We've talked before on this show about the different ways President Obama and the White House are using digital technology and social media to interact with the public. Macon Phillips, the White House director of digital strategy, leads the team that is changing the way the whitehouse.gov website works, attempting to make the White House more accessible to the public. This week, the White House launches a new mobile app, targeting the increasing number of people plugged into iPads, Androids, and other mobile devices.
"We have to constantly think about where people are getting information, how they're doing it these days. And obviously one of the things that people are doing is getting on their phone," says Phillips. "Since 2010 we've seen the portion of our traffic to the whitehouse.gov website triple from 5% to 15%." The new app connects users to White House blogs, photos and live streaming events.
One other way the Obama White House has tried to use technology in new ways is through an online petition system, 'We the People.' Since launching in late 2011, the system has attracted more than 2.7 million users, taken in 45,901 petitions, and garnered more than 3.3 million signatures, according to figures released Tuesday.
"'We the People' basically offers an opportunity for anyone to create a petition on the White House website. And if they can gather enough signatures in a period of time, the White House issues an official response. That's it. It's a very basic set of expectations," says Phillips.
Petitions need 25,000 signatures within 30 days to get a response. So far, 112 petitions have crossed that threshold, prompting official responses on a range of, er, extraordinary topics.
"We've had to address whether Area 51 exists," says Phillips, adding they were also petitioned to "confirm the existence of aliens." The response? The government has no evidence ET exists, but it is still searching.
There is a lighter, some would say sweeter side to petitioning the White House. Press Secretary Jay Carney tweeted about releasing the recipe for White House Honey Ale, the in-house beer brewed with honey from Michelle Obama's garden's beehive. Over the weekend, the White House released the recipe alongside a behind-the-scenes video of White House chefs brewing and bottling honey ale and porter.
"It's a great example that petitions don't have to be boring, in-the-weeds policy stuff. They can still have fun with this."
But such a system could also be potentially dangerous, forcing the White House to talk about issues it may not want to talk about. Of the petitions that have crossed the threshold, at least two forced the administration to take a side on a public policy debate that the president otherwise would not have weighed in on.
"The Stop Online Piracy Act, also the Protect Intellectual Property Act -- SOPA and PIPA -- which was in Congress and going through and had to do with intellectual property online. And it was a very contentious issue, and frankly it was one that the White House was not involved in," says Phillips. "But a lot of people online were following this very closely and wanted to know where the president stood on them, so they created actually two petitions and both skyrocketed through the threshold. And I was walking around the building with these petitions, sitting down with the right people, and saying, 'Where do we stand on this?' "
Another hot topic is the humane treatment of animals.
"There was a petition about websites that sell puppies online, and obviously that's something you're not going to find a lot of supporters about, but the petition actually asked the USDA to take action on this," says Phillips. In the end, the agriculture department decided to create an official rule that was published in the federal register with a separate opportunity for public comment.
But that again is another issue politicians would want to avoid. On one side is the humane treatment of animals, which many believe in, and on the other side are people who believe in as much freedom as possible when it comes to running their business; there are people who run legitimate places that raise and sell puppies, and do not want government interference, and then there are illegitimate puppy mills.
"This is a real big challenge for us, and we recognize that there's frustration about the petition system, because people think if they can reach that threshold that change is going to happen and that's not the case for what you bring up," says Phillips. "But what the petition system can do is prompt a conversation and at least let the public know where we stand on it, if not more."