White House to petitioners: We ARE listening

The Obama administration takes petitions posted to its We the People website seriously and during weekly meetings discusses responses to those that cross the 25,000-signature threshold, officials said in a response and video posted Thursday.

The White House launched We the People in September, touting it as a one-stop shop for citizens to petition the federal government and as part of the Obama administration's larger commitment to open government.

The site was flooded with petitions during its first few weeks but struggled to maintain traction with the public once officials began responding to citizen requests.

Most of the earliest petitions were about issues on which the Obama administration had a clear and long-standing position, such as appeals to legalize marijuana. Critics claimed the responses were just pro forma recitations of those positions and didn't represent genuine engagement with citizens.

Thursday's response was to a petition snarkily titled Actually Take These Petitions Seriously Instead of Just Using Them as an Excuse to Pretend You Are Listening. It was posted on Oct. 28, 2011, after the first round of White House responses.

The reply from White House Digital Strategy Director Macon Phillips was titled We're Listening. Seriously. It outlines several situations in which he said officials have learned about new issues or changed course because of a We the People petition.

The U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, for instance, is developing a proposed rule to further regulate Internet dog breeders in response to a request, he said.

"No one here at the White House thinks this is perfect" Phillips said in a video embedded in the response. "We think it's the right thing to do. [We're] making sure we're speaking with people about the issues they care about and oftentimes that means issues we aren't currently addressing in our day to day activities."

Jon Carson, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, also appeared in the video. "There are issues that are on live petitions right now that are on We the People that senior members of the White House are having meetings about because the issue came to use through We the People," he said. "Being able to say: 'Look, 60,000 people signed a petition on We the People in just a matter of weeks,' it's impactful."

Phillips defended We the People after an early round of criticism in November, arguing critics weren't giving the site enough credit for sparking conversations between government and the public.

"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."

Petitions posted to We the People aren't visible unless the petitioner can gather 150 signatures through social media and other means. Once they become visible they stay on the site for a month or until they reach the 25,000-signature threshold for a White House response, whichever comes first.

The number of active petitions on the site has hovered between 40 and 60 for the past several months. About 20 of those, however, are petitions that passed an earlier threshold of 5,000 signatures during the site's first few weeks and have not yet been answered.

A Nextgov analysis in November found the site had largely failed to attract conservative petitioners.