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 Change.gov 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.

1 comment:

sean said...

Sam -- Thanks for watching. The Briefing 2.0 sessions are my favorite part of the week. We're also trying to make these more interactive, so people can ask follow-up questions. Technology has offers the opportunity to make the interaction between government and the people more useful and efficient. I'm excited to be part of this change. Best Regards, Sean McCormack (mccormacksi@state.gov)