President Obama has promised to run the most transparent presidential administration in history, and as part of that initiative, in 2011, the White House set up its We The People site. In their words:
We the People is a new, easy way for Americans to make their voice heard in our government. It is a platform on the White House website where individuals can create and sign petitions that call for action by the federal government on a range of issues facing our nation. If a petition gathers enough signatures, it will be reviewed by White House staff and receive an official response. We the People helps the White House understand the views of the American people and have a focused and civil conversation with them.
A laudable step. But the site has an interesting quirk: there is a section of the site dedicated to open petitions, and there is a section for White House responses, but there’s no similar section dedicated to petitions that have met their signature thresholds and are awaiting a response.
So I decided to fix that.
The result is WHPetitions.info, a single-serving site that simply lists petitions that the White House has promised and neglected to answer. The oldest petitions are at the top.
Speaking of oldest petitions, some of the petitions awaiting a response are pretty old! For example, there is a petition to require genetically-modified food to be labeled that has been waiting since October 23, 2011, which was the first possible day a petition could qualify for a response. Six petitions currently on the site are over a year old, and the average time that the 30 (as of this writing) pending petitions have been waiting is 240 days.
Now, the White House never specified when they would respond. In fact, they explicitly say there is no firm timeframe for a response:
We will do our best to respond to petitions that cross the signature threshold in a timely fashion, however, depending on the topic and the overall volume of petitions from We the People, responses may be delayed.
But a 240-day average for pending petitions still seems like a lot to me; they have responded to 202 petitions so far in an average of 61 days.
It’s also interesting to see which issues the White House is neglecting. At the moment, 10 of the 30 outstanding petitions deal with Asian foreign policy. There are two petitions to fire the prosecutors whose overreach caused Aaron Swartz to commit suicide, as well as a recent petition to pardon Edward Snowden. Petitioners don’t want the FDA to regulate premium cigars or e-cigarettes. And some petitions are a little offbeat: for example, here is one asking the president to spend an hour talking tax policy with Neal Boortz.
Still, on the whole, most of the unanswered petitions raise substantive policy issues that deserve a response. Here’s hoping my site nudges the White House to keep its promise to answer.