Last week, the White House took a victory lap for a novel event in U.S. history, when a bill that had its genesis as an online petition to the United States government filed at WhiteHouse.gov became law after the 113th Congress actually managed to passed a bill.
In a blog post explaining how cell phone locking became legal, Ezra Mechaber, deputy director of email and petitions in the White House Office of Digital Strategy, noted that this outcome “marked the very first time a We the People petition led to a legislative fix.” Mechaber also highlighted continued growth for the national e-petition platform: 15 million users, 22 million signatures and 350,000 petitions since it was launched in 2011.
Mechaber also mentioned two other things worth highlighting: “a simplified signing process that removes the need to create an account just to sign a petition” and a Write API that will “eventually allow people to sign petitions using new technologies, and on sites other than WhiteHouse.gov.” If and when that API goes live, I expect user growth and activity to spike again. Imagine, for instance, if people could sign petitions from within news stories or though Change.org. Enabling petition creators to have more of a relationship with signatories would also address one of the principal critiques levied against the site’s function. Professor Dave Karpf:
Launching the online petition at We The People created the conditions for a formal response from the White House. That was a plus. We The People provided no help in amplifying the petitions through email and social media. That was neutral in this case, since Reddit, EFF, Public Knowledge, and others were helping to amplify instead. But the site left the petition-creators with no residual list for follow-up actions. That’s a huge minus.
If the petition had been launched through a different site (like Change.org), then it would have been less likely to get a formal White House response, but more likely to facilitate the follow-up actions that Khanna/Howard, Wiens and Khanifar say are vital to eventual success.
The White House has not provided a timeline for when the beta API will become public. If they respond to my questions, I’ll update this post.