Measuring Government Social Media Part II: We the People

By Joseph Marks

March 15, 2013

While we’re on the subject of measuring government social media engagement, it’s worth drawing attention to a few stats on the petition site We the People that White House Digital Strategy Director Macon Phillips cited in a recent blog post.

According to a White House survey of people who had signed petitions that received administration responses:

That last statistic is the most interesting because it speaks to something beyond perpetuating the petition site itself and it offers a justification for the site to those who are dubious about the argument that We the People petitions have or can actually change the administration’s thinking or policy.

The White House has used We the People on several occasions to announce policy decisions including, it’s opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act and, most recently, to rules barring unlocking cell phones. It’s not entirely clear, however, that We the People petitions were decisive in the administration’s thinking in either case.

If 50 percent of petitioners say they’re learning something from White House responses, though, that means something. While We the People is still reaching a niche audience compared with, say, major newspapers or TV news programs, it’s likely got a broader audience than administration White Papers and policy statements and perhaps more than the White House’s most substantive blog posts.

And -- whether you agree or disagree with the response and even though most responses tend to be pretty tepid -- learning what the White House thinks about something that matters to you has value. This is especially true if it’s about an issue that doesn’t receive much media attention such as a campaign to regulate commercial dog breeders.

That said, it would be interesting and instructive if the White House was also surveying people who’d signed We the People petitions that didn’t pass the 100,000 signature threshold for an administration response.

It’s also worth checking out a Yahoo! Chat Phillips did Wednesday about We the People. Of particular note is his description of how complicated the system’s back end is.

First there are the 170,000 petitions that have been filed since the site went live, which is a huge number for a small staff to manage. While Phillips’ office hasn’t read every petition, he said, when they draft an answer to one petition they do dig through the pile that hasn’t crossed the response threshold for others with common themes.

Then there’s the process of getting a response written when a petition topic may cross numerous White House offices and policy councils.

“That's one of the challenges (and a good one!),” Phillips wrote. “A lot of the petition topics involve a number of perspectives.”

By Joseph Marks

March 15, 2013