By Joseph Marks
October 23, 2013
One of the most popular websites for online activists launched a new service on Wednesday that allows lawmakers to create official pages where constituents can petition them on everything from potholes to major national policies.
A handful of prominent legislators have already signed up for the new service from Change.org, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Jake Brewer, the site’s external affairs director and developer of Change.org for Decision Makers.
Any of Change.org’s 50 million users will be able to create or sign an appeal directed at a lawmaker who creates an account on the site, but lawmakers will be able to see how many of the signers are actual constituents based on information they provided when they registered with the site, Brewer said.
People browsing the site will be able to see nearly everything the politicians can see, he said, including the petition text, the number of people who signed it and comments people left after signing.
The site’s designers have twin goals. They hope collecting constituent demands into a single petition rather than hundreds or thousands of emails will give politicians a positive incentive to respond and engage with them. They also hope that making the entire process public will give politicians a “negative incentive” to engage with petitioners because they don’t want to look unresponsive in the public eye.
“This will help members of Congress to prioritize,” Brewer said. “It will also give citizens an opportunity to join in the process because it’s transparent and online. It’s not just happening in the black hole of an inbox somewhere.”
Change.org is classified as a B Corporation by the state of California, meaning it’s a for-profit company dedicated to social good. The company’s income comes from sponsored petitions bought mainly by nonprofits and advocacy organizations that receive prominent status on the site similar to promoted posts on social media.
Change.org for Decision Makers bears some similarities to the White House petition website We the People. Petitioners on that site are promised an official White House response if they can gain more than 100,000 signatures in one month.
Unlike We the People, however, Change.org petitions won’t stop gathering signatures once an official responds, Brewer said. That means petitioners can write back if they believe a politician hasn’t responded adequately or if they don’t like what she said.
For many politicians, Brewer said, he expects responding to Change.org petitions will be less formal than We the People responses. Politicians will be able to defend their responses when petitioners don’t like them or ask for input about how to address an issue. They can also tell petitioners when they think a petition should be directed at another public figure, for instance a petition on U.S. intervention in Syria that’s directed at a senator who doesn’t sit on the foreign relations committee.
“This isn’t just about having an antagonistic relationship,” Brewer said. “It’s really an opportunity to start a conversation.”
Change.org isn’t taking a position on whether politicians should or shouldn’t set a threshold for when they’ll respond to a petition, Brewer said. If politicians do set a threshold, however, organizers are asking -- but not demanding -- that they not set it at a higher ratio of petition signers per constituents than the We the People threshold, he said.
In other words, the 100,000-signature We the People threshold divided by the U.S. population of roughly 300 million works out to about one signature per every 3,000 constituents. That same ratio would equal about 230 signatures for the average congressional district.
Other members of Congress have expressed interest in using the site but registering many of them was delayed by the partial government shutdown that ended last week, Brewer said. The decision maker profiles will also be available to non-federal officials including governors, state legislators, city council members and mayors.
“For years people have been trying to use technology to improve the way citizens can interact and engage with Congress or with mayors or with governors,” Brewer said. “The answer has always been trying to get more citizen voices inside of government, it’s ‘how do we allow for citizens to be heard in the halls of Congress.’ With Change.org for Decision Makers, what we’re doing is saying ‘no, instead of bringing citizens into government, we’re bringing government leaders out where the people already are’ . . . We’re inviting elected members into our quote-unquote offices on the Internet where we can talk about the issues we want to talk about.”
By Joseph Marks
October 23, 2013