Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The White House Petition Site -- Useful? Or Useless?

Many of you have probably heard that the Obama Administration is launching what's being called a "petition site."  The idea is to have a place where people can directly petition the federal government -- you know, like it says in the First Amendment.  If you can gather enough support, the White House will review your petition and send you an official response.

I'm all for advocating in any way, shape or form and, hey, if you have a big enough cause I say go for it.  Such a site may help raise the profile of your issue in a new way.

But if you're one of the thousands of advocacy groups around the country focused on a somewhat niche set of issues that are unlikely to garner hundreds of thousands of supporters, I really don't think this site is a good use of your time.  Why?  Two main reasons:

First of all, in many cases a federal agency can't solve your problem.  Unless you're talking about a regulation (i.e., the implementation of a law passed by Congress), one likely response you'll get from the White House is "hey, interesting idea, but we can't do anything about it.  Congress needs to pass a law to allow that to happen."   In some cases an agency may have some leeway, but for the most part the authority of the executive branch rests in its implementation powers, not in changing policy.

But second, and more important, effective advocacy is all about telling a personal story that relates back to a policy issue.  To be a truly engaged citizen -- a true participant in the "we the people" philosophy -- you'll need to think carefully and wholeheartedly about how what government does impacts you directly.  Once you're able to connect that personal story back to government action you'll be far more likely to gain the attention of policy makers of all types and from all sides of the aisle.  A "yeah, me too" kind of signature on a petition just won't get you there.

So kudos to the Obama Administration for taking some steps to better listen to citizens.  However, if you're a citizen who wants to move beyond being heard to to eventually be agreed with (our overall goal, right?), you'll need to likewise move beyond petitions and toward active, effective engagement.

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