The White House Owes Responses to 30 Citizen Petitions; Some Have Been Waiting for Years

Scott Rothstein/

The administration faces a backlog of qualifying petitions under a program it created.

As the White House’s We the People petition site enters its fourth calendar year, many petitioners are still waiting for the response they were promised.

There are currently 30 We the People petitions that have crossed the threshold for an official White House reply but not yet gotten one, including eight that have been waiting more than one year. Those unanswered petitions have been waiting nearly 10 months on average for a reply, according to a Nextgov analysis.

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.

On that launch day President Obama described We the People as a “a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most” and promised White House officials would respond to any petition that received 5,000 signatures or more. That threshold grew to 25,000 and then 100,000 signatures as the site became more popular.

Officials have posted 134 responses Since We the People launched, often responding to multiple petitions at once. The site has received mixed reviews from petitioners. Some have complained that the White House posts pro forma responses and rarely seems to take petitions into consideration when formulating policy changes. Others have said they were glad to use We the People as a platform to raise awareness about an issue.

The unanswered petitions include one asking the president to fire the U.S. Attorney who led the prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz and one to pardon the National Security Agency documents leaker Edward Snowden. Swartz committed suicide before facing trial and Snowden has received temporary asylum in Russia.

The total number of unanswered petitions has dropped since the White House raised the threshold to 100,000 signatures in January 2013 but the average wait time for unanswered petitions has grown significantly longer.

Petitions that had crossed the threshold but not received a response around the time the threshold was raised had been waiting about two months on average.

Among the reasons for raising the threshold, the White House cited a desire to provide timelier and higher quality petition responses.

Of the 30 unanswered petitions currently posted to We the People, 11 were posted after the threshold was raised to 100,000 signatures and 19 were posted before the threshold was raised to that level.

Unanswered petitions posted after the threshold hike have been waiting 103 days for a response on average.

Unanswered petitions posted before and after the threshold hike have been waiting 298 days, on average, for a response. That’s essentially unchanged from an August 2013 review by Eli Dourado, a technology research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. Dourado’s review found 29 unanswered petitions that had been waiting 306 days on average.