In a post at the White House blog, Ezra Mechaber shares the good news, both in text and infographic form (below):
I’ve played the cranky academic critic role for WeThePeople before. And the core of my criticism hasn’t changed. But… I also like birthdays. And Mechaber’s post highlights a few things that are worthy of comment. So with that said, here are a couple of birthday compliments and one birthday critique for the folks running WeThePeople:
1. I’m really excited about Write API. Mechaber writes “Beginning in October, third-party websites can submit signatures to We the People on behalf of their own signers, using our soon-to-be-released Write API (which is currently in beta). It’s the result of months of hard work, and we can’t wait to share it with the public.”
This looks like something genuinely new and different. One of the structural weaknesses of WeThePeople is that it doesn’t let petition-creators capture signup data and engage supporters in further actions. That creates a stumbling block. The government is both the venue for and target of these petitions, and limiting the ability of creators to build further connections with signers can short-circuit long-term efforts at political change. Write API could be a very powerful work-around. If it works right, it could be a bit like the ActBlue fundraising widget. Organizations can gather signatures, capture momentum, and then digitally deliver them to the government. The government gets citizen input without being on the hook for enabling follow-up citizen mobilization.
The big question will be whether Write API actually gets used. And it’s impossible to tell right now. I could imagine organized issue publics seizing the opportunity; I could imagine them yawning at the opportunity. But it’s definitely a worthwhile idea, and I’ll be watching with hope and interest.
2. The in-person summit is a lovely touch. Mechaber writes “To celebrate We the People’s third birthday, the White House will host the first-ever social meetup for We the People users and petition creators right here at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It will be an exciting chance for users to meet with policy experts and connect with each other in person.”
I think the future of distributed petition campaigns lies in a move towards distributed organizing. Petitions are a nice, simple, flexible tool. But they’re one-dimensional if you don’t build something out of them. The first step to deepening member/supporter engagement is building new pathways for listening to them. And in-person listening, rewarding the most active participants, is an important step.
I’d be thrilled to see MoveOn.org or Change.org or Avaaz host a meetup where they connect in-person with some of their frequent participants and petition-creators. I would see it as a step towards building a deeper civic infrastructure.
Of course, I would then hope that one of those groups would treat these members as active stakeholders, and the relationship between the White House and its petitioners is fundamentally different from the relationship between MoveOn and its petitions (again, because the White House is playing dual roles as target and venue). So this social meetup has less long-term potential. But kudos for taking this step, I hope others choose to emulate it.
3. But now here’s the critique. Egads, that user survey… Mechaber reports the results from a 2014 user survey. He writes “…over the course of 2014, an average of response surveys showed a majority of signers thought it was ‘helpful to hear the Administration’s response,’ even if they didn’t agree. Nearly 80 percent said they would use We the People again.” (emphasis added)
80% sounds promising. But some quick arithmetic makes it look abysmal.
15,559,272 people have created accounts at WeThePeople. There have been 21,882,419 total signatures. That’s… an average of 1.4 signatures per person. By the most generous possible estimate, that would be around 9 million people who signed only once, and around 6 million people who signed two times.* At the very most, only 40 percent of users have actually used WeThePeople twice in its first three years. And the actual percentage (which they can calculate, but have never made public) is probably dramatically lower than that.
So here’s the friendly birthday critique. 80% of the users who took your survey have indicated that they would use WeThePeople again**. Let’s call that the potential participatory energy in the system. Let’s call the actual percentage of users who returned a second time the kinetic participatory energy in the system. …It’s currently somewhere between 1% and 40%.
Next September, when WeThePeople celebrates its fourth birthday, I hope the kinetic participatory energy has moved closer to the potential participatory energy.
That would make it a very good year indeed.
*And if we have a power law or other fat-tailed distribution of signatures (which we almost certainly do), then its more likely to be 12 million single signatures to 3 million multiple signatures, or 15 million to 1 million.
**Survey bias issue: Depending on response rate, this represents a much tinier portion of the user base. The people who would never use WeThePeople again are more likely to delete the survey invite than the people who love the thing.