition is sent to the appropriate policy makers in the Administration.”

    Who or what ensures that the “appropriate policy makers” pay any attention to these petitions? Can we have any confidence that the “official response” will come from someone in a position of leadership or influence? At such a cynical time in our history, the language here can be too easily dismissed as typical government-speak. If the Administration indeed intends to take this seriously, it should communicate that more compellingly.

  6. Simon says:

    Here’s a link to advice from MySociety in the UK entitled “What lessons did the Obama admin learn from UK’s use of e-petitions when designing ‘We The People’?” – http://t.co/F3x4bq1

    I don’t have a problem with the idea of e-petitions. They are a way for people attempt to get issues, aspirations and concerns heard and on the agenda.

    They are not about D&D and don’t pretend to be. As pointed out above, it’s how the administration deals with petitions that is important and might make a difference. There are many ways officials might respond to petitions. For some, this might be by conveneing D or D process. Let’s see. If it does, I hope the administration does sometimes try online D&D processes – from my own experience, D&D can happen brilliantly online.

  7. […] initiative by the White House has been getting a lot of coverage (for example, see here, here, here, […]

  8. […] at least 5,000 signatures within 30 days. You’ll find some thoughtful comments on the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation blog, and a couple of more skeptical reviews on Intellitics (“White House Petitions: The Need for […]

  9. […] at least 5,000 signatures within 30 days. You’ll find some thoughtful comments on the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation blog, and a couple of more skeptical reviews on Intellitics (“White House Petitions: The Need for […]

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