After a few weeks of small changes, Change.gov 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 Change.gov, 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 Change.gov 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 Change.gov 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.