Careful What You Ask

One of the primary rules of surveying people is to avoid asking questions about things that you have no intention or ability to follow through on. A corollary to that is; and don’t do it on the internet.

The White House is probably learning this lesson after promising to respond to any petition receiving more than 25,000 signatures on their We The People website. If you haven’t heard about this already, people from every state in the union have petitioned to be allowed to secede.

Puerto Rico on the other hand just had a non-binding resolution to become a state.

As of this writing, Texas has over 100,000 signatures on their petition and a number of other states like Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee have exceeded 25,000 signatures.

Austin, El Paso and Atlanta have counter petitions to secede from their respective states to remain part of the U.S.

There are various other counter secession petitions listed as well including everything from exiling people who signed the secession petitions, making seceding states reimburse the U.S. for taxes and forcing Papa Johns and Pizza Hut to give everyone who remains in the U.S. free pizza if Missouri secedes.

There are actually some petitions that probably approach the intention of the website: asking the US to use its influence to gain the freedom of political prisoners, creating unified standards for redistricting, and justice for populations displaced by the U.S. government.

These are a little harder to find amidst all the demands for dissolution, impeachment and vote recounts.

I have read some articles that suggest that while the White House promises a response, it may resemble the form letter you get from a company after complaining: “Your concerns are important to us and we appreciate the feedback of our citizens. However, at this time the administration has no plans to dissolve the country. Be assured, we will keep your suggestions on file against the time that we might make such a decision and will contact you for your input into the process.”

I usually keep away from general politics for the simple reason that as the last election showed, there isn’t all that far to fall down the slippery slope before reaching the mud.

However, I think this is a great example, writ large, of the dangers inherent to soliciting feedback over the internet. It doesn’t take much thought about the consequences to jump on a petition signing bandwagon. Often you will get suggestions from people who have no concept of your business model, audience and organizational history.

However, if something in the input solicitation process leads them to believe there is a good chance of some action being taken and it isn’t, a simple “what do you think?” can turn someone who was generally positively inclined toward your organization into someone who has a bad impression. Better not to have asked in the first place.

The people who signed those petitions are probably expecting the White House to at least acknowledge their requests and start the process of exploring whether their state should be allowed to leave the Union. If nothing of the kind happens, people who merely grumbled “we should show them and leave the US” over a beer before may perceive the whole website as an empty sham and become even more resentful.

And sure, lets face it, that is pretty much what we have come to expect from promises politicians make. This will just be another one of those cases and nothing significant will likely come of it.

However, we do expect more from the businesses with which we interact. This petition system is just a really clear example of how you should watch what you ask, how you ask it and what expectations you create about your response.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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