Why not build activist communities via White House petitions?

Posted: April 26th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Civic engagement, Open Government, Technology, Transparency | 1 Comment »

Is that all there is?

You’ve landed on a Whitehouse.gov petition on an issue that’s close to your heart, and you’re thrilled that’s it’s finally getting some visibility. Of course, you sign the petition, but then you wonder Who are these people? What else can I do? How can I get plugged in?. In way too many cases, the people who started the petition leave you to your wits, and of course to the Google. It’s like a 3am infomercial without the 800-number. What were they thinking?

My inspiration and goad to build tools for the White House “We the People” petition site was the story of an activist who had, in effect, lost her work gathering signatures when she failed to reach the necessary threshold after a month of work.

Along the way, I wondered how often petition initiators added links to their petition text, to provide more information to potential signers or to supplement their work on whitehouse.gov by building a community on a site that gave them more control.

“We The People”-scope

To investigate, I’ve built a live, interactive database of petitions currently visible and open for signatures at the White House. How well are petitioneers using WhiteHouse.gov traffic and visibility to build activist communities? The results aren’t pretty.

90% of the time, you’re on your own

Of the 39 petitions open for signatures this morning, only four include links:

  1. a request for funding of an MIT anti-viral drug links to a press release providing further information
  2. a call for legislation implementing various economic and legal reforms (NESARA) links to an activist website and to a religious/New Age Ning community
  3. a call for increased funding for NASA includes a reference to a website for that issue campaign, and
  4. a request that the Administration veto any legislation that extends tax cuts for the highest earners includes a reference to MoveOn.Org.

None of the links (actually in plain text, since the petition site doesn’t allow hot links) make it easy to plug in to community. The NASA funding campaign website is focussed and includes further calls to action, but does not provide a community forum or a mailing list sign-up. The NESARA-related websites provide a wealth of information and, via Ning, a community. However, I could not see how I might easily connect with other supporters of the linked petition. MoveOn.org is a major activist community, but nothing on its home page references the current tax-related petition.

So, of 39 petitions, only three provide links that would allow a signer to tap into a larger community, discuss the petition, and monitor progress, and even those three links are muddy.

The opportunity

What if, instead, a petition linked to a well-designed landing page that encouraged people to sign up to track the progress of the petition, support the cause via other actions, and connect with fellow activists. It’s a missed opportunity.

And there’s more!

(The petition overview can be filtered and sorted in many different ways. For instance, you can highlight the backlog of petitions that have met their signature goal but don’t yet have an official Administration response, or focus just on the petitions for civil liberties, human rights, or immigration issues – almost half of the total currently open.)