White House defends We the People petition responses

The White House took umbrage Thursday with comments and blog posts claiming it hasn't taken its responses to petitions posted on its new We the People website seriously.

"Every petition that reaches the threshold is put through a review process that begins with the policy experts who deal in the appropriate area," White House Digital Strategy Director Macon Phillips wrote in a blog post.

"There has been some frustration with the answers from those who disagree with Administration policy, and that's fair," Phillips wrote. But "while people may not agree with a position, it's crucial to understand its rationale . . . If these petitions are fostering a debate that might not otherwise take place about the issues Americans care about, that's a positive thing."

We the People is averaging about 20,000 new users and 31,000 new signatures each day, Phillips said. He also used the blog post to announce the White House has created a new Twitter handle, @WHWeb, to collect public comments on We the People and other White House communications technology initiatives.

The White House issued its first We the People response Oct. 26 -- to a petition seeking forgiveness for all student loan debt. That response included an announcement that the White House will speed up a program to reduce the burden of income-based repayment plans.

None of the six succeeding responses has included a policy change.

Some, such as a blanket response to eight petitions involving legalizing marijuana, simply restated the administration's position. Others, such as this response to a petition seeking repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, have expressed sympathy for the petitioners' position but noted the limits of presidential authority. Several of the most popular petitions posted on the site would require an act of Congress or even a constitutional amendment to be satisfied.

Some petitioners have criticized the White House responses as pro forma exercises that undercut We the People's stated goal -- an organized group of citizens getting a fair and open hearing from its government.

Erik Altieri, author of one of the most popular marijuana legalization petitions, told Nextgov on Monday that the White House response was "the same, weak bullet point response we're used to hearing."

Others took to the site itself to express their frustration. One petition, titled "Actually take these petitions seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening," has made it halfway to the 25,000 signature threshold for a White House response in just eight days.

Another, titled "We demand a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition," and which closes its satirical diatribe with "We would also like a cookie," received more than 1,500 signatures during the first few hours after it was posted Friday.

Ultimately, the six-week-old We the People will be judged both by how many petitioners stick with the site and by how responsive the White House appears to be, said David Stern, director of online engagement for America Speaks, a non-profit that advocates for increased citizen participation in politics.

While it's unlikely any We the People petitions will lead to major changes, Stern said, the site can have an effect on policy -- perhaps by bringing up an issue for which the administration didn't realize there was a strong constituency.

"On the other side," Stern said, "I hope you'll start to see citizens becoming more politically aware, seeing that even though these grand policy changes they sign onto don't get implemented there are minute changes that do get implemented. We might end up seeing those who participate becoming more attuned to political dynamics and signing onto smaller things that they wouldn't have before."

America Speaks is part of a coalition of civic participation groups sponsoring an input page, seeking improvements to We the People. The groups plans to cull the responses into a handful of recommendations posted as a petition on the We the People site itself.

Most of the recommendations so far are technical fixes. That's because the group's major outreach happened before petition responses started rolling in, Stern said. Ultimately, he expects the group's posting will be evenly split between policy and technical recommendations.

While We the People is well designed overall, Stern said, he supports two major technical changes. First, the site should accept third party credentials from Google, Facebook and Twitter, which can be done without significantly raising the risk of fake signatures and would make the registration process less onerous, he said.

Second, the site should include some sort of commenting system so people can discuss why they are or aren't signing a petition, post relevant articles or suggest alternate language for a future petition.

"I realize this would add a significant logistical hurdle," he said," because comments can be negative and they have to be monitored and they can diminish the quality of the experience. But as it is now, there's no way to learn from participating in the site and that's a huge missed opportunity."

The original version of this story incorrectly stated David Stern's title. The story has been corrected.