Wednesday, November 12, 2008

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.

1 comment:

Alan Gardner said...

One argument politicians would have against the opinions of people on a forum like this is that it is not representative of the people, or more specifically the people of their state or district. Social networking communities tend to attract a very biased sample of the American people, including the young and more affluent. Of course this is not the main base of voters, and therefore not the group of people congress tailors their vote to. As time goes on, social networks may become common enough so that this is no longer a problem.