With more than 5 million users, “We the People” want to be heard online

Use of one of the White House’s signature open government efforts, its e-petition platform, has exploded over the last six months. New data released today by the White House strongly suggests that We The People is the first open government platform that has gone mainstream.

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As of January 14, 2013, there are now 5,410,525 total We The People users.

That’s up from 2,756,057 in late August 2012, doubling over the course of 6 months.

There are 141,310 total petitions, up from 45,901 in late August 2012, more than a 3-fold increase.

There have been 9,178,278 total signatures, up from 3,320,520, nearly a 3-fold increase since late August 2012. The majority of this growth came after the election, when petitions to let states secede from the U.S.A. popped on the platform and drew broadcast media attention, which in turn drove more awareness of the platform.

On many levels, this makes sense: more people have access to the Internet now, particularly through their mobile devices, and the use of social media has exploded. These three factors have connected more people to government and to one another, combining to enable them to use the Internet as a platform for collective action to speak out about issues that matter to them.

We the People was launched in November 2011 as an effort to give citizens a voice in government in the Internet age. While the platform was new, the idea was not: the British government has had online petitions for years. Across the Atlantic, however, there’s special context: the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States protects the right of the people to “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Petitions have played an important role in the nation’s history, from the Virginia Legislature to Quakers petitioning the colonial government and Continental Congress to abolish slavery.

“When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens,” President Barack Obama said in 2011, when the platform was announced. “That’s what the new We the People feature on WhiteHouse.gov is all about – giving Americans a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most to them.”

Prior to the election, this open government effort was a relatively slow burn, in terms of growth. Until the fall of 2012, the most significant role it had played came just under a year ago, when the White House took an official position on petitions on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), changing the political context for the bills.

On the evening of December 20 2012, however, President Barack Obama responded to 32 different e-petitions related to gun violence. It was the first direct response to an e-petition at +The White House by a President of the United States. While this remains the only e-petition that the President has responded to personally, before or since, it was a milestone in digital government, marking the first time that the President spoke directly to the people through the Internet about an issue they had collectively asked to be addressed using the Internet.

While We The People has been used as a punch line for DC political reporters, given some of the more edgy petitions that have gone up on it, this new set of data strongly suggests that a majority of users not only found the responses meaningful but intend to keep involved. According to the White House, of the more than 50,000 people who responded to a survey after receiving a response to their epetition:

  • 86% said they would create or sign another petition
  • 66% said the response was the administration was “helpful”
  • 50% learned something new

To date, according to the data the White House released today, 201 petitions have crossed the 25,000 threshold that means the White House will give an official response. Of those, 162 e-petitions have received a response, which results in an 80.6% clear rate. 2.1 million users have received a response to their e-petition, a 38.8% response rate. The remaining 3 million or so users are either awaiting a response or signed on to petitions that didn’t meet the threshold. Responding to the growth in user base that has come with more attention, the White House raised the threshold for an official response today. In a blog post at WhiteHouse.gov, White House digital director Macon Phillips talked about the change:

When we first raised the threshold — from 5,000 to 25,000 — we called it “a good problem to have.” Turns out that “good problem” is only getting better, so we’re making another adjustment to ensure we’re able to continue to give the most popular ideas the time they deserve.

Starting today, as we move into a second term, petitions must receive 100,000 signatures in 30 days in order to receive an official response from the Obama Administration. This new threshold applies only to petitions created from this point forward and is not retroactively applied to ones that already exist.

In the last two months of 2012, use of We the People more than doubled. In just that time roughly 2.4 million new users joined the system, 73,000 petitions were created and 4.9 million signatures were registered.

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The most signatures on a single petition to date (319,782 and counting) are on one that remains open, asking the administration to declare the Westboro Baptist Church a hate group, followed by two other related petitions. Other popular petitions remain open, from one to recount the election, one to support the release of standards for labeling genetically modified food and one to require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research.

It isn’t an accident that there’s a wide variety of causes and issues on We The People. The White House made a notable design choice when it left the platform open to any petition, instead of constraining it. It was also a politically risky one given the potentially unwelcome distraction in an election year. Yes, that resulted in less serious outcomes, like a petition to build a Death Star, or edgy ones, like secession, but it also enables the people to petition their government about issues that don’t fall into pre-selected buckets, talking points or lobbying areas.

Given that the platform is in part aimed at creating more participation in government, it would be fair to judge that aspect of We The People a qualified success. On other counts, the effort is more of a mixed success. Open government advocate Jim Snider, who has been critical of the democratic function of the platform, has made other specific suggestions for ways that Congress could improve We the People, from verification of identity to standardized data to a deadline for an official written response from the head of the relevant federal agency.

There are several other ways the platform could be improved, which is always true if you think of open government being in beta. (That’s particularly true architects are improving a given government platform using citizen feedback). Once again, the White House is releasing a snapshot of data about the nature and growth of the platforms use but isn’t sharing open data about the Web analytics behind We The People as it changes. It would be useful to have more than twice yearly check-ins on use and to be able to see how long petitions have been open or how quickly they’ve passed a threshold. Micah Sifry made even more significant suggestions for how We the People could help form a more perfect union in November, recommending that the petitions be used to enable signers to talk more to one another, not just the White House.

Last August, the White House open sourced We The People on Github. If more civic coders get involved in “hacking the government, some of the improvements might come sooner rather than later. While the code hasn’t been repurposed by another national government yet, In the months since, they’ve continued to work on an API that would allow other petition services, like Avaaz, Change.org, 38 Degrees or SignOn, to tie into it. Phillips referred to this work today:

It’s wonderful to see so many people using We the People to add their voices to important policy debates here in Washington and bring attention to issues that might not get the attention they deserve. This increasing adoption strengthens our resolve to build new features, including an API that would allow other popular online petition platforms to integrate with our official one.

Such an API could also allow integration into Facebook or other social networking services, which could expand the reach and power of e-petitions, particularly if networks of people can be activated to engage in offline actions, like phone calls, in-person visits, demonstrations or votes.

For more discussion of the pros and cons of online petitions, tune in to the episode of Kojo Nnamdi from earlier today, where I discussed We the People and other platforms with representatives of Change.org, MoveOn.org and a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “With more than 5 million users, “We the People” want to be heard online

  1. Pingback: What’s Wrong with e-Petitions and How to Fix them | DemocracySpot

  2. Pingback: White House moves to increase public access to scientific research online - O'Reilly Radar

  3. Pingback: White House supports unlocking cellphones but Congress must update DMCA to fix rule | digiphile

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