White House Petitions: The Need For Robust FAQs

E-participation, Open Government

As was hinted at late Wednesday night, the White House yesterday announced a significant new Open Government initiative: online petitions!

From the official announcement:

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 to create, and how they are going to build the support to get a response.

According to one definition, online or e-petitions can be considered a type of e-consultation whose purpose is “to affect formal (institutional) political and decision making processes.” Hence, public participation best practices apply to e-petitions just as well.

Public participation projects can fail for many reasons, but what it often boils down to from the participants’ point of view is a mismatch between expected and actual impact. One best practice, then, is for the convener to ensure that the participants fully understand the scope, process and desired outcomes of the project or initiative.

While the We the People website provides a general overview and answers a few basic questions, it doesn’t go into too much detail. The White House has encouraged the public to ask questions and give feedback. Again from the announcement:

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.

Since the announcement, a broad range of questions have been raised (anything from the White House’s motivation and goals, to the rules of engagement, to the technology, to privacy aspects etc). Earlier today, the White House gave a few more answers on their blog, and I strongly suggest that these be consolidated into one FAQ as part of the We The People website, along with other answers provided via other channels.

Here are a few additional points I’d like the White House to address prior to the official launch:

  • 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?
  • 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.?
  • What will happen to petitions that fail to reach the required minimum number of votes within the 30-day period?
  • Once a petition has been fully processed (reviewed and answered), how will participants be notified?
  • 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 wether they are satisfied with the responses?

Please leave a comment if you can think of other questions related to the public participation aspects of this initiative.

I look forward to the launch of the site. It will be interesting to watch how it compares to previous experiments in this area in other countries, namely Germany and the United Kingdom.

About the author: Tim Bonnemann is the founder, President and CEO of Intellitics, Inc., a digital engagement company based in San José, California (USA).

3 comments… add one

  • Tim Sep 16, 2011

    The White House yesterday answered the six questions above among several others: What the People Want to Know About We the People

  • Patrick Oct 13, 2011

    I currently have a petition on the WH site.
    We Petition the Obama Administration to: PUBLICLY press Japan for the return of Abducted US Children and provide transparent dialogs with Japan on this issue | The White House http://bit.ly/nesntV

    Unfortunately, the WH Petition site has had non-stop techinical issues. Our movement has received hundreds of complaints of the WH system not allowing people to sign the petition after registering and the site being unavailable; presumably due to high trafic loads.

    Additionally, after several weeks, not a single question sent in to the WH by members of our movement has received a response. Yet the WH is punishing us, by upping the required number of signatures from 5K to 25K should we need to attempt again – when failure to attain the current 5K threshold is due to their technical issues.

  • Tim Oct 13, 2011


    The change in threshold from 5K to 25K signatures will not be applied retroactively. That means it won’t affect your petition. You still just need to get 5K votes by your due date in order for it to be considered.

    There haven’t been any responses yet simply because we are still within the first 30-day period. I don’t expect to see official answers before October 22, at the earliest.

    As for the technical issues, I’d suggest you use the site’s feedback form to alert the White House technical staff. There were some issues on the day the site launched but I haven’t noticed anything major since.

    Good luck with your petition!

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