Can the White House keep up with We the People?


Participants are flooding into the White House’s “We the People” online petition initiative, but to date the number of responses from the administration has been more like a trickle.

The website was created two months ago as an innovative forum for the public to submit petitions for official consideration for executive or legislative action. Only those petitions with 150 signatures or more are visible on the website.

The site currently is averaging nearly 20,000 new users and 31,000 new signatures a day, and had attracted about 800,000 users and collected about 1.2 million signatures in all, according to a Nov. 3 blog post by Macon Phillips, director of the Office of Digital Strategy.

“It is still going strong,” Phillips wrote.

The White House deserves kudos for attracting such robust participation. But at the same time, officials appear to be finding it challenging to keep up the pace in their responses.

When it first launched the website, White House officials said there would be an official response to all petitions that attained at least 5,000 signatures within 30 days. On Oct. 3, the White House raised that threshold to 25,000 signatures.

As of late October, 77 petitions had met that threshold, according to an Oct. 26 blog post by Phillips.

But the White House has produced only nine responses to date. That represents a 12 percent response rate.

More responses are in the pipeline, according to Phillips.

“Last week, we posted our first petition response to the site and since then we have published six more,” the Nov. 3 blog entry said. “All of the responses are posted here, and more are coming soon.”

The responses, thus far, are starting to get attention in the media. The White House has already addressed controversial topics such as the existence of alien life and the legalization of marijuana.

Still, the format of the website and petition drive is new and unfamiliar. An examination of the We the People site on Nov. 8 revealed only 119 active petitions; however, more than 12,000 petitions have been submitted to the site, according to Phillips’ Oct. 26 posting. Presumably the large majority of those petitions did not meet the 150-signature threshold for visibility.

Others are experiencing technical problems with the site, and there is a new official Twitter account, @WHWeb, meant to help address those. As of Nov. 8, 126 followers had signed up to follow that account.

White House officials are pleased with the response to the petition drive thus far. “We're thrilled to see so many Americans already using We the People to engage members of the Obama Administration in a constructive dialogue on an enormous scale,” Phillips wrote. “With every new response we post, our hope is that We the People will continue to gain steam, not for the sizzle of being a 'web tool' but for the meaningfulness of the engagement and substance of the responses.”

Meanwhile, thousands of users are waiting to hear the White House responses to their as-yet-unanswered petitions.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Wed, Nov 9, 2011

With reference to President Kennedy's famous quotation, instead of merely enabling people to petition the "government" (i.e., someone else) to do something, it would be good to encourage and enable citizens not merely to "ask" but, rather, to *tell* what *they*, individually and collectively, are willing and able to do for their country. It would be good if: a) such "plans" were documented on the web in conformance with the Strategy Markup Language (StratML) standard (ANIS/AIIM 21:2009 & 22:2011), and b) indexed on the We the People site (as well as other sites serving specialized communities of interest).

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