recommended reading

One year later We the People petitioners have mixed reviews

As it approaches its one-year anniversary, the White House website that invites people to petition the government and promises to respond to the most popular appeals is getting mixed reviews from users.

Kathleen Summers credited We the People, which will turn one on Saturday, with bringing greater public attention to animal mistreatment by commercial dog breeders. Summers’ petition asking the government to better regulate commercial breeders received 32,000 signatures and led to a proposed new regulation from the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“It’s an ongoing problem where people in the country feel like they can’t get their voices heard,” said Summers, who manages the Humane Society of the United State’s Puppy Mills Campaign. “To some extent it will always be that way with government. No one can expect a personal response to every letter they send. That’s why this site is really helpful, because it lets the most important issues rise to the top.”

Summers’ petition is one of only a handful that has produced government action.

The Obama administration used its first petition response in October 2011 to announce changes to the government's income-based student loan repayment program that would significantly lower monthly payments for some borrowers. The link between that policy decision and the petition -- which asked the president to forgive all student loan debt -- was tenuous, though. Two extremely popular petitions attacking the Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP acts may also have contributed to the White House’s decision to come out in opposition to those Internet regulation bills.

The majority of the 82 petition responses the White House has issued so far have been restatements of administration policy or explanations for why the it can’t comment or doesn’t have jurisdiction in the matter. That has alienated many petitioners.

Erik Altieri, communications director for the marijuana legalization group NORML, told Nextgov in October that he felt shunted off by the administration’s response to his petition, especially by the fact it was lumped together in one response with seven other marijuana legalization petitions. Altieri hadn’t expected the White House to change course on marijuana, he said, but he had “expected to at least get a more direct response instead of the same, old talking points.”

Three petitioners who crossed We the People’s initial threshold of 5,000 signatures for an administration response during the site’s first few weeks are still awaiting a response one year later.

Among those petitioners is Josh Ruebner, national advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, who asked the Obama administration to not veto Palestine’s attempts to join the United Nations. In the year since he filed his petition, Ruebner said, signers have complained to him about the long wait time and speculated the White House was only trying to gather their emails for future outreach.

Creating a We the People account obligates users to receive emails related to the site itself and updates about petitions they’ve signed, according to the terms of participation. The site’s registration page does include an option to “sign up for email updates from President Obama and other senior administration officials,” according to the site.

“I saw the White House responded to someone who wanted the president to declare the existence of alien life forms; I guess they thought that was more important,” Ruebner joked.

“I do think it’s a good step for the administration to engage in this sort of public outreach,” he continued. “I wish it was done more transparently. I wish they did answer all the petitions that receive the requisite number of signatures like they promised . . . We’ve tried to engage with the administration, but we’ve found, with a few exceptions, they’re pretty closed off to us.”

Dustin Chalker also is still waiting a year later for a response to his petition seeking equal treatment for atheist and agnostic members of the military. He speculated in an email that it was easier for the White House to ignore his petition than to risk alienating either side by issuing a response. 

“I’ve grown quite cynical [about] the We the People petition process,” Chalker said. “The administration seems to use it to create a superficial veneer of responsive government while doing what it wants to do, anyway. They take action when they agree. They just say ‘no’ when they don’t. They ignore the issue if it would cost political capital to issue an answer. It was a great idea but the implementation is insulting to the ideals it was supposed to represent.”

Threatwatch Alert

Thousands of cyber attacks occur each day

See the latest threats

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from Nextgov.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

    Download
  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.