Source: Pew Research Center
BY PAUL HITLIN
During President Obama’s first full day in office on Jan. 21, 2009, he issued a statement committing his administration to pursue “an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” His goal was to make the federal government more transparent, participatory and collaborative through the use of new technologies.
The broader effort was called the Open Government Initiative, and a key part of it took effect more than two years later when the administration created an online petitioning system called “We the People” in September 2011. The White House promised to use the site to engage with the public and to issue responses to all petitions that reached a given number of signatures within 30 days of creation. The original threshold was set at 5,000 signatures but was increased to 100,000 in later years. As Obama prepares to leave office in early 2017, the site has been active for more than five years and is one of the most prominent legacies of the open government initiative.
In order to understand how citizens used the opportunity to directly seek redress from the White House, and how the administration responded, Pew Research Center conducted a detailed content analysis of “We the People” petitions. The “We the People” archive includes all petitions that received at least 150 signatures within the first 30 days of when they were posted on the site.1 The Center downloaded and examined these petitions covering the period from the site’s 2011 inception through July 3, 2016. The analysis is based on a combination of publicly available data provided by the site’s API and human coding of all 4,799 publicly available petitions and 227 White House responses.
This analysis shows that no one type of request dominated the online petition system, with users of the site instead addressing a wide range of topics. The topmost subjects included petitions pertaining to the health care system (8%); disease awareness and related issues (6%); veterans’ and military issues (6%); immigration (5%); requests to honor individuals or create holidays (5%); requests to investigate criminal cases (5%); and animal rights (5%).