In September 2011, the White House launched a platform called “We the People” (available at petitions.whitehouse.gov) that allows a US citizen to petition the government to take action on a specific issue the citizen deems important. At the time, only 5,000 digital signatures of support were required within a month to raise the petition to a level that would receive an official response/policy update from the administration. The platform was intended for the average citizen’s voice to be heard through a democratic process and to quickly raise popularly supported issues to the most senior levels. The administration has since increased the signature requirement to 25,000 and then 100,000 because of the antics of the online community.
With the exception of less than 5 petitions (that could have been brought to government attention through previously existing channels), the 280+ petitions that have reached the response threshold have not generated any real policy change or done anything beyond waste White House staffer time and provide comedic entertainment.
In late 2012, a petition called for the administration to immediately begin the construction of a DS-1 Orbital Battle Station, commonly known as the Death Star. It received more than 34,000 signatures, well above the 25,000 required at the time, and received both significant media attention and an official response from the administration.
The administration response cited the estimated $852 quadrillion production cost, lack of support for blowing up planets, and a fundamental design flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship. The response drew even more mocking media attention, as well as the increased requirement to 100,000 signatures. Other less entertaining petitions have asked for a state’s right to secede after President Obama’s reelection and Obama’s impeachment.
Effectiveness and a Different Approach
When examining the effectiveness of the platform, it’s critical to think about the opportunity cost of White House staffers’ time spent crafting responses to the often outlandish petitions. If there are too many ridiculous petitions getting attention, then a typical response would be to raise the required signature threshold. However, as seen by comedian Stephen Colbert’s efforts to rename a NASA facility after himself by requesting his fans to vote for his name, there are still ways to break through higher support requirements in the name of comedy.
A different approach that could be more effective would involve funneling initial petitions into categories chosen as reasonable by the administration. Another method could involve the staffers creating petitions to judge interest/support for ideas. These ideas could be on a test-basis and not considered until reaching a similar threshold. The platform could also be used for polling public sentiment by asking limited response questions to the users.
Overall I believe the platform’s crowd-sourcing efforts for policy change are highly ineffective. A very small percentage of citizens have active accounts or have ever viewed the website. White House staff time is wasted viewing and responding to satirical petitions and very few issues of actual importance are brought to the administration’s attention through “We the People.”