The petitions for Texas and other states to secede from the U.S. on the White House’s "We the People" site have drawn a great deal of attention in the past couple of days. I find it highly ironic that people are protesting following the re-election of the Administration by using the very platform set up by said Administration for grassroots advocacy. That being said, it’s also a testament to the idea that open government works—even for those who believe it doesn’t.
In September of last year, as part of its open government initiative, the White House set up a website called "We the People" that allows users to ask the Obama Administration to take action on an issue by creating or signing petitions. If a petition reaches 25,000 signatures within 30 days, policy officials from the Administration will review it and issue an official response. The White House has addressed petitions covering a range of issues from puppy mills to online piracy. Within one year, the platform generated 3.4 million signatures by 2.8 million users, and the White House open sourced the application, which is built on Drupal.
Last Friday, a user identified as "Micah H." from Arlington, Texas submitted a petition asking the Obama Administration to "Peacefully grant the State of Texas to withdraw from the United States of America and create its own NEW government." Within three days, the petition had reached the 25,000 signature mark and several copycat petitions were created for various states.
While these petitions make great talk show fodder, policymakers don’t take the secession discussion very seriously. Even Texas Governor Rick Perry, who once joked about his state withdrawing from the union, has come out publicly against the idea. "But he also shares the frustrations many Americans have with our federal government," according to his press secretary in a statement to the Dallas Morning News on Monday.
But that’s the beauty of technology and open government initiatives like We the People. After a contentious election, voters frustrated with the outcome felt the need to vent their anger with the results. While Google+, Twitter, and other social media allow individuals to express their views (and clutter up your newsfeed), We the People allows those individuals to come together to amplify their voice in a peaceful forum. It’s one thing to see 20 of your more volatile Facebook friends threaten secession; it’s another to see that more than 80,000 Americans have signed a petition to that effect. We the People is helping the White House take the public pulse on issues that resonate with a large number of the U.S. population and provides a measure of accountability for the government to respond to those issues.
Practically, there is a chance that the White House may choose not to respond. The website terms state: "To avoid the appearance of improper influence, the White House may decline to address certain procurement, law enforcement, adjudicatory, or similar matters properly within the jurisdiction of federal departments or agencies, federal courts, or state and local government in its response to a petition." The Administration could arguably decline to address these petitions as a matter for the courts, since the question on the legality of secession is somewhat murky. Not to mention that there are more weighty issues on the government’s plate right now (fiscal cliff, anyone?).
However, as an advocate of open government, I hope the Administration will respond regardless of that loophole. While I personally think the whole secession idea is nutty, responding to your naysayers is an important part of living the principles that We the People espouses. Setting up the technology and open sourcing the White House beer recipe is all in good fun, but these petitions are a truer test of open government.