Civic Engagement Open Government petitions



In light of today’s announcement, I think it’s fair to say that WeThePeople is no longer a virtual ghost town.

Last year I argued that the White House’s epetition site WeThePeople had become a virtual ghost town, but today the administration’s Chief Digital Officer, Jason Goldman announced some important changes that promise to breathe new life into what had become a stagnant site.

The White House has cleared out the backlog of 20 truant petitions that had exceeded the 100,000 signature threshold but never received an official response, including several originally submitted in 2011 and 2012, along with the two-year-old petition to pardon Edward Snowden. It also has announced a new policy that all petitions that clear the threshold will receive a response within 60 days “wherever possible.” It has created a new team of people responsible for answering citizen petitions. It has posted more open code to and GitHub as an extension of its Write API, inviting third-party websites to integrate their petition-gathering with the White House site. And has announced that it will be the first major site to take advantage of the Write API, and will begin partnering with WeThePeople on petitions aimed at the administration.

The new 60-day policy is a welcome correction. It restores the promise of the site and makes a meaningful commitment that, if citizens collectively come together and petition their government, the government will listen and offer a timely response. The timeliness of response is crucial, specifically because the administration isn’t promising to agree with the petitioners.

A petition is just a single political tactic. If you want to change government policy, a petition alone usually won’t be enough. When the government negatively responds to your petition, that creates a focusing event. It’s an opportunity for additional media scrutiny and political organizing.  

Take a look at how the Huffington Post has covered the “Pardon Edward Snowden” petition. Snowden’s supporters rallied over 100,000 people to sign that WeThePeople petition in June 2013. Then 25 months passed. During that time (as John Oliver pointed out in April), public attention has mostly drifted away from Snowden’s revelations. The White House response will put this issue back on the public agenda, at least for a little while. It’s like oxygen to the activist fire—even when the government disagrees, the act of public disagreement is far preferable to suffocating silence.

That being said, the 60-day response policy is far from the most important part of Goldman’s announcement. The partnership is much more significant in the long term. The partnership is crucial because it lessens the tension between being the venue for and the target of political petitions. It means that WeThePeople is no longer competing with,, Credo Mobilize, Care2, or  These organizations are optimized to promote long-term, large-scale citizen engagement.  The White House petition site isn’t (and probably shouldn’t be). Rather than choosing between creating a WeThePeople petition or creating a petition, motivated citizens can reap advantages from both.

It also means that we can rightly start to measure WeThePeople by different metrics than the other sites. And that’s important, because it’s when you evaluate WeThePeople according to the same metrics as MoveOn petitions or that the “ghost town” imagery emerges.

Consider: 19.5 million individuals have signed a WeThePeople petition. There have been a total of 27.7 million signatures. Depending on how you measure it, that’s either a very large number or a surprisingly small number. If the White House petition site were an advocacy group, it would be almost 2.5 times larger than But the ratio of users to signatures means that, on average, people have signed only 1.42 petitions apiece.  Or, put another way, most people sign one WeThePeople petition and never come back. Only 2 or 3 petitions are started per day on WeThePeople. receives hundreds per day. Those are “ghost town” metrics: People visit once, see little, and never return.

By comparison, has developed a measure called MeRA (members returning for action) to determine its effectiveness. If people take one action with SumOfUs, then never come back again, SumOfUs calls this a weakness, not a strength. Sites like and devote tremendous resources towards optimizing their sites to promote active petition-creation, petition-sharing, and repeat petition-signing. Their MeRA scores are much higher than WeThePeople’s.

If you are a social movement organization that wants to build power for social reforms, repeat member engagement is very important to you. It’s a key building block in developing the type of deep engagement that can eventually drive social change. Up until now, the White House site was effectively competing with these movement organizations for our civic attention. Integrating with means this competitive relationship becomes a collaborative relationship. If groups like MoveOn and Care2 follow suit, it will represent an important evolution within the digital petition world.  

The partnership also improves the likely longevity of the site. When the next President takes office in January 2017, he or she will have to decide whether open petitions and digital government is going to remain a priority. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels during his time in office. Ronald Reagan tore them off. I doubt a President Trump would place as high a priority on digital civic engagement as President Obama has. The more that WeThePeople integration is baked into the functionality of other large petition sites, the harder it will be for the next President to shutter WeThePeople’s doors.

Moving forward, I’ll be watching for two things to determine just how successful this revitalized WeThePeople turns out to be:

  1. Does the White House keep its 60-day commitment when a wave of big, controversial petitions arrives? Jason Goldman has made a promise here. I’m hopeful that he’ll stand behind it. It will be a few months before we know for sure.
  2. Do other third-party platforms like MoveOn Petitions, Care2, and Credo Mobilize follow’s lead and integrate with WeThePeople? It’s no surprise that took the lead here—open government advocate Jake Brewer recently left for a job at the White House, and is the 800 pound gorilla of petition sites. If the other civil society petition sites all follow’s lead, that will clearly establish WeThePeople’s niche.  

In light of today’s announcement, I think it’s fair to say that WeThePeople is no longer a virtual ghost town. It’s becoming more like a virtual resort destination—lots of visitors, who get a lot out of their experience, but very few locals who actually call the place home.

And that’s probably how it should be.

First Post



Clinton promises data-driven campaign going forward; Politwoops is back; and more.

  • Here are “five common-sense, bipartisan principles for building a smart, digital government,” offered by Republican Matt Lira and Democrat Nick Sinai writing for Politico. As they note, “The 2016 presidential candidates like to talk about innovation, and they’re currently debating the tech-fueled ‘gig economy.’ Those are important issues, but when it comes to how government meets the digital world, there’s a crucial component they’re not talking about.” More like this, please.

  • Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’ ombudswoman, retraces how the paper got the Hillary Clinton email “criminal referral” story wrong, blaming the rush to get a scoop and unreliable, anonymous sources.

  • Commenting on Sullivan’s story, Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo zeroes in on Times’ executive editor Dean Baquet’s mea culpa. Baquet told Sullivan: “You had the government confirming that it was a criminal referral. I’m not sure what [the Times reporters and editors] could have done differently on that.” Marshall responds, “This is a telling statement. The ‘government’ didn’t tell the Times anything. Anonymous people in the government told them something. Big, big difference.”

  • An unsigned “editors’ note” in today’s Times effectively apologizes for not correcting the original Clinton “criminal referral” email story sooner.

  • Bernie Sanders’ campaign is planning to live-stream into several thousand house parties nationwide Wednesday night, and as Aaron Davis observes for the Washington Post, “Whether Sanders can use the internet to build an effective campaign remains to be seen.” Sanders told him he believes the event “will be the largest digital organizing event in the history of this country,” which may be true for a presidential campaign this early in the cycle. This map produced by the Sanders campaign shows 3,146 organizing meetings with 82,465 RSVPs. Looks to me like a pretty effective internet-driven campaign so far.

  • Tech billionaire loudmouth Mark Cuban (owner of the Dallas Mavericks, star of Shark Tank) takes a stand for his class, according to Fox & Friends, saying “I have to honestly (say) he is probably the best thing to happen in a long long time. I don’t care what his actual positions are. I don’t care if he says the wrong thing. He says what’s on his mind. He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers. This is more important than anything any candidate has done in years.”

  • Here’s a corollary to the “Barbara Streisand Effect,” which is what happens when you try to suppress something online: If, in the course of trying to intimidate a reporter from writing a damaging story about a past, reported event, such as Donald Trump’s “violation” of his then-spouse Ivana Trump, your lawyer says, “I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting,” then your lawyer actually has invoked the Streisand Effect.

  • Dave Pell’s “Next Draft of the Future,” written for Vice’s Motherboard, is wickedly good on current events, despite being written from the future.

  • Elizabeth Gillis reports for the Berkman Center blog on its Internet Monitor project, which is developing a new dashboard for understanding how people all over the world access and use the net.

  • Related: Vindu Goel reports for the New York Times on Facebook’s efforts to sell its project, describing it as “an ambitious effort to connect the world’s poorest people to the internet,” without mentioning that in fact it doesn’t connect them to anything like the actual internet.

  • Writing for The Verge, Ariha Setalvad also describes’s expansion as “making it easier for any mobile operator to sign up to offer free internet access to basic online services,” again failing to note that does not provide users a connection to the open internet.

  • Julie Scelfo reports for the New York Times on how recent college suicides, often happening in clusters, may be in part a response to accentuated social pressure fed by social media. Describing one student’s descent, Scelfo writes, “Friends’ lives, as told through selfies, showed them having more fun, making more friends and going to better parties. Even the meals they posted to Instagram looked more delicious.”

  • The NSA will destroy the phone metadata it has been collecting on Americans since 2001, the AP’s Ken Delanian reports.

  • A group of leading artificial intelligence and robotics researchers, plus non-experts like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and Noam Chomsky, have signed onto an open letter calling for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons.

  • Josh Tauberer of GovTrack has launched a Kickstarter to hire a full-time researcher to add more information about the daily activities of Congress.

  • GovDelivery announced this morning that it has acquired Textizen, a product of Code for America’s inaugural incubator program that enables government agencies to communicate via mobile messaging with the public.

  • A new ranking of start-up ecosystems looking at “the broad infrastructure of talent, knowledge, entrepreneurs, venture capital, and companies that make up a startup community” has San Francisco first, New York City second, Los Angeles third, Boston fourth and Tel Aviv fifth, Richard Florida reports for CityLab. The global study did not include cities in China, Taiwan, Japan or South Korea due to language barriers.

  • Don’t miss incoming Civic Hall Fellow Andrew Slack on “why we need a civic imagination” and what he’s going to be working on while at Civic Hall.