How the White House’s New Online Petition System Can Be Kept Accountable

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The White House yesterday unveiled plans for a new online petition system called “We the People.” Using the new service at whitehouse.gov, citizens will be able to create petitions and use email and social media to gather support. If a petition gathers enough support, it will be reviewed and answered by White House policy staff (see the above video for more info).

“If a petition gathers enough support (i.e., signatures) it will be reviewed by a standing group of White House staff, routed to any other appropriate offices and generate an official, on-the-record response,” said White House Director of Digital Strategy Macon Phillips in a statement. “Petitions that gather more than 5,000 signatures in 30 days will be reviewed and answered.”

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The U.S. is not the first country to try online petitions. In the U.K., a petition system pioneered by Gordon Brown’s Labour government was relaunched last month by the new coalition government. Petitions that gather over 100,000 signatures must be debated in the House of Commons.

It will be interesting to see how the Obama administration handles controversial petitions. The last three times the administration asked the public to put questions to the President, the issue of marijuana legalization has been among the top vote-getters. That was the case during July’s Twitter town hall event with the President, as well as January’s YouTube Q&A session. Despite the issue’s popularity among participant’s, it was made light of or ignored.

The new petition system is in line with the platform of transparency and accountability on which President Obama ran. Whether it will force the administration to come on the record about popular but politically disagreeable issues remains to be seen.

The White House is seeking feedback on how “We the People” can be improved, so here’s a suggestion: One way to ensure accountability for the system would be to add a “shot clock” requiring that the administration respond to a qualifying petition within a certain amount of time, say six months. That way we could be sure petitions will be addressed in a timely manner.

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Jerry Brito is a contributor to TIME. Find him on Twitter at @jerrybrito. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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