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White House 'We the People' Site, Explained

A Yahoo News chat with a White House official explains how online petitions are helping citizens engage the Obama administration on issues they care about.

by / March 13, 2013

The White House’s We the People website encourages visitors to submit and support petitions on policy issues they’re interested in -- and once a petition reaches a certain threshold of digital signatures, administration officials get involved and issue a response.

To discuss the website in more detail, White House Digital Strategy Director Macon Phillips participated in a Yahoo News chat on Wednesday, March 13, with Yahoo Columnist Chris Wilson. Similar in format to a TweetChat, participants sent in questions, which were moderated by Wilson and answered by Phillips.

Ideas are not always practical – the most noteworthy being a petition advocating the creation of a Death Star – and not always aligned with the administration’s policy objectives. Regardless, Phillips explained that the platform encourages a civic discourse, and even in cases where the administration feels differently than petitioners, there is value in citizens getting clarity on where the president stands.

“It's important to remember that the president got his start as a community organizer so he, more than anyone here, recognizes the value that these sorts of tools have because they empower regular people,” Phillips said during the chat.

Several questions were asked regarding the magic number a petition must reach before it prompts a response or action from the White House. While the number 100,000 was bandied about, Phillips pointed out that some issues still get attention, short of that number. "We are really excited to dig below the threshold and look for themes and individual petitions that have new ideas -- petitions shouldn't have to cross the threshold to have an impact necessarily,” he said.

Phillips added that when issuing a response to a petition, staffers look for similar petitions so they can pass on the response to their creators too. According to Phillips, when people create a petition using the We the People system, they will be notified if a similar petition already exists so that duplicate efforts can be avoided.

In recent months, for instance, the gun control issue has generated considerable petition activity by groups both for and against, prompting a personal message from the president explaining his views on the issue.

In addition, a petition recently circulated on cellphone unlocking resulted in the administration releasing its first official position on the issue.

The code for the We the People site is available on GitHub, and the White House encourages people to get involved. “We are all ears about new features and would love to have help implementing the changes,” Phillips said, adding that he encourages Americans to get involved in coding, pointing those interested to a couple of White House resources.

The full text of the chat is available here.

Photo from Shutterstock

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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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