White House's 'We The People' Petitions Find Mixed Success

The retro way to get the attention of the White House was to write an op-ed in a high profile newspaper, lobby Congress, or maybe even stage a march on Washington. Today all you need to do is click a few buttons. In 2011 the White House created a petitioning website called "We the People." Petitions that gather 25,000 or more signatures within 30 days receive an administration response. After more than a year in operation, Audie Cornish checks in with Jim Snider, a Harvard fellow who studies democratic reform in the information age, about the site's effectiveness.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A little more than a year ago, the Obama administration tried to reboot the practice of citizen petitions of the federal government for the 21st century with its We The People Initiative at the White House website. In its first year, the program generated more than three-and-a-half million signatures for various petitions. Until recently, though, the program hasn't generated much more than media attention.

From the successful petitions to release the White House beer recipe to the unsuccessful petitions to secede filed in all 50 states following the 2012 election. Petitions that garner at least 25,000 signatures within 30 days are supposed to earn a response from the administration.

And to look at how effective the program has been we turn to J.H. Snider. He's president of iSolon.org, a nonprofit public policy institute that examines democratic reform in the information age.

J.H., welcome to the program.

J.H. SNIDER: Thank you for having me here.

CORNISH: Now, when you look at the petitions - I went online and looked at some of the top signature getters, and I have some examples: A petition to legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group, also one to request that President Obama be impeached.

Is it this wide an array of things? I mean, is this very typical of the kinds of petitions that have cropped up on the site over the last year?

SNIDER: Well, if you ever have an ability for anybody to speak up, and a petition is an open forum, you'll get a lot crazy ideas and hopefully a few useful ideas. This is just the nature of public speech. You know, what is the function of a petitioning website? I think it's to put new issues on the agenda.

But one of my disappointments is the great majority of petitions that have gotten the most publicity and the greatest response to the White House were issues that were already to be dealt with - Newtown shootings, student loan. Issues like that...

CORNISH: So you're referring to petitions in which the administration did issue a lengthy statement.

SNIDER: That's right and pointed to the legislation. The question is, in that case, is the petition really making a difference?

CORNISH: What are some other issues that the administration has actually responded to via the site? What is the quality of the responses? What's the range?

SNIDER: Well, there's a lot of variation. One of the petitions is, you know, please really respond to what we say rather than give us a political non-answer. For example...

CORNISH: So there's a petition for better answers to the petition?

(LAUGHTER)

SNIDER: That's right, yes. There's a lot of frustration. A lot of the responses are sort of political responses, where you're not quite sure what the person is saying. They say, on the one hand, we support and recognize your concerns. But on the other hand, nothing is really happening.

CORNISH: J.H., looking at the program, what are two or three things you think that would make it better?

SNIDER: Well, I'd like to see dates on the White House responses to petitions - they had them earlier on - then you can see how long they're taking to respond and when they're clustering, or are they waiting till after the election. I'd like to know how many people start filling out a petition and then they don't finish it. There's a huge drop-off, and maybe we can get a better understanding as to exactly, you know, where in the process they're getting tripped up.

What I would like to see is Congress develop some basic ground rules for how petitions should be used, some basic standards of disclosure, so that the political types who end up taking control of these type of websites are limited in their discretion, of how they can manipulate the site and present information to the public. So, just a little bit more accountability in the process.

CORNISH: Is this really necessary? I mean, in this day and age, if you want to get the attention of the government, there are special interest groups. I mean, what makes this worth pursuing?

SNIDER: Well, it can be highly motivating to advocacy groups who want to create a coalition. Because people don't want to get involved in politics unless they can have an impact and here you're promised to get some type of response. And to the extent that we don't discourage that, I think that's useful. That doesn't mean we have to pay attention to all of them.

But it's a forum to try to get heard and that's very valuable, especially - we are large country, it's just very difficult for the unorganized to get organized and be effective. So I think this could help move the ball forward. And the question is how could we fine-tune it to do that in the most effective way possible?

CORNISH: Well, J.H. Snyder, thank you so much for talking with me.

SNIDER: Great, nice to be here, thank you.

CORNISH: J.H. Snyder is a fellow at Harvard University and president of iSolon.org, a nonprofit public policy institute that looks at policy in the information age.

We reached out to the White House about the We The People site. They say citizen petitions have made a substantive impact. They point to petitions on online piracy legislation and regulating Internet puppy mills that they say have spurred action by the administration.

Moreover, White House officials in a statement said this: The goal of We The People is not to change policy based on reaching a petition threshold, but to create opportunities to organize around issues of common interest; and if successful, get the White House to engage through an official response, including on issues that might not otherwise be the subject of conversation in Washington.

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