As part of a larger effort to make government actions more transparent to the public, former President Obama started an online petitioning system called ‘We The People’ in 2011. The goal of the site is to make it easier for citizens around the country to get important issues in front of policymakers in Washington.
A recent report released by the Pew Research Center looked at all 4,799 publicly available petitions and the 227 White House responses that were filed through this system in the past 5 years. Of all the petitions filed the results show that the top three topics for petitions were related to health care systems, military and veterans’ issues, and illnesses.
All this data begs the question: What good can come from signing a petition? Can your signature actually make a difference in the larger scheme of things? The answer is yes and no. According to the study’s findings only one petition of the nearly 5000 filed over 5 years was “instrumental” in leading to significant legislation. That particular piece of legislation, which Obama signed into law, made it illegal for cell phone companies to “lock” cell phones when transferring service providers. The study goes on to explain that another petition in 2015 was “important” in changing Obama’s stance on state laws banning conversion therapy.
It is possible that other petitions may have raised awareness for certain issues, but it is unclear how much change actually came about from the hundreds of thousands of signatures that were filled out over the past 5 years.
When ‘We The People’ was created the White house vowed to publicly respond to all petitions that garnered 100,000 signatures within the first 30 days. Originally the threshold was set at 5,000 signatures. However the White House was rather slow in responding to those petitions that reached the threshold. The average response time over the 5 years was 133 days.
In 2013 the average response time was even longer; it took an average of 271 days.