Source: Screenshot of the "We the People" website.
Source: Screenshot of the “We the People” website.

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%).

In terms of whether these petitions had any impact, the study suggests there were a variety of outcomes:

  • At the most meaningful level, one petition was instrumental in creating a significant piece of legislation: A January 2013 petition regarding the unlocking of cellphones led to a bill that Obama signed into law in August 2014. The petition called for making it illegal for telephone companies to “lock” their phones by preventing a phone purchased from one telephone carrier to be used on another carrier’s system.
  • Another petition was important in changing President Obama’s position on state laws banning “conversion therapy.” After a 2015 petition sought to encourage states to bar the controversial therapies that try to “convert” lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans (LGBTQ+) to heterosexual, the White House says that the president decided to support state laws banning these therapies.
  • A January 2016 petition requesting the president make an appearance on a previously unvisited late night talk show – the fourth most signed petition on the site – was a major reason Obama appeared on HBO’s “