Although overshadowed in the media, two recent initiatives by President-Elect Obama demonstrates his unprecedented commitment to Internet transparency and citizen engagement. The first concept, announced by transition head John Podesta last weekend, is called simply “Your Seat at the Table.” Obama-Biden Transition team will meet with hundreds of private organizations. Anyone they meet with must agree to allow any briefing materials be posted online, where citizens can review them and post their comments. Since launching last weekend, PDFs of briefing materials from over 100 organizations have been posted, and thousands of citizen comments posted in response.
Any presidential initiative that excites both Mother Jones Magazine and the Cato Institute must be unique indeed. Although the Cato bloggers griped that similar transparency is often not applied to budget matters, they should remember that as U.S. Senator, Barack Obama was a driving force behind USASpending.gov, whose sole mission is to let Americans “see where their money goes.”
The new initiative raises many questions — who will process the comments? How will they be recorded for history? How is the transition extending the dialogue to Americans who cannot — or prefer not to — engage with their government on a website? Are there any meetings where the briefs cannot, or will not be posted? These questions aside, the experiment fundamentally transforms the usual input process for government policy by allowing some conversation to occur between individuals. Some of the most exciting technology in this area are new social feedback tools like UserVoice or GetSatisfaction that attempt to create a technical framework for a collective discussion, without the prohibitively high technical barriers to entry (and problematic lack of user restrictions) of wikis.
This type of social feedback software is exactly the type of technology the fuels the other new tool, “Open For Questions” the campaign unveiled today, which “lets you ask the Transition team any questions you have about the issues that are important to you” and also “browse through questions other folks have and check off the ones you think are the most interesting.”
Fundamentally, both of these technologies of are applicable to policy-making at the local level, which unlike for the presidency suffers a lack of participants, and a need for better ways than public meetings to bring people together across time and space. If the Obama Administration can demonstrate their practicality at the national level, perhaps it will serve to debunk skepticism and resistance at over levels of government. What will remain is to extract the technical machinery behind Change.gov and make it available to local governments, overcome the political, cultural, and policy barriers to enhanced transparency and dialogue, and develop the expertise to deploy them in constructive ways.