White House grapples with a flood of online petitions

The true test of We the People, the Obama administration's online petition site, won't be how many petitions are launched through the Web page, but how well the White House is able to respond to them, experts told Nextgov this week.

If it looks as if federal officials are ignoring the site or only issuing pro forma responses, that could undermine the operation, they said, and make people feel more alienated from their government.

The White House initially promised to respond formally to any We the People petition that received more than 5,000 signatures, but after nearly three dozen petitions crossed that mark in the site's first week, the administration raised the bar to 25,000 signatures within 30 days.

In a blog post announcing the change Monday, White House New Media Director Macon Phillips called the flood of signatures "a good problem to have." A White House official told Nextgov Tuesday that the raised minimum should also be seen as evidence the White House is committed to producing well-considered responses to the most popular petitions, rather than routine responses to more petitions than it can handle.

The White House has described We the People as part of a broad array of transparency initiatives since President Obama took office. Other efforts include Data.gov, a repository for thousands of federally produced datasets, and performance.gov, which collects information on how agencies are meeting performance goals.

There's a good chance the White House will have to raise the bar on signatures again as the petition site gains steam, said Georgetown University Professor Diana Owen, who studies social media in politics -- a possibility Phillips acknowledged in his blog post. That could damage the site's credibility if petitioners feel the White House is backing off on a commitment to respond diligently to the public, Owen said.

"If the site 'does well,' they're going to be overwhelmed," said Randy Paynter, founder of Thepetitionsite.com, a popular online petition site that also manages Facebook's petitions application. "I don't see how they can respond to [petitions] in a way that's actually going to satisfy the petitioners. It's usually not good to ask for input if you're not able to respond to it effectively. Otherwise you're just alienating those who have expressed their opinions."

The public's expectations for the site might also be damaged, Owen said, because so many of the most popular petitions are on issues the executive branch either has little power to influence -- such as freeing criminals imprisoned under state law, or is extremely unlikely to change its position on -- such as legalizing the marijuana, which is by far the most popular topic on the site.

After the seventh or eighth official response to a marijuana petition, petitioners are likely to become cynical, feeling the White House isn't really responding to their demands as promised, Owen said.

"I'm not so sure it will form a particularly useful function in terms of setting the policy agenda or have any real effect on policymakers in the federal bureaucracy other than to get a written response," she said. "I'm just wondering if this will create another level of work for someone in the White House who might be better occupied."

The White House official responded that even if internal discussions spawned by the site don't always change policy, it still represents an opportunity for the White House to engage with the public and to explain why it can't or won't make a particular change.

Owen said she did think the site is well designed and that it was useful for aggregating issues people are petitioning the White House about -- from the grand scale to the small scale to the just plain weird.

Because of its formal structure, though, the site may be less effective at fostering genuine communication with the public than other social media initiatives the Obama Administration has launched in office or during his campaign.

"It's giving the illusion that it's creating a space for dialogue or to interact, but it's not," Owen said. "In some ways, it's a step back from the social media use we say in the election . . . It's a very controlled way that discourse is managed."