Tag Archives: transparency

The Effect of Re-election on White House Petition Responses

Last week, I launched WHPetitions.info in order to bring transparency to the We The People petitions the White House has been ignoring. But after launch, I thought it might be interesting to do a bit of social science with the data I had collected, only a tiny fraction of which is displayed on the site.

Using the data provided by the We The People API, it is possible to construct retrospectively a snapshot of the state of petition responses at any moment in time. So I decided to do that beginning on October 23, 2011 at 9:00am EST and every 24 hours thereafter. This gives me 669 daily observations, at 9 or 10am each day, depending on daylight savings time.

What interesting events happened between October 23, 2011 and today? One obvious one is Barack Obama’s re-election. Let’s see if it had any effect on White House petition responses!

The first thing I decided to check was the effect on the number of petitions and responses. Interestingly, there was an increase both in the number of new pending petitions and in the number of responses shortly after election day (represented by a dashed vertical line).


Next, I looked at the average number of days that pending petitions were awaiting a response. That is, for unanswered petitions, how long have they been waiting, on average?


This graph also captures the responses that occurred shortly after the election, which decreased the average waiting time of pending petitions. But note that since that big drop, there has been a steady increase in average waiting time, and the statistic is now at an all-time high.

Next, I decided to investigate whether there is a difference in White House responsiveness to a subset of petitions before and after the election. I calculated at each moment in time how many petitions had been waiting for a response for six months or more.


Using this data, it is possible to see a much greater structural break. The number of petitions waiting for six months or more has grown almost monotonically since election day, and tellingly, it increased very rapidly about six months after election day.

Finally, I constructed an abstract measure, total petition-days for pending petitions, which I think captures the overall state of White House responsiveness.


As you can clearly see, by this measure, there has been a big change in White House responsiveness to We The People petitions since election day.

Are you interested in crunching these numbers yourself? You can download a snapshot of this data here. Please let me know if you have any questions about how the data are calculated, and also if you find anything interesting.

Announcing WHPetitions.info, a New Site to Help the White House Keep Its Petition Promises

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.

P. S. — WHPetitions.info couldn’t have been made without the great API offered by the White House web team. Kudos to them.

The New WCITLeaks

Today, Jerry and I are pleased to announce a major update to WCITLeaks.org, our project to bring transparency to the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced wicket).

If you haven’t been following along, WCIT is an upcoming treaty conference to update the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), which currently govern some parts of the international telephone system, as well as other antiquated communication methods, like telegraphs. There has been a push from some ITU member states to bring some aspects of Internet policy into the ITRs for the first time.

We started WCITLeaks.org to provide a public hosting platform for people with access to secret ITU documents. We think that if ITU member states want to discuss the future of the Internet, they need to do so on an open and transparent basis, not behind closed doors.

Today, we’re taking our critique one step further. Input into the WCIT process has been dominated by member states and private industry. We believe it is important that civil society have its say as well. That is why we are launching a new section of the site devoted to policy analysis and advocacy resources. We want the public to have the very best information from a broad spectrum of civil society, not just whatever information most serves interests of the ITU, member states, and trade associations.

At the same time, we’re not backing off from our original position. We think the ITU’s policy of keeping WCIT-related documents secret is becoming increasingly untenable. We received an email from the ITU’s press office yesterday announcing a global press briefing. Here is what it said:

As the conference approaches, there is quite a lot of misinformation being circulated concerning the agenda and process of the conference. Join this global discussion to find out what’s REALLY going to be discussed, and how the process of proposals and debates operates to ensure a global consensus among all countries.

Misinformation, they claim—about documents the ITU keeps secret. If the ITU and its client states have nothing to hide, why are they keeping information from the public? The best way to fight misinformation is with transparency. We call on the ITU and its member states to make all documents associated with global telecommunications available to the public.

We could also use your help. Please help us spread the word about WCITLeaks to anyone who may be interested. In addition, we ask our users around the world to apply pressure to their governments to make their documents publicly available. Finally, please make good use of our new resources section; it is vital for the future of the Internet that the global citizenry be well-informed about potential threats to the free flow of information.