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The Case of the Missing White House Petitions

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On September 22, 2011 the White House launched its We The People petition website, which, in its words, "provides you with a new way to petition the Obama Administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country." On October 26, 2011, the White House released -- in a blizzard of PR far exceeding the website's launch -- its first response to one of the petitions.

The responded to petition called on the president to take action to reduce the burden of student loan debt. But the response wasn't just on a piece of paper in an obscure corner of the WhiteHouse.gov website. The day the response was released, the White House's primary message to the American people, carried on every major U.S. media outlet, was that the president was going to address at least some of the concerns expressed in the petition.

Whereas before October 26, it took a lot of detective work to find the We The People petition website on WhiteHouse.gov, it was now emblazoned on the top right of the Home Page. Macon Phillips, the champion of the We The People website within the White House, had the featured White House blog post on the top left. Roberto Rodriquez, one of the White House's top education advisors, wrote the petition response on WhiteHouse.gov. David Plouffe, senior advisor to the president, sent an email to the tens of thousands of people on the White House email list, gushing about the president's newly announced policy that it's "a great example of We The People at work" and including a link to the We The People website. Melody Barnes, director of the White House's Demestic Policy Council, held a press briefing with Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, noting that the president's newly announced policy was at least partially in response to the petition's "message heard loud and clear." Not least, of course, was the Commander-in-Chief unveiling his new policy in a speech delivered in Denver at the University of Colorado.

Macon Phillips's blog entry had lots of impressive stats on the use of the White House petition website:

  • 1,130,634 Total Signatures
  • 756,734 Total New Users
  • 12,513 Total Petitions Created
  • 1,382 Average Signatures/Hour
  • 925 Average New Users/Hour
  • 23 Average Signatures/Minute
  • 15 Average New Users/Minute

Wow!

But two vital statistics weren't there. The first was the ratio of those who start a petition versus those who eventually succeed in getting their petition posted to WhiteHouse.gov. That percentage appears to be well under 4 percent. On October 20, 30 days after the launch of the We The People Website and the last day before the first petitions started to be removed from the White House website, there were 208 posted petitions. On October 26, 2011, the number of posted petitions was 161 (by October 28 it had dropped to 125, of which only 76 had reached the 150 signature threshold in the last 30 days). Although most of the 161 double count those in the 208 tally, this suggests that well under 4 percent of the submitted petitions have reached the 150 signature threshold necessary to be publicly posted on the White House website.

Why is this? One important factor is that it is far harder than most people suppose to get to the 150 signatures. Surprisingly, given the way the White House set up the registration, getting 150 print signatures is vastly easier than getting 150 electronic ones. My guess is that petition creators, in order to yield 150 actual signatures, need about 600 people willing to both click on the URL to sign the petition and then click on the register button.

Given all the unannounced and unexplained downtime for the White House petition website, the ratio may exceed 1,000:150 for those unlucky petition creators who send out their publicity when the White House website is down. On October 27, 2011, the website was down during business hours for at least one hour. Another day I clocked more than two hours of outages. (Outages may also help explain why in the last 30 days not a single petition that reached the 150 threshold also reached the 25,000 signature threshold, a stark contrast to the first 30 days. The White House provides no acknowledgment, explanation, or statistics for this extraordinary level of outages. Nor have they responded to written complaints. If they did, they might be forced to extend the 30 day deadline for getting signed petitions by at least 10 percent.)

The first difficulty is that to sign in you need to give the White House your email address. A lot of people, both liberals and conservatives, don't trust the government enough to do this. It doesn't matter that in the fine print the White House promises not to use their email addresses for any other purpose than to verify their identity. For all they know, the White House could change its policy tomorrow, just like it suddenly increased its threshold from 5,000 to 25,000 signatures, and just like Facebook and other reputable websites routinely change their privacy policies without public notice, except for the fine print.

Then there are all the steps to be able to sign a petition. In addition to entering your email address, you must enter in your name and zip code, followed by a daunting captcha code (to make sure you aren't a robot). The captcha code probably isn't too much of a deterrent to the young who have become experts at deciphering such obscure text, but a lot of folks, especially older people, may give up after trying three or four times to prove they are not a robot. Due to poor testing of the White House software, on some browsers the lower part of the registration screen, including most of the captcha, is cut off and there is no way to complete the registration. This has been a bug since the website was launched and, amazingly, still hasn't been fixed.

After completing the registration form, you must wait several minutes to receive an email to verify your email address. If you're not at your home computer and don't have access to your email, tough luck. After you hit the email link, you're ready to sign, assuming you clicked on the We The People website from the computer with your email address. If not, you've got to sign in again and enter a password (an incomprehensible one such as bk^-!,x;HI.,%$) sent with your email verification link.

A bizarre part of this interface is that it violates the White House's own policy for registering on Federal government websites. White House policy dictates that Federal agencies who fail to give website visitors the option to log on with outside credentials, such as their Gmail or PayPal username and password, may lose funding. Third party credentialing protects citizen privacy, saves citizens time, and saves the government money. Reporter Aliya Sternstein, writing for NextGov, provides this concise description:

So-called federated identity management allows agency and corporate sites to trust credentials that are issued by an outside entity. Currently, dot-gov visitors must remember multiple names and codes to interact with agencies, and each federal site must pay to maintain its own independent ID validation system. Sites are continuously asking for more personal information than is necessary simply to send citizens and customers alerts or let them save webpage settings, privacy groups complain. By accepting credentials issued by trusted third parties, agencies are expected to cut down on the cost of system upkeep and save taxpayers some grief, federal officials say.

To be fair, there are special difficulties associated with assuring that individuals don't vote more than once. A trusted third-party clearinghouse of third-party verifiers would be necessary to assure only one registration per individual. But merely verifying a user's email address doesn't require such a clearinghouse.

Some would argue that making it hard for citizens to sign the We The People website makes a petition signature more valuable in the sense that a handwritten letter is more effective with a member of Congress than an emailed one because the handwritten one requires more effort. However, the We The People registration method only makes it hard to register, not sign. Once one is registered, it is a breeze to sign. If one were so inclined, one could sign dozens in a few seconds. This helps explain why getting to 150 signatures is often far harder than getting to 5,000. It also helps explain the high signature totals for the numerous and overlapping marijuana petitions. Once one has bothered to register to sign one marijuana petition, it requires practically no effort to sign others.

My wife, for example, nearly killed herself getting the first 150 signatures on her petition, while the next 150 were practically effortless. One middle-aged man wrote back to her, one of the many people she personally contacted: "I tried four times to enroll in the system, and I could never get an e-mail confirmation so I couldn't do anything. The computer never told me I had erred in the process. I don't get it. I'm sorry but I tried. Good luck with the vote." Another person wrote: "The White House certainly makes it difficult to sign a petition: now I only need to confirm by clicking for a website that is not currently available!"

Most people appear to sheepishly blame themselves, not the White House, for the technical problems. Others, assuming White House technical staff couldn't be that incompetent, blame "hackers."

The other significant omission of the White House stats was the number of petitions that had reached the 150 threshold for public disclosure but failed to reach the threshold for a White House response within the 30 day period allowed to get signatures. By October 26, this drop off was 47 petitions. Even more significant is that these petitions were nowhere archived on the White House website.

Since WhiteHouse.gov petitions are a type of public speech similar to that at a public hearing held by a government body such as a school board, state legislature, or Congress, a record should be publicly accessible because this enhances democratic deliberation and accountability. The most striking feature of this online record-keeping omission, however, is that it violates the White House's own Open Government Directive.

Public access to petitions is covered under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Open Government Directive mandates that Federal agencies should post public documents online unless there is a compelling reason, such as cost, not to. The White House is thus violating its own mandate and setting a terrible example for the agencies. Given that the agencies have already been blithely ignoring the White House's Directive for FOIA requests regarding agency accountability, the White House's violation of its own policy appears to be yet one more nail in that coffin.

A truism of democratic politics is that public officials want to maximize the public perception that they are open while in fact doing as much as possible to control the flow of information that might prove politically damaging (e.g., see my journal article, Deterring Fake Public Participation). Call this the "embrace and strangle" strategy: publicly embrace participatory democracy while quietly strangling the unwelcome aspects that make it meaningful. The evidence suggests some of this is going on in the White House, if only among competing factions.

Given that We The People does in fact enhance the values of democratic deliberation and accountability, it may be unfair to emphasize the ways it fails to reach its potential. Given the constraints of the real world, the best should not be the enemy of the better. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the ways in which We The People may not be immune to the classic political incentives for information control. Regardless, We The People is praiseworthy as a significant new tool for bringing democracy into the Internet Age.

Addendum

This is my third Huffington Post commentary on the new White House Petition website. The other two are: What Is the Democratic Function of the White House's We The People Petition Website?, October 20, 2011, and The White House's New We the People Petition Website, October 11, 2011.

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