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 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, 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.