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Automating 'We the People': New White House Initiative for Citizen Petitions

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The Obama Administration has been working on ways to use the web for engaging the people in policy discussions since before the president took office. Not an easy task, they have been criticized from several angles for their various efforts at crowd sourcing ideas from citizens. Still, their efforts have far surpassed those of previous administrations, thanks to an overarching commitment to open government and the use of technology for collaboration and idea sharing. Today, they announced the newest effort -- a petition program called "We the People."

The new site, to be released in the near future, will allow for petition creation, signage, promotion and review on the Whitehouse.gov site. The White House will then respond to those petitions that garner enough support. According to the blog post by Macon Phillips, at the beginning, petitions containing over 5,000 signatures within 30 days will receive responses. Taking some questions on Twitter, Phillips, Director of the Office of Digital Strategy, emphasized that there will be some e-mail authentication built into the system, based on NSTIC guidelines.

From there, petition authors will need to build enough support to get their petitions listed in the White House system search. That means creating e-campaigns of their own, showing they're serious about gathering signatures. Once they reach 150 through whatever means they choose (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), we the people will be able to see the petitions at whitehouse.gov.

Don't expect the new site to be perfect at first, although it will likely incorporate some good ideas from the existing UK e-petitions website. A challenge of scale, if this program can build engagement at the level of Change.org or Care2 petitions, the White House will need to allocate significant resources to maintaining the site. The White House will need to listen and observe how the system works and where its faults lie, making improvements along the way. Just like Facebook and other community-driven sites, incorporating public input will be important.

To view the ongoing discussion, search #whweb on Twitter. Alex Howard has some additional history in his post at GovFresh. No official launch date has been set, but it sounds as if the platform is already built and just needs to be completed before releasing it to the masses to test. Anyone interested in getting on the list can sign up to be "first to know" on the site.

For those of us in the e-gov/gov20 community who have been seeking greater opportunities for national level public participation in recent years, 'We the People' shows a great deal of promise. What remains to be seen is not just how the site is unveiled and how it can be used, but what the White House does with it over the long term. If introduced and maintained properly, it could be an incredible tool for democracy, incorporating millions of voices.

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