Later this year, Australians will go to the polls after being almost buried under an avalanche of policy commitments from both sides. As we speak, politicians are no doubt dusting off their Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, ready to speak on-message to constituents about ‘the things that matter’. Recognising that engagement by social media must, however, be a two-way street to be successful, the Obama Administration has a unique method of soliciting such interaction. Perhaps we can learn from it. Let’s have a look.
Launched in 2011, ‘We the People’ is a branch of the official whitehouse.gov website. It enables anyone to lobby the government. Simply set up a whitehouse.gov account, and you’re ready to type in your request after the boiler plate text: “We petition the Obama Administration to…” If 150 sign up to the petition within 30 days, then your petition becomes searchable on the website. If 25,000 then sign the petition in 30 days, the Obama Administration must respond.
So, where does the Death Star come into this? This week, the Obama Administration was obliged to respond (courtesy of 34,435 signatories) to a petition that the United States government secure funding and resources, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016. For those unconvinced by the rationale for the petition, here’s a link to 6 reasons for a Death Star which might convince you otherwise.
In killing off the idea under the heading “This isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For” (see here), Paul Shawcroft (aka head science guy in the Administration), responded with appropriate Star Wars geeky flare. Not impressed by the estimated 850 quadrillion dollar construction cost, he also indicated that the Administration would not pursue the project because it “does not support blowing up planets”. Most compellingly, he rhetorically asked: “Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?”
This was all in good fun over the holiday season, and in the quirky camp, along with this expired petition for:
You might reasonably ask, given the above somewhat ridiculous subject matter, whether this petitioning system offers much to us in Australia. After all, Kevin 07 did give us the 2020 Summit…
There is something wonderfully democratic about the concept that, so long as you get the numbers, you can promote a cause on a government website, and without having to lobby a particular politician first. [Of course, you can do that too if you want.] Imagine being able to bring a topic to public attention without simply being told what’s in store via traditional media avenues and news bulletins?
For instance, for us IP nerds, the petitioning issue might concern patents. Search for ‘Patents’, and you’ll find a current petition seeking to outlaw and revoke all patents on naturally occurring molecules. True it is, there’s a long way to go before the 822 current petitioners will achieve the 25,000 threshold. Perhaps the interest just isn’t there, or the existence of the petition hasn’t been sufficiently advertised. Even the lack of numbers potentially tells a story.
In the same vein, a petition seeking shorter copyright terms doesn’t seem to have the numbers for a response either.
However, by contrast, online petitions against online piracy have each attracted over 50,000 signatories, and a White House response which can be seen here.
This sort of petitioning system also has the benefit of enabling government to take the temperature of constituents quickly on important areas of concern. Take for example, the very challenging issues surrounding the death this week of the 26 year old champion of an open source Internet, Aaron Swartz. Charged with numerous offences surrounding some of his methods (see here), already there are two new petitions about this matter on We The People, one seeking the removal of a particular US District Attorney from office for overreach in the prosecution of his case (already at 9,875 signatories after only a couple of days).
Any process allowing direct input by voters into legislative change will not be without flaws. But a formalised lobbying structure on the Internet, such as this, does have the potential to be an important method of creating a dialogue with constituents, and acting as a relationship building tool. One can see the merit of this over focus groups any day.