Across the Threshold: Evolution of the White House “We the People” Open Government Platform

Mark Drapeau (Washington, DC) —

Today is inauguration day in Washington, the day when Barack Obama is sworn in as President of the United States for another four years. In 2009, when this happened for the first time, the outgoing George W. Bush administration staffers were in many cases replaced by people with social media savvy, and in one of its first acts, the administration promised the most open, transparent, participatory, and collaborative government in the history of the country.

The factual truth of that promise is up for debate (see articles written about this in 2012 by The Atlantic, Politico, the Washington Post, and Bloomberg, for example), but there’s no dispute that the Obama Administration has instituted quite a number of new initiatives that leverage the social Web and other technological developments for improved bi-directional communication with the American people.

One such initiative is named We the People: Your Voice in Our Government, with the motto: “Giving all Americans a way to engage their government on the issues that matter to them.” It’s a digital petition site where you can start a new petition, sign someone else’s petition, and possibly even convince the White House to officially respond to your petition.

That crucial third part is now making news. In an official White House blog post on January 15th, longtime Director of Digital Strategy Macon Phillips announced that,

Starting today, as we move into a second term, petitions must receive 100,000 signatures in 30 days in order to receive an official response from the Obama Administration. This new threshold applies only to petitions created from this point forward and is not retroactively applied to ones that already exist.

This isn’t the first time they’ve raised this threshold, either, moving it from 5,000 signatures to 25,000 in late 2011 (that post also written by Macon Phillips), terming it “a good problem to have.” It’s easy to understand how a relatively small White House new media and communications staff could be overwhelmed by these numbers: 5.4 million We the People users who’ve made 9.2 million signatures on a total of 141,310 petitions. Who can keep track of an average of 807 signatures an hour? These sound like eBay statistics, not those of open government. (Note: See a complete breakdown of We the People statistics in infographic form at the end of this post.)

But just as cloud computing, open source approaches, and social media is more accessible and easy to use for businesses and governments, that seems to be the new reality of open government, too — easier for citizens to comment, participate, interact, petition, vote, commend, and complain.

Whether you consider an online “petition” like a Kickstarter campaign or an open government platform like We the People, these goals and cutoff numbers are always going to be arbitrary. No one knows if 25,000 signatures or 100,000 or some other number is the “right” number.

However, it’s far from clear that continuing to raise the petition signature threshold is a sustainable solution to this “good problem to have,” either. In less than four years the threshold has been raised 20X; thus, it’s not crazy to extrapolate that by the end of President Obama’s second term the threshold could approach 2 million. Again, no one knows if 2 million is a “good” threshold. But assuming that participation will continue to rise in the near future, continuing to raise the threshhold doesn’t do anyone any good.

It seems to me that there is only one logical, sustainable solution to this problem, not only for the Obama Administration in its second term, but perhaps also for whomever inherits the White House next. And that is to set a firm signature threshold — whatever the actual number — and then commit to it for a decent interval (four years seems about right), adding stability and predictability to the system.

This involves two components. On the digital side of things, the White House should use data to estimate a happy medium signature threshold for the second term. Let’s say it’s 1 million signatures in 60 days, for the sake of argument. But they should analyze the system, calculate the threshold, publicly explain how they arrived at their numbers, and then stick with it for a long period of time. Quadrupling the threshold from 25,000 to 100,000 appears on the surface more like kicking-the-can-down-the-road than a logical calculation.

On the human side of things, the White House should ensure that the new media and communications staff is not so overwhelmed by millions of American citizens actually participating in their own government as they were empowered to do by their own government. In the near future, if there are 18 petitions garnering 1 million signatures and they involve topics ranging from taxes to civilian drones to a mandatory naming of every President’s dog “Sparky,” then staffers should be prepared and committed to responding to them in an intelligent and timely fashion, no matter how serious, embarrassing, silly, or quotidian.

They’re voters, after all.

Mark Drapeau, Ph.D. is the Director of Innovative Engagement for Public Sector at Microsoft, based in Washington, DC.

Images from the White House blog.

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