Critics say government plays pretend with petitions

When you mingle idealism with the ethos of the Internet, you usually get predictable results. On that score, the Obama administration’s latest online citizen engagement effort called We the People has not failed to attract its share of trolls, sarcasm and tomfoolery.

That unsurprising news aside, the two-month-old website, where citizens can submit petitions calling for executive or legislative action, also illustrates a unique type of political exposure that some say will dampen elected officials’ enthusiasm for future online engagement initiatives, despite their insistence to the contrary.

The White House petition site was averaging nearly 20,000 new users and 31,000 new signatures a day in early November, and it had attracted about 800,000 users and collected about 1.2 million signatures by Nov. 3, Alice Lipowicz reported at Seventy-seven petitions had surpassed the required number of signatures to warrant an official administration response — and that threshold had been raised from 5,000 to 25,000 signatures.

Yet as of early November, there had been only nine official replies to the petitions.

Among them was the widely reported and seemingly playful response to a pair of petitions about space aliens. “The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race,” the administration's reply read.

More down to earth but to some people no less extreme were the numerous petitions calling for the legalization of marijuana. The White House response, or the evident lack of a seriously considered one, boosted public doubts about the process.

“The Obama administration lumped all of those detailed, nuanced questions together and answered them all by parroting the same old rhetoric,” Morgan Fox wrote on the Marijuana Policy Project's blog.

Indeed, when people began to believe that the site was nothing more than a fancy bullhorn for the administration’s existing positions, the heckling started. A petition from Jon G. in Coldwater, Mich., that stated, “We demand a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition” attracted more than 11,000 signatures in little more than a week.

Washington Post columnist Esther Cepeda wrote on her personal blog that the administration's responses are damaging its credibility. “By bringing the absurdity of reality-TV voting gimmicks into government policy decisions but not really following through in the way people hoped, Obama has succeeded in further turning off supporters who believed he'd be a good listener — and vindicated cynics who never believe politicians will keep their word,” Cepeda wrote.

Oddly enough, the administration seems not to have recognized the backlash.

“Our hope is that We the People will continue to gain steam, not for the sizzle of being a 'Web tool' but for the meaningfulness of the engagement and substance of the responses,” wrote Macon Phillips, director of digital strategy at the White House, in an Oct. 26 blog post.

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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Reader comments

Fri, Nov 18, 2011

Perhaps the Administration could consider putting up a site called Ask Not, i.e., It may be fun to petition others to do things they might not otherwise be inclined to do of their own volition, but it would undoubtedly be more productive to focus on things that we the people can do for ourselves -- individually and in partnership with those who share our objectives. The Peace Corps uses and has been taken as well but seems to be available. It would be interesting to see what could be accomplished by we the people if entreprenuers leverage the Strategy Markup Language (StratML) standard in support of development of the domain.

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