Wednesday, November 26, 2008

If the government moderates a message board, isn't that a lot like censorship?

Along with the brand new comments section of comes the brand new Comment Policy. The policy itself is completely reasonable, and contains nothing that you wouldn't expect to see in any comment policy for any other website.

But this isn't any other website.

This is the government we're talking about, and I wonder if they don't have a higher standard than other websites for transparent moderation. If they are trying to create a forum for Americans to share their views, but they retain the right to remove some of those views, it raises a concern. I don't suspect that anyone running this project has even the tiniest glimmer of interest in using message board moderation as an excuse to remove dissenting views, but the possibility for this abuse exists. could use a few tricks to assure the community that the message boards are only moderated as truly needed to remove comments that don't adhere to the comments policy. For increased transparency, they could continue to show a line for each removed post, including the name of the original poster and a brief line explaining that it has been removed (many message boards do this currently). They should also make it a policy to email users if one of their posts is removed, which would help reduce frustration in cases when users feel their post is removed unfairly.

Probably the best way to ensure transparency of the moderation will come from the users themselves. If people begin to feel that their posts are removed unfairly, you can bet we will see them submitted to sites like Digg and reddit and run right up to the top, since those communities are quick to pounce on failures of government transparency.

In the end, I'm not too worried about this issue, but it is a concern that is implicitly raised as soon as you start moderating a message board. Furthermore, it might become a bigger issue if we begin to see a lot of flame wars and disrespectful comments and the moderators need to play a larger role to keep the conversation civil. Let's hope we can keep it civil on our own.

Holy crap! becomes a big deal


After a few weeks of small changes, takes a huge leap forward this week. They have added a "Join the discussion" section and enabled a commenting system to allow citizens to get involved and share their views. You watch a brief video about the importance of fixing health care in the US, and then you can jump right in and give your take.

So far, there are 1531 comments, and the number goes up every time I've gone back to check. And even more amazing, the comments are respectful and thoughtful!

What happens from here? It's hard to say, but there are a lot of good options to explore. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Summarize the main streams of discussion. The good news is that they have over 1500 comments. The bad news is that no one is going to read over 1500 comments, and even with the Digg-style rating system, it's hard to get a feel for the full scope of the discussion. The Obama team should identify the main points that people are making and pull together a summary of the most valuable comments on each point (with links of course). You could then start a discussion forum centered around these points, where people could add new comments and provide links to relevant research or references. After all, "solving health care" is far too big a problem to tackle in one piece.
  • Post an official response. Let us know our voices have been heard, and then guide us to what comes next. Explain how your team is going to make decisions about what to tackle first, so that we don't feel ignored if some of our pet projects are left out of the plan. Challenge the audience to think more deeply - push back on the "old politics" ways of thinking which are evident in some comments.
  • Bring more people into the discussion. It's very exciting to see so many people posting comments on, but let's be honest: most people don't even know the website exists. Obama has many tools available to reach more of the American public. He already has millions of phone numbers and email addresses (though there is significant discussion about how he will be able to use these lists as president) and that is just the first step. If he uses as an outlet for significant announcements, he can force the press to cover the site and massively raise awareness of the process (the coverage is already beginning now). And of course, as the range of issues widens, so will the audience.
  • Ask for expert opinions. This one will be tricky, but it could be a very exciting way to engage Americans in policy. Right now, it seems that Obama's goals are first to make people feel more engaged and possibly as a distant second, to gauge where Americans stand on an issue. But let's be honest: this process is not really about Obama getting help from the public on setting policy. You could argue that this is a good thing, since we'd like to think he's already got a team of pretty damn good experts. Even if Obama doesn't exactly need more expert opinions, he still makes a strong statement by asking for them. He shows the American public that being elite isn't a bad thing, and that it's important to involve smart people on complex decisions.
  • Build a fact base together. Many people say that they don't feel entitled to give their opinion on policy because they don't have time to do the research and learn the facts. Other people go to the opposite extreme, and have no qualms about taking a strong stance on a topic without doing the research. Still others want to do the research, but don't know where to find information they trust that is untinged by bias. Obama could address all of these groups by using as a place to build a common fact base for issues. He could engage experts (see above) from the American public along with non-expert volunteers to bring together research and facts to help people understand the issues. Though this would certainly be plagued by bias, you could have experts from both sides of an issue offer comments on research to call attention to possible "slanted" results.
I seem to say this at the end of every post, but I'm certain that this is just the very beginning of an exciting national experiment. Let's just keep watching, and keep participating!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I might have to change the name of my blog

As you've probably noticed, my blog seems to have triggered a Terms of Service violation bot and Google has flagged my blog for removal. I have no idea what caused this, and Google doesn't seem very eager to answer. Just because I'm not sure what else to do, I'm trying to rename the blog and see if that changes anything (since the TOS violation started when all I had was a name, so maybe that's the problem). If this gets fixed, it should also let me set up an RSS feed (as many of you have requested).

We'll see if Google decides to unlock my blog, or if they continue to believe that I am robot with a spam blog full of stolen copyright material. Thanks for reading, and thanks for being patient.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

MIT's advice to the Obama Administration on Science Policy

I went to a talk last week put on by MIT Center for International Studies about the future of science policy under the Obama administration. Marc Kastner, Dean of the School of Science, gave the talk and he was supported by Eugene Skolnikoff from the Political Science department. The talk was so-so, but it was followed by one of the best question and answer sessions I've ever seen at a talk like this.

Before I get into the Q&A and my thoughts on that, here's a quick overview of the talk. Kastner made 4 suggestions to the Obama administration, in order from easiest to most difficult:
  • Restore the prestige of science in government
  • Basic research in energy
  • Research at the convergence of life sciences and physical sciences or engineering
  • Stabilize funding

He gave some good background on each of these points (I hadn't realized how flat government funds for basic research outside of the NIH have been, see the chart above). But I felt the talk was lacking because it wasn't really advice - it was a wish list. It's important to articulate where you want to get to, but it's even better to think about how to get there.

And how will we get there? Just like any other issue in government, there's the old way of doing things, "Washington business as usual," and then there's the hope of finding a new way which will be more effective, transparent and open to the public. In this case, the two speakers and many of those asking questions recommended calling or writing your representative. This is great, but certainly nothing new, and not massively effective

The speakers also mentioned the importance of groups that lobby on behalf of the sciences. This is a tricky area - of course I want to see the sciences get their due representation and funding, and of course I believe that educating congressional representatives will help them see the importance of funding science research. But the problem is that everyone who lobbies tells themselves exactly this same story; the tobacco lobby has their own story that they truly believe about the importance of educating congress (watch Thank You for Smoking for a great take on this).

One of attendees used his question to make a great point about the importance of organizing at a local level (community organizing didn't become a dirty word after all!). He encouraged students to get a group together and ask their mayor or state representative to come meet with them in person. Clearly, this is a step in the right direction compared to letter writing or old-style lobbying, and it can even be enhanced by social-networking technology to scale up to larger groups than would have been possible 20 years ago.

But all of these approaches are still missing the point of what a new politics will really involve: persuading not just the people in charge, but your peers who disagree with you. Let's face the facts: the government can increase funding for science, or put new focus on basic research, but to for science to regain its former prestige in America will take a cultural change that government cannot achieve, at least not through policy and budget changes.

There's a potentially exciting movement going on right now called Join the Impact which is looking to take this bottom-up approach to changing American attitudes toward homosexuality. As Proposition 8 in California reminded all of us, you can't expect government or the courts to enact a major change if the public doesn't want to see it happen. You will have small victories along the way (and these victories may help persuade the public and become self-reinforcing), but until the public supports a change it won't be sustainable and secure.

Join the Impact has a different goal than most politically-minded action groups: to change the views of those who disagree. This is not just raising awareness, and it's not about demonstrations of support. This is recognizing that the most effective path to political change may begin from the bottom up, and organizing a political action group around that goal.

Is this really so different from what we've seen in the past? After all, we've had Darfur rallies and gay rights awareness groups for years. To be honest, I'm not sure how much of it is a different in the movement, and how much of it is focusing on the right issue at the right time. I'm also not sure if they will have any more success than past efforts.

Nonetheless, the many instances of advances and setbacks at the state level on various issues have convinced me that the advances only last if we can build the change from the bottom up. This means getting more people more involved, and that's where government can help. None of these problems will be solved by government, but if Obama can provide a kick-start (or a kick in the pants) to the public, then we may be able to achieve some pretty spectacular results.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008 "Agenda" content has been modified

A couple days ago I posted about how the Agenda section of had been removed, and then reinstated after some outcry on the internet. In my post, I asked where anyone knew if the new content was identical to the original content or not. New York Times covers it here, and clarifies that the current content is different from the original content. It has been updated to remove campaign-style invectives against Bush, and generally toned down to be acceptable to a broad spectrum of Americans.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

GM uses technology to be scary - directly to the people!

Just another example of how new technology does not make something more transparent. GM has posted a video on their website and on YouTube, to help you separate "fact and fiction" about the auto crisis. Very helpful, I'm sure.

What does this have to do with open government? It's a perfect example of how wrong this whole experiment could go. What is wrong with the video that GM posted?
  • It has an agenda, but doesn't make that explicit. I realize that anyone who watches that video probably can tell that GM has an agenda, the video has the feel of a negative campaign ad. It would be much more powerful if they openly asked for support.
  • It tries to scare us! OMG! All of Minnesota and Virginia will be out of a job! An auto industry collapse will lead to a broad military conflict! What will we do?!
  • It doesn't acknowledge both sides of the argument. This is the difference between building trust and making people feel like they're being taken. By establishing early on that there are two sides to an issue, you have more trust with your audience when you later need to take a stand.
  • It doesn't put a person in front of the camera. Again, it's all about building trust. If GM posted a video of their CEO telling us the facts and why we need to act, it would be hard to accuse him of lying outright. In a faceless video like this, it's easy to ignore the claims because we are used to advertising lying to us.
Incidentally, the auto industry understood this at one point. Check out this 1984 Chrysler ad, featuring then-CEO Lee Iococca. The CEO puts himself in front of the camera, acknowledges Chrysler's failures, and makes an explicit plea for Americans to give Chrysler another chance. When you watch this video, it might not make you buy American, but it sure makes you feel good about what they are doing.

There was no new technology in that ad; it ran on TV just like any other ad. But it emboddies openness, and builds trust with its audience. Obama's team can learn a lot from the auto industry - they just have to look at the auto industry two decades ago.

Monday, November 17, 2008

What's new at Peek in at Biden's schedule

Every so often, I will do a quick post on the significant updates to - but don't let that stop you from checking it yourself!
  • Press Room: Not sure if this is typical, but we get to see a list of Joe Biden's phone calls with foreign leaders. I find this a nice peek into the transition, and makes the process feel a bit more open.
  • The Blog: Though there was some big news this week with Obama's YouTube address, this section continues to disappoint as an actual blog. We still don't know who writes it, we don't get any opinions from the author, and there aren't even any links! At least they've started incorporating quotes from "real Americans" as in this post about Obama's meeting with McCain. The photos at the bottom are a nice touch as well!
  • Agenda: The agenda is back! It was removed a few days after the launch of, and a lot of news outlets picked it up, saying it was a sign that wasn't all that much of a change after all. Hard to know why they reinstated it, but it's back! Does anyone know if the new text is different from what was there before?
  • Jobs: No change here, as this remains the most confusing page on the site. What sort of jobs are we supposed to be applying for? What sort of people are they looking for? I guess it's nice that they are asking for applications...

Why don't we have open government and what can we do about it?

In a world of perfect open government, the relationship between citizens and government would work a lot like the relationship between a manager and her employees. Not only does the manager get to see everything the employees are working on, she also expects them to take the responsibility to summarize the information and present it to her periodically in a useful way. And if anything is suspicious, she has the chance to ask questions and even examine the original data or source material for the project.

In an ideal world, the government should work for us, and we as citizens would set the expectation of frequent updates with real transparency - not just government reports so dense that an entire field of consulting has sprung up just to translate them. (Try making your way through the GAO's 166-page report on itself without any help)

The reason we are stuck with this situation is because we as citizens have been bad managers of our government. For many years, we had low standards of transparency, we were passive consumers of whatever the media feeds us, and we didn't make openness a priority when we had a chance to exercise our vote. In some ways, we are starting to turn that around: citizens participating in journalism (bloggers pat themselves on the back!), calling our congressional representatives to protest the non-transparent bailout, and voting for the candidate who ran the more open campaign.

Still, there is no sign that we are about to get off our collective asses and start a real movement for transparency and access. This is where the Obama team comes in - they want to do it for us! Can that work? Can the government be the driving force behind government transparency?

We're kidding ourselves if we believe that the government acting alone will become more transparent, but that's the beauty of what the Obama team is trying to do (or what I think they're trying to do). They are trying to kick-start the American public into demanding access and influence in the way government runs. And maybe, just maybe, once they get the ball rolling, we will start demanding more and more openness.

If Obama can spark a change in culture we could find ourselves on a path to truly open government. Technology will be a crucial tool in achieving this culture change, just as it was a major factor in his campaign. Posting a weekly address on YouTube isn't a sign of openness on its own, but if more than 700,000 people have watched it, that could be the beginning of something great. If the country starts paying attention and getting involved, that could be the change we need.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The change we need: Behavior change

Have you ever bought a fancy new gadget or tech item because you just knew that you would use it regularly, only to find it sitting idle and mocking you for the money you spent? Maybe it was a cappuccino machine that was going to save you from your daily Starbucks, or maybe it was some personal finance tracking software that would let you finally start keeping a budget. Maybe it was a treadmill that would get you to exercise more, or a set of instructional CDs that would finally allow you to learn Spanish.

I know I've been there, and I'm guessing every one of you has, as well. Why does this happen to us? I could be cynical and call it laziness, but in truth I think it's something more particular. It's an often-mistaken belief that technology can solve our problems - when in fact technology only makes it easier to solve the problems we are already committed to solving. The first step is still a change in mindset, followed by a strong dedication to making a change in outcome.

I've seen companies make this same mistake: putting in more modern time-tracking systems only to find that employees still lie about their time; building a robust internal webpage to increase communication only to find that no one checks it because they don't care what's on there; or on the flip side, blocking specific websites to prevent employees from wasting time on the internet, only to find that employees are infinitely creative and flexible about how to waste time.

This is why any new technology initiative must be accompanied by some serious thought about what behaviors must accompany the technology in order to be successful. On top of that is an even trickier question: as management (or in this case government) how do you get the workforce or public engaged in these behaviors? And how do you make it easy for them to get started?

I will explore some specific challenges on this front, and suggest some solutions in a series of posts over the next few weeks. Please stay tuned, and in the meantime here is one example to kick things off.

A commenter on a previous post, Meng, says that he has a good idea he wants to contribute to the Obama administration,
But I don't know how hard I would need to work, or even where to grassroots this thing, to get my idea to be heard.
This is probably a common scenario - there are thousands, if not millions, of Americans excited to contribute ideas to the new administration, but who don't see a path to get involved. This is also a scenario that has been tackled by corporations time and again - how to create a useful employee suggestion progam.

On the blog "Culture to Engage", Tim Wright explains the three criteria of a robust suggestion system, repeated here (without permission, but with attribution so I hope it's ok):

  1. Make the suggestion system valid and vital to your organization's culture. Elevate your suggestion system's importance. Recognize its importance orally and in print. Celebrate its contributors and their contributions. People believe in change once it's part of their language.
  2. Make the suggestion process simple to complete. Involve employees--those who will carry out the suggestion process--in determining the best series of steps, requirements, and procedures. You want people to want to make suggestions. People do what doesn't frustrate them.
  3. Make suggestion submission noteworthy. Celebrate the simple act of offering a suggestion by reinforcing the fact that a quantity of suggestions are necessary to produce the true quality suggestions. People enjoy being appreciated.
On the surface level, Meng was deterred from offering his suggestion to Obama's team because there is no clear suggestion process available - a failure to make the process simple to complete.

But the Obama team has a ways to go on all three of these points, and improvements on any of these aspects might have led Meng to submit his idea. After all, does have a simple process to submit your vision. From Meng's perspective, though, submitting an idea here doesn't satisfy his need to participate, because the website insufficiently celebrates the act of offering, and provides no evidence that the suggestions are a vital part of Obama's governing.

Fortunately, when you are President of the United States (or a CEO), a few small gestures can go a long way. Imagine if Obama used his weekly YouTube address to highlight how much he appreciates the ideas submitted through, perhaps even mentioning a few individuals by name. Getting your name mentioned in a presidential address certainly counts as celebration in my mind, and would demonstrate that Obama really wants to hear what we have to say.

To take things a step further, Obama's team could also list examples of how suggestions have actually influenced decision-making or policy within the administration, either in Obama's YouTube address or even just in a section on They key is to show that suggestions are a vital part of process. One of the challenges here will be sorting and finding the useful ideas worth considering - but if they aren't willing to put in the time for this, then they clearly aren't expecting any real utility from the suggestion process, which makes the whole thing a wasted exercise in the first place.

As always, I recognize that the transition is still in its early stages and I expect that the suggestion process will grow and develop over time. Look for future posts in this series to address other ways Obama can harness lessons in corporate culture change to bring more Americans into the governing process.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Why some guy you've never heard of at the State Department is doing a better job than Barack Obama

Yesterday saw the advent of Obama's first weekly address on YouTube. If you haven't seen it, then definitely check it out here. News outlets across the web have covered this release with varying degrees of enthusiasm - Washington Post says it's a big deal, Slate (same ownership, ironically) says not so much.

While I trust that this is merely an opening shot in an upcoming salvo of Obama technological tools for governing, I can't help but agree that this particular weekly address does little to advance the level of communication and transparency for the transition. If you check the transcript, you'll find most of the speech overlaps with Obama's acceptance speech and his press conference and the economy. As someone who has followed his campaign and transition closely, I didn't hear any new content of significance in the weekly address.

Just to provide a counter-example of how YouTube can actually increase transparency, check out a new initiative by the State Department - a YouTube-based question and answer session with spokesperson Sean McCormack. This strikes me as a big deal. It's like a press conference, only there is no press serving as mediators; the public gets to send questions to the State Department directly and Sean McCormack answers straight back to the public.

When you watch the video, the aspect that seems most refreshing - and indicative of transparency - is the unscripted, off-the-cuff responses that McCormack gives. He takes reasonably challenging and intelligent questions without having heard them ahead of time, and answers them in his own words. Simply watching this half-hour video, I not only have a clearer idea of State Department policies, I also have a better understanding of how the State Department operates and makes decisions.

This is no small achievement, and should be a goal for the Obama team in the coming months. It's not enough to show us what you are thinking; to be truly open means showing us how you are thinking. I realize this may be too much to ask, but imagine how strong a message of openness they could send if the Obama transition team let us watch how they made decisions about Cabinet appointments and other transition choices.

We will find out in the coming weeks how open the transition really aims to be, but for now I will say that and the YouTube address are merely new packaging on the same content. Fortunately, we have no reason to doubt Obama's intentions, and his actions so far suggest that he is truly commited to opening government - we just need to be patient.

Friday, November 14, 2008

YouTube fireside chats begin tomorrow

Obama's team is moving quickly, with the speed that you would expect from a technology savvy transition. Washington Post covers the story, as Obama spokeperson Jen Psaki revealed that Obama has already recoreded his first weekly address to the American public, and the video will be on YouTube tomorrow (check back here for the link).

I want to call attention to an item at the end of the WaPo article, it's a great quote from Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation:
Added Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for government transparency: "We're living, after all, in the Internet era. This is an individualized version of the 'fireside chats.' It's not delivered between 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. but whenever anyone wants to see it. I don't know if it necessarily creates transparency -- it's still a controlled, one-way message. But it creates the aura of a much more accessible presidency."
This is really a make-or-break issue in how Obama uses technology. Will he use it to truly increase transparency, invite public input and open up government? Or will he simply apply the new tools to the old framework of tight message control and spinning news cycles?

At this point, he has hammered the "change" point so hard that it's hard to imagine how he could fail without the media and the public noticing and holding him accountable. And we have no reason to believe that he isn't truly committed to using technology to make revolutionary changes, rather than minor incremental improvements.

Nonetheless, with the economy still in crisis, and the pressure to achieve policy results on health care, Iraq and more, it would be easy for all this talk of tech and innovation to fall by the wayside.

In a later post, I will highlight some ways I believe Obama can ensure that his use of technology amounts to more than just window dressing, and how the American public will know the difference.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What can make this blog stand out?

Despite my best attempt to be one of the first blogs to cover the emerging Obama tech administration, I realize that there are some established websites doing a great job already. I especially recommend TechPresident and the Sunlight Foundation's blog for two different angles.

So what can I do to stand out? In the spirit of openness and participation, I want to hear from my readers (there might not be many of you, but I know there are at least a few).

Here are some aspects that I will try to focus on in my posts. Please let me know which of these sound most interesting to you, and please suggest any other angles you would like to see covered:
  • Motivating the population to get involved. You can have the best infrastructure in the world, but governing is not as sexy as winning a campaign, so what will the Obama team do to convince people to get involved? I plan to share interviews with people of all different levels of political involvement, exploring what might motivate them to play a bigger role.
  • Developing some thoughts about what sort of culture change will accompany the technological innovations to make government more open. How do people view their ability to influence and understand the government now, and what would it look like in an ideal future state? What tools and programs can get us there?
  • Social engineering problems and challenges that arise when you attempt to involve the entire population of the US in governing. For example: how do you tap into a diverse group, how do you get views from both sides without spiraling into partisan bickering, how do you gauge the public's view when online polls are so ineffective, etc.
  • Exploring some theory behind the ideas of transparency and openness. There has been list after list of specific suggestions about how to run a transparent administration, but it might interesting to delve into the underlying ideas - what does it really mean to be more open?
  • Obama's change campaign as a change management program. Companies have been launching (and mostly failing at) transformation efforts for decades. How is Obama's "change" program similar, and how is it different? What can we learn from looking at corporate transformation efforts?
  • The pure technology and design considerations. I will highlight emerging technological trends in non-political areas and start a discussion on how these innovations can be used to make government more open.
Please leave comments, I'm eager to hear your thoughts!

It's not all about new technology (part 1)

I'm very excited to see how Obama's administration is going to use new media technology to revolutionize the way the president governs - and make no mistake, "revolution" could turn out to be an understatement if they pull this off properly. But reading through the lists of suggestions that have been popping up across the web, it occurs to me that there are a lot of old media technologies that could be used in concert with new media.

Fireside chats on YouTube and network TV
Without a doubt, it is time to move the president's radio address into the modern age. How many people are even aware that the president gives a weekly radio address? And even if you knew, have you ever listened to one? I sure haven't.

The common suggestion has been to record a brief video clip and post it to YouTube and the soon-to-be-revamped This is a good start, but why not put it in primetime every week? People could get to work on Friday, and in their discussions of Jim and Pam's love life on The Office, they might also talk about Obama's latest address to the public and what it means for them. And of course, if you missed it on TV, you can catch it online.

This also addresses one of the major challenges of a tech approach to governing, which is that anything you do on the web reaches a very skewed audience of Americans (haven't done the research, but I'm guessing it skews white, young, wealthy and well-educated. Please correct me in the comments if you've got some facts on this). By putting it on TV, you reach a range of people who would never seek out this content on the web, like my parents, for instance.

This idea has similar correlaries for other forms of old media. Why shouldn't politicians contribute an op-ed piece to a major newspaper explaining their thinking and making their case directly to the people? Al Gore and John Kerry have both contributed great op-eds recently, along with non-politician Warren Buffet. While it's obviously important for the press to do their job in analyzing and verifying a politician's view, I think a key facet of openness is creating opportunities for government to speak directly to the people - in a way where the people will listen.

Real life town hall meetings
I saw a flyer on the MBTA recently announcing a series of town hall workshops open to the public to provide input on the future of Boston public transportation. I wasn't able to make it, but it sure got me thinking about what I wanted to see from Boston transit, because I believed that my input would be truly valued, or at least heard.

It's a totally different ballgame to collect input on an initiative at a national level, but the idea of face-to-face interaction can still go a long way toward making people feel like their views count. I could imagine tying together a web community with a real-life forum, so that people can begin the discussion online and vote for issues or ideas, and then choose a representative to bring that idea to a face-to-face forum (which would certainly be recorded and streamed to the web).

Would you be more likely to participate in an online discussion if you knew that someone from your community could be sent to Washington to represent your view directly? You could target the forums by different demographic groups - one for college students, one for seniors, one for urban residents, one for rural residents, etc.

The end result might look a lot like the town hall meetings that presidents have held in the past, but who really believes that those are open, honest and unscripted? It could be a totally different story if you got to participate in the discussion leading up to the town hall, and then continue the discussion afterwards. By combining old with new, you make the town hall more open, and you make the online discussion more potent.

I'll continue this idea in a later post, but I'm interested to hear your reactions to these ideas, and suggestions for how old approaches can be amplified and enhanced by new media.

Obama's plan for open government

Obama has released a policy paper outlining his stance on Technology and Innovation (pdf unfortunately, but worth reading). To anyone under 30, the statement raises a number of ideas that sound wonderful and obvious at the same time - it makes you say "why haven't we been doing this already?"

The most exciting part comes after a bit of unnecessary Bush-slamming, when Obama promises:

An Obama presidency will use cutting-edge technologies to reverse this dynamic, creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens. Technology-enabled citizen participation has already produced ideas driving Obama’s campaign and its vision for how technology can help connect government to its citizens and engage citizens in a democracy. Barack Obama will use the most current technological tools available to make government less beholden to special interest groups and lobbyists and promote citizen participation in government decision-making.
He then goes on to describe some pretty detailed ideas on how to make this possible, including:
  • Making government data available online to allow citizens to use it as they see fit
  • Instituting a web site and search engine to enable citizens to track federal grants, contracts, earmarks and lobbyist contracts with government officials
  • Opportunity to review and comment on legislation via the White House website for five days for all non-emergency legislation
  • Requiring Cabinet-level officials to have periodic national online town hall meetings
  • Using blogs, wikis and social networking
These are only the very first steps, but they sound like great ones to me. I would challenge him to eventually take it a step further by creating opportunities for citizens to contribute to the content of legislation, as Obama offers to "open up government decision-making". Right now, I have no idea how that would work, but it will be one of the main ideas that I explore on this blog.

What would it mean to you to have open government? Do you think Obama's plan will bring any real change?

The 700 billion dollar question

Some people think the bailout is a great idea. Some people think it's a terrible idea. Some people think it's a pretty bad idea but it still had to happen. But regardless of your view, I think we can all agree if the government is going to pump $700B into businesses, we'd like to know where that money is going.

Unfortunately, as the Washington Post writes, we might not find out until it's all gone. Though the Treasury has already committed $290B,
no formal action has been taken to fill the independent oversight posts established by Congress when it approved the bailout to prevent corruption and government waste. Nor has the first monitoring report required by lawmakers been completed, though the initial deadline has passed.
That doesn't sound like good news to me. As if that's not bad enough, there is mounting evidence that a lot of this money isn't being used the way it was intended. For example, the New York Times reported that JPMorgan Chase (boy, these post-merger names are getting long!) admitted on an internal conference call that they do not intend to use the bailout cash to begin lending money, but instead will use it to shore up their balance sheet.

I'm no expert, so I honestly can't say whether or not this is the right move for Chase. But I am ready to take a stand and say that when you receive billions of dollars from the government, you should be forced to explain openly and transparently where that money is going. I understand that these companies need to continue paying big bonuses in order to maintain an incentive structure, but if the government is going to fund it to the tune of $70B, there should be some transparency to it.

We can look at this as a key opportunity for Obama. From a logistical point of view, it should be fairly simple to create a web interface with information about the bailout, so it could be a great early victory for Obama's transparency policy. Of course, that's assumming that there is any money left by the time Obama takes office!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 changes again

Slate covers another round of updates to They are all pretty minor, but it raises an interesting point. No one makes any fuss when other websites update their content in such a minor way, but these changes seem to get noticed. Slate notes that promises made on a website don't carry quite the same weight as a "Read my lips" on TV, but I think that they are missing the point.

Modern web users don't see content on the web as binding. It is implicit that anything on the web can be updated and changed at any time - and this is often a positive thing, like when news organizations are able to correct errors in a story rather than waiting to issue a correction the following day. The key is to make these changes visible and transparent. Typically when a news story is corrected, there is an indication of the edit and a link to an explanation.

On the other hand, if a company updates its website, you would never expect to see an explanation of why the change was made. It's just understood that these things change from time to time.

Which standard should we have for Obama? Before you go for the stricter standard, remember that this will make the administration more hesitant to share information in the first place. After all, if everything you post online is treated as binding, you will probably think twice before posting. Besides, as we've already seen, any significant updates will be documented and highlighted by groups like Slate and Ars Technica (and bloggers like me), so maybe there's no reason to worry at all.

First! Oh, wait...

I guess I was a little optimistic to believe that I could jump in on the day that launched and be one of the first bloggers dedicated to covering Obama's open government initiative. There were a lot of people waiting for a politician to come along and pledge to open up politics via technology, and they are all very excited to have a president leading the charge.

But if you are like me, and hadn't thought too much about technology-enabled open government before Obama came along, then it will be useful to catch up on the groups that have been pushing for this sort of initiative for a while. I'll cover the groups that I'm aware of over the next couple weeks, and if you know of any important websites that I'm missing, please leave a comment!
Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, a perennial favorite

The Sunlight Foundation was started in 2006 with the goal of "using the revolutionary power of the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more meaningfully accessible to citizens." They are essentially a think-tank, and have already created a number of exciting and innovative ways for citizens to interact with government via the web. For example, OpenCongress is a sort of Digg/Google News/Blog with a little bit of Hot-or-Not mixed in (letting you rate congress members, hopefully more on job performance than appearance).

It's worth browsing around Sunlight Foundation's project page and exploring some of what they've done. Undoubtedly, they have some ideas for what Obama should be doing, and some experience to know what works and what doesn't. I'm sure the Obama team will be looking at these projects for inspiration.

Also, be sure to check out Sunlight's open letter to the the Obama Administration. The various members of the Foundation provide a wide range of advice to the administration, some of the key points being:
  • Clarify its position on lobbyists working in the Obama White House and transition team. (Obama made some announcements about this today)
  • Make more government data widely available in standard formats so that citizens can do their own analysis and even create apps
  • Issue modern devices to White House employees to increase productivity
  • Update the Freedom of Information Act to bring it into the modern age (spend 5 minutes on the current site and you'll see how badly this is needed)
  • Improve transparency for the bailout - since who isn't interested to see how our $700B are being spent?
  • Encourage White House officers and other members of government to engage directly with the public via modern communication such as blogs, twitter, youtube, etc
  • Driving a resurgance in civic pride, including an online aspect. I agree that this will be critical, as any change effort is only as strong as the culture change that underlies it.
I'll continue to introduce other major contributors in this field and highlight how they may influence the Obama Administration's open government project.

Great article on Slate about Obama's aspirations for open government

Farhad Manjoo, the tech writer for Slate magazine, has a fantastic article about how Obama may transform the White House website to work as a social network. He discusses the challenges of harnessing a web community for specific goals such as encouraging legislators to pass a bill or raising awareness about an issue. When you consider that the end result of many online "movements" is just a petition (which rarely has much influence), the outlook for Obama's web site can seem bleak.

Still, Manjoo offers reasons for hope:

During the campaign, we saw one vivid example of how Obama might handle online protests of his policies—he'll let them go on. In June, the senator announced that he had switched positions on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He decided to vote for an updated version of the bill even though it offered immunity to telecom companies that had worked with the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, a measure that many of his supporters vehemently opposed.

Protestors immediately took to the campaign's site; a group urging Obama to reject the bill swelled to more than 20,000 members, making it by far the site's largest. Obama didn't change his mind on the eavesdropping bill. But neither did the campaign take any steps to shut down the anti-FISA group, and shortly before voting for the bill, Obama posted a lengthy note to the group explaining why he'd voted for the bill, and his policy staff answered hundreds of comments from the group explaining the nuances of the senator's position.
This stikes me as one of the big potential benefits of open government. In today's media culture, candidates are labeled as "flip-floppers" for any change in stance, even when it reflects changes in the fact base or is motivated by a worthwhile attempt to compromise on other issues. By connecting directly with the people who were most passionate about his views on FISA, Obama was able to vote the way he wanted while still maintaining (and enhancing) his reputation as a thoughtful politician capable of nuanced decisions. In other words, he raised the level of discourse.

As we watch Obama's transition unfold, it will be interesting to see if he uses his direct link to Americans to explain his decisions along the way. One could imagine that if Obama succeeds at using this channel to make a case to citizens, it will leave others in government no choice but to establish their own direct link to the voters - and suddenly a representative government becomes much more representative.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The era of openness begins

It's been only a week since the election, and already we are starting to see the implications and challenges of pledging to run an open transition. If you haven't seen it already, check out, Obama's transition website. Though it's definitely remarkable that Obama's team managed to post the website a mere 24 hours after the election concluded, there is little about the website that truly suggests a more open approach to the transition.

In fact, is already drawing attention for the exact opposite reason. News organizations have picked up on a major change to the website: the detailed and sometimes bold agenda from Obama's campaign has been removed, to be replaced by a brief and vague description of the administrations goals.

Is this a failure of openness? Probably in a minor sense - it would be nice if the website at least called attention to the (justifiable) change and explained why it was made. But is this a cause for concern?

I believe it's not. Ars Technica explains it far better than I can, but the disappearing agenda is a far cry from any sort of cover-up or secrecy. Everything that was removed is replicated and still available all over the internet (including on the campaign's issue page). This is not a sign that Obama is about to overhaul his policy in secret; it's just that he wants to be careful what he promises when, and how the message is conveyed.

Nonetheless, it is a positive sign for openness that so many people have jumped on the disappearing agenda. We can only hope that Obama's team will provide the same level of access during his administration, and that the vigilant watchers on the web will continue to call our attention to this sort of change.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Is such a big change?

Obama's transition website,, launched last week only 24 hours after he was declared President-Elect. Compared to the Obama campaign's tidal wave of PR, the launch of was fairly low profile. I've received hundreds of emails during the course of the Obama campaign announcing every twist and turn, but didn't hear anything about from the campaign itself.

Nonetheless, it has made headlines for the openness and innovation it brings to the transition period. At the very least, it is an impressive feat and a hopeful sign for the future of the administration that the website was available so quickly after the campaign ended (even if it did require some hasty editing in the first few days).

Now that it's available and we've all had time to peruse through the content, we can start to decide if is something more than the standard press releases and boilerplate repackaged as a website (admittedly, a nice looking one).

My initial reaction? It doesn't offer anything new...yet.

The front page is populated with press releases - no surprise and no letdown there. But what is more disappointing is that the "blog" link takes you to a listing of those exact same press releases (duplicated again on the "Newsroom" link). As anyone who has read a blog can tell you, this isn't it, and considering that the campaign used Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and text messages, we know that they can do better.

The "Learn" and "Agenda" pages are equally disappointing. They provide some mildly worthwhile content, but nothing new to anyone who has been following the campaign or the news - and certainly nothing that could be called innovative.

The one page that sounds promising is "American Moment" which includes an invitation to share your story or your vision. Unfortunately, these pages are merely forms where you can type in your experience or your hopes for the administration and send them off to...well, that's not clear. What is clear is that there is no opportunity to read others' stories or visions, and no opportunity to discuss or learn from one another. In short, there is no community.

Admittedly, it would not be easy to create these features. It doesn't take long before a new web community is swarmed with commenters who lower, rather than raise, the level of discussion. Even websites that cater to a particular partisan view suffer from flame wars and intentional baiting. But these are problems that the Obama team will have to solve in order to deliver on its promise of a more open administration that invites participation.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Getting started

I'm going to wait until I have a few complete posts drafted before I begin the blog in earnest, because I want to make sure that I have enough content to get the ball rolling. Just to give you a taste of what is to come, future posts will cover:

  • How is Obama's "change" campaign like or unlike a corporate change effort? Based on this, what should we expect to see from the Obama Administration's efforts?
  • If Obama wants to create more opportunities for citizens to get involved and participate, what can we learn from examining websites driven by user-generated content?
  • What does it really mean to offer improved transparency? There is a ton of information already available about the workings of our government, but most people aren't interested enough to read it. Is this just a usability issue, or will Obama have to create a new culture of involvement?
  • Is really a big change? What can Obama's team do to make it truly new and important? How will it be used after the transition?
  • Obama's campaign was innovative in the way it contacted people. Can he translate this into a forum for getting input from people?
And much more to come. I will attempt to answer some of these questions, provide links to other's answers, and ask open questions to start a discussion (assuming I have any readers!)

Thanks for reading, and please check back soon!