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Over Easy: We the People

We the People logoIn its early days, the Obama administration made quite a point of its openness to the American people. One main avenue for citizen involvement is the We the People website.

From the White House Blog on the site’s first anniversary:

[In 2011], the White House launched We the People, a new platform that allows anyone to create or sign petitions asking the Obama Administration to take action on a range of issues. In just one year’s time, the platform has generated 3.4 million signatures by 2.8 million users. And what’s even more exciting is that participation is growing across the board — with more users and signatures every month.

We really couldn’t anticipate just how popular We the People would be, especially at the beginning. In the first week, nearly 8,000 petitions had been created, racking up more than 600,000 signatures by 375,000 users. Also, thirty petitions reached our original threshold of 5,000 signatures. This was a good problem to have, but we knew that this many petitions would challenge our ability to offer timely and meaningful responses to petitions in the long term. So we raised signature threshold to receive a response to 25,000.

In the more than two years since We the People’s launch, the administration has clearly become aware of the site’s popularity. The original requirement was that petitions had to gather only 5,000 signatures to qualify for a response, but subsequently the administration raised the threshold to 25,000 signatures, and eventually to 100,000. The time expected for a response depends on the topic and the overall volume of petitions that cross that threshold. When the site was launched, they promised 30-day response, but the most recent “terms of service” don’t seem to mention a time frame for the administration to respond, although there are a lot of restrictions specified for the petitioner, such as days to gather enough signatures, relevance to certain topics, etc.

As you might imagine, there have been some interesting petitions. One of the most amusing, which garnered an official response, was a petition to secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016. One of the reasons given for the request’s denial is that “The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.”

What dollar figure has that many zeros? Is that a gazillion?

Obviously they will get a lot of off-the-wall petitions, and they simply won’t respond to all of them. But more disturbing is the increasing wait time for a response to petitions that have crossed the threshold, and the apparent “cherry picking” of petitions that provide the administration an opportunity to discuss an issue it wants to highlight, never mind what “we the people” care about.

An investigation by federal technology site NextGov has revealed that many of the petitions that have met the criteria needed for a response have been long ignored by the administration, including one that’s been waiting for a response for more than two years.

One of those petitions, seeking to require labeling of all genetically modified foods, has been waiting since just one month after We the People launched On Sept. 23, 2011.

The White House has responded to 135 petitions since Sept. 2011 — or about five a month. But 30 petitions that surpassed the signature threshold still remain unanswered, including some that accumulated far more digital signatures than required for a response.

As of January 2, 2014, this list of 30 unanswered petitions includes a pardon for Edward Snowden, two petitions related to labeling of GMO foods, a petition to remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz, and a petition to stop SOPA 2013.

But the administration quickly responded to a petition … About Something A Child Said On The Jimmy Kimmel Show.

While we’re still waiting for the government to address the labeling of GMO foods, the dismissal of charges against Ed Snowden (143,812 signatures) and allowing Tesla to sell vehicles in all 50 states, the administration has stepped up to declare it won’t be removing Jimmy Kimmel from the airwaves.

This petition is dated October 19, 2013 and the supposed deadline for a response would have been a month later. The response actually came fewer than 90 days from submission. That’s almost a record for the administration to respond — and it picks something a child says on a TV show for a speedy response? This seems to be a good a reminder of how ineffective it is to petition the government directly, and should give lobbyists an indication of the value of their services. I suspect that isn’t quite the message the Obama administration intended when it created We the People.

You can see all of the petitions here.

We the People logo via, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States license.

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."