The open petition tool We the People is the single most effective attempt to engage the public by the White House under President Obama. It's dead simple: create a petition that falls within one of the topic areas offered by the platform; if you collect enough signatures, the White House pledges an official response—even if your petition asks them to build a Star Wars-style Death Star. For example, "Legally Recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a Hate Group" has 356,860 signatures, while getting the president to do a coin toss at an Ultimate Frisbee game has 204
Since We the People's launch in 2009, 8.2 million users have contributed 13 million signatures on over 200,000 petitions. It's a testament to the tool's popularity that the threshold for triggering an official reply has been raised twice, from 5,000 to 25,000 to 100,000.
"It started because a lot of us had worked in online advocacy groups and saw a problem," says Macon Phillips, the White House Director of Digital Strategy. "There were many petitions out there, but the connection with the target wasn't that strong."
Now the White House is opening up the We the People dialogue, with the official release today of a Read API that allows independent developers to create applications using petition data. On February 22, they held a hackathon in which developers from GitHub, Code for America, Blue State Digital, and more created apps like a Google alert-style petition tracker, and a mapper using zip codes provided by petition signers that shows how signatures spread across the country.
In the second, Write phase of the API, which Phillips calls a "game-changer," developers will be able to write widgets that collect signatures on any site and transmit them directly to the White House platform.
All of this openness is exciting, and geektastic, but it leaves some unanswered questions—like, what is the point?
If you ask Phillips for examples of how the petition tool has influenced actual policy so far, they are relatively minor, and restricted to the tech world: a decision on phone unlocking, and the administration's first public response on the SOPA-PIPA debate.
But the baseline purpose, he says, is simply the promise that if people speak up the White House will listen. "We’re engaging people in every state, in communities we might not otherwise reach, on issues they care about."
"The We the People platform is an extremely forward-looking way to engage the public in a dialogue with policymakers in the administration," says Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum. "But can the president and the White House harness the hyperconnected power of these technologies to improve democracy? To do a better job governing? That’s the real question."
[Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that the White House may be using We the People as a way to collect email addresses that could be leveraged for fundraising or donations, but there is no evidence to support that view.]