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White House Reiterates Limits for Online Petitions

BY Nick Judd | Friday, November 4 2011

When White House officials promised to issue responses to people who garner enough digital signatures on a newly launched online petition website, Obama administration digital director Macon Phillips wrote Thursday night in a blog post, they didn't promise to automatically implement suggestions those petitioners might offer.

"Every petition that reaches the threshold is put through a review process that begins with the policy experts who deal in the appropriate area," Phillips wrote. "It's also important to be clear about expectations: reaching a signature threshold doesn't mean a petition's suggestion is automatically implemented."

Phillips' post comes a week after White House officials began responding to petitions that garnered enough signatures — in the form of sign-ups by people who create accounts on Whitehouse.gov tied to their email addresses — on their petition site launched in September, called We the People. It's also a day after techPresident and others noted an increasing frustration with the system, both because responses were, in the view of some petitioners, not substantive enough, and because the petition system itself suffers from problems. In particular, one husband-and-wife team of Ph.D-holding petitioners have complained — to the White House, they say, as well as on email lists and on the Huffington Post, where one of them, political scientist J.H. Snider, has a blog — that technical issues ranging from the site going down to glitches with account sign-up have kept petitions from getting enough signatures in a 30-day period to garner a response. Currently, that number is 25,000; it was 5,000 and may rise again. A petition needs 150 signatures in order to become publicly visible.

"It's important for us to continue collaborating with people using the tool to improve the experience and fine tune any rough spots we encounter," Phillips wrote. "Prior to launching the We the People, all we had were projections to estimate how the system would react and grow in a live environment. We now have a good understanding of what works well and where we need to improve."

With that, he announced another Twitter account, @WHweb, devoted to announcing new White House web initiatives and handling tech complaints submitted through Twitter. There's also a web form for non-Twitter users to report issues, he wrote.

This isn't enough for Terra Ziporyn Snider, a science writer and the other half of the Snider husband-and-wife duo. While she gave Phillips and his team credit for working to fix the site's technical issues, she wrote to me in an email that her petition on We the People wasn't an experiment in democracy, it was an attempt to do something regarding an issue she cares a lot about. She told me her petition — to ensure school hours don't begin earlier than 8 a.m. — didn't make the cut for a response in large part due to technical glitches.

She says she worked very hard to get as many people as she could to sign the petition within 30 days for that reason — and, having failed, it doesn't help her to know that the White House is working to fix the bugs that she believes hindered her efforts.

"I killed myself to do that--gave up my work, gave up my sleep, learned how to tweet, alienated most of my friends and colleagues with incessant harangues about signing, etc.--and that was my choice," she wrote to me in an email. "But what I didn't count on was that all my efforts were for nought if huge numbers of people who tried to sign the petition couldn't do so. The fact that I couldn't get my own relatives and best friends to sign the petition, and not for lack of trying, is telling."