Thursday, March 19, 2009

Obama might transform the press before he transforms the government

Recently, I wrote about how Obama’s pledge to open up government is likely to empower the new wave of amateur journalists, bloggers and students to actually break news in a way that has been pretty rare until now. Turns out, Obama’s drive to transform government is having an impact Obama: on many aspects of the press.

Just today, two posts dropped into my Google Reader feed, from different news sources, but both promising the same thing: Tell us what question you want answered, and we will ask the president. This probably isn’t the first time a news organization has offered to do this, but seeing these two on the same day, in conjunction with all that’s going on, seems like the start of a trend rather than a blip.

On the one hand, this isn’t enough to constitute a leap forward for open government. After all, former press secretaries have openly acknowledged that a press conference is rarely anything more than theater, a carefully choreographed dance between reporter and press secretary. Even with all of Obama’s promises, this has remained true, as Robert Gibbs has proven to be just as adept at avoiding meaningful answers as Bush’s press secretaries were.

Beyond that, it’s also hard to say if reporters will end up asking better questions as a result of this “poll the public” approach. True, there’s something satisfying about hearing someone ask the question you voted for, but I bet it’s not very satisfying hearing Robert Gibbs or President Obama give a non-answer and call on the next reporter (did you really think that Obama would actually give a thoughtful answer to your question about legalizing pot or prosecuting Bush administration officials?). They already dodged answering plenty of direct questions voted to the top of the “Open for Questions” feature.

On the other hand, I do see some real value in this, and I believe Obama sees it too.  If all of his new open government initiatives depend on his administration’s actions, then it can all be washed away with a changing of the guard. Someone with a different attitude towards transparency gets elected, and we are right back to the Bush years. However, if Obama can raise the public’s expectations of journalists, and give journalists the opportunity to provide news reporting of a higher caliber, those changes can’t be undone by a secretive president in the future (at least not as easily).

This is why Obama’s rhetoric on transparency is so important. Even before his new policies take hold, he is changing the public’s expectations, and ultimately, this is the only way to break out of the vicious cycle created by low-quality “journalism”.

The same effect comes into play during change efforts in the business world. Long before new programs and policies have begun, the leadership will take about the exciting culture changes on the way - “empowerment! accountability! teamwork! customer focus!” This is not just a sell tactic, it’s part of creating the culture change. It’s important for two reasons: first, it creates a perception of culture change which eventually transforms into real culture change (fake it till you make it). And second, it creates the expectation for the change among the rank and file of the company, and now the management is locked into to delivering.

Obama is probably going for both of these effects here. He wants credit for creating transparency now, even if there haven’t been substantial changes. And he is creating a demand for transparency, which has created some new trends in journalism that will keep his administration on the hook to deliver.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Transparent government will transform journalism (sorry, newspapers!)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about who is going to use all this wonderful data and information that will become available as Obama’s team works to open the floodgates of transparency and access. Pretty clearly, at least one audience is going to be the bloggers and developers on the web.

Many blogs right now are simply forums to expound on current events. The worst blogs regurgitate the same news that has already been reported a hundred other places; the best blogs add value to the news by providing analysis – sharing their expertise, giving additional context, tying stories together to create a bigger picture, or using raw statistical ability to find insights that others missed.

Then there are the rarest blogs that can actually break news. This might mean having sources like a traditional journalist. It might mean having the tenacity to pursue a story that no one else cared about. It might mean crowd-sourcing an huge mass of work to your audience. But it is a rare blogger that can accomplish any of these things.

That’s about to change.

Eventually, we will reach a day when the transcript of every non-secret meeting is shared online, when every government report is available to the public and reams of data in standardized format are accessible to all. This will be the death blow to the already beleaguered newspaper industry, but it will also be the birth of a new wave of journalism.

I’m not certain that this new journalism will be better or more effective than traditional journalism. But the journalism we have today is not up to the standards of tradition. As budgets get slashed and ad revenue falls, newspapers are cutting their editorial staff and relying on pool services like AP and Reuters for more and more of their content. We’ve seen the trend towards stories which are nothing more than the talking points given to the press. And cable news networks have blurred the line between information and entertainment so thoroughly we needed to create a word for it.

We may be losing the professionals, the people who get paid to do the investigating reporting, but fortunately the solution is just around the corner. The coming wave of transparency and access (and whether Obama makes it happen or not, it’s coming soon) will empower amateurs, bloggers, developers and students to take over the soon-to-be-foreclosed fourth estate.

If you want to read more about this topic, you can get some “future vision” thinking from TechPresident here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Interaction is a crucial component of involvement

There is no question that Obama has already overhauled the way the White House communicates with the public. The website is far more user-friendly and modern than the website of the Bush White House. Obama's web videos have allowed him to build a relationship with the American people unlike what any President has ever had. And while his commitment to a five-day comment period for legislation got off to a rocky start, they got things working in time for people to comment on the truly critical "DTV Delay Act".

Though Obama's administration has provided plenty of new tools and initiatives to improve transparency, I have been a little disappointed when I consider the actual implications. While I do appreciate the enhanced communication coming from the White House, I certainly don't feel as though the government is interacting with me in a way that is very different from the past.

In years past, I've complained that the federal budget is simply too immense for an average citizen to read through it and understand where our money is really going. Here's what was provided in 2009. This year, I was hoping for something radically different. What we got looks pretty similar to what we had last year: a PDF that is so long that it will deter most people from reading it, summaries of each department (also PDFs), and a series of fact sheets which are sheer boosterism of the President's policies.

Even some of the widely touted improvements are merely new spins (and better packaging) on the way things were done in the past. After all, the Bush budget team also claimed to focus on programs that produced effective results, and also invited the public to give feedback and share ideas. Sure, the new website places much more emphasis on these things, and seems more earnestly committed to the concept, but even with a prettier website, the Obama's invitation for feedback seems just as hazy as Bush's. After all, once you submit your thoughts on a bill, where does it go?

What is the missing ingredient here? I believe that we are missing interactivity. When you communicate with someone you know personally, you typically have round after round of iteration (think of the email chains you've had with friends or project team members). When you communicate with a large, impersonal entity, you usually have one or two rounds of iteration (writing a letter to a company, receiving automated company email updates, or browsing a company website).

Achieving interactivity is an enormous challenge, and even Obama's most impressive transparency initiatives have fallen short on this dimension. Open for Questions was a step in the right direction - you could submit a question, then vote on other's questions, then view question rankings, then the transition team provided an answer to questions - but I still wanted to see more. If the tool had a way to ask tough follow-up questions, this would have given the public a way to interact with the goverment that had never existed before.

The scale of this whole undertaking is what makes the goal of interactivity so tricky. The usual way to manage idea development with a group on this scale is through sub-teams and representation, but this already exists and hasn't been very satisfying. We have Representatives and Senators to represent us along geographic lines, we have lobbies and interest groups to represent us along issue lines, and we have the press to represent us when we have questions. But even the sub-groups that are represented here are so large that an individual probably doesn't feel like the process is interactive.

And why should the government really want to interact with the entire public, anyway? There are hundreds of thousands of people who have made the decision to work in government, or become influential experts in their field, or to lobby government organizations for their issues. If I am just an average citizen, I probably don't have much to offer to the discussion except an uninformed opinion.

Yet all of this work is founded on the premise that simply getting more people involved wil lead to better government (a significant assumption that I'll explore in a future post). Obama's team has taken the first step, and increased the volume of one-way or two-way interactions. The next step is to figure out how to have true multi-way interactions, because that will lead to a connection between people and goverment unlike any we've ever had.

Monday, February 9, 2009

President Obama shows us how hard it is to hold a press conference

This post isn't necessarily about new transparency policies, but watching Obama's press conference tonight, I was reminded that even the old-fashioned forms of government communications are extremely difficult, so maybe we should cut the administration a little slack as they find their footing.

Have you ever been in an argument with someone and accidentally said something a little different from what you meant, only to lose the entire argument due to that tiny slip-up? Now imagine how hard it is if people are asking you questions about challenging, controversial topics, there are millions of people who are watching who will catch any mistake, and the repercussions of a mistake could change the course of history.

You want that job?

You can point to a thousand little pauses and word choices throughout the press conference to see how challenging this job is. One in particular that I noticed was on the question about A-Rod and steroids. He began to make the joke that hearing about A-Rod was one more piece of bad news in a week that already had a lot of bad news - but then mid-sentence, realized that even as a joke, it wouldn't play well to compare bad news about baseball to the losses and pain that people are feeling as a result of the economy. He changed course in mid-sentence, and in the end, said that the news was bad news on top of a lot of bad major league baseball in recent years.

When he finally got off the stage, and I was trying to sift out the key points in my head, all I could think was how relieved he must be to get out of there. I felt my anxiety levels drop when he finished, and I was just watching!

So what have we learned after watching President Obama's first press conference?
  • Press conferences are not the venue for complexity. It's just too hard to talk about a truly complex issue in real-time, with cameras rolling and millions of people watching. You can't deviate from your notes because the risk of saying something a little off is just too high.
  • The press asks the right questions, but we need a forum to really push on follow-up questions. Obama has the ability to cut off a reporter anytime, and move on to another question if he wants. This is totally fine by me, because I can see that holding a press conference is so damn challenging that he needs to be able to move on when he's done with a subject. But in the bigger picture, we do need a way to push for nuanced answers to hard questions, and to keep pushing until we get a real answer.
  • Commitment to transparency or not, even Obama isn't going to answer yes or no questions on the spot. You know what? I wish he would. One of the best moments in the "Open for Questions" responses,  was when the now-press-secretary Robert Gibbs gave a one-word answer about "don't ask, don't tell."
  • Obama doesn't seem willing to challenge the format, at least for now. Obama could try to make the argument that press conferences are a case of gotcha journalism, and that noone is really looking for answers, they are looking for mistakes. The only way he can have a complex discussion is by first making it ok to make mistakes. Instead, we saw a pretty standard press conference.
  • He comes across as pretty stubborn when he gets worked up. It was great to see Obama admit a mistake on the Tom Daschle front this past week. After all, admitting mistakes is a sign of self-awareness and careful thinking. However, I was a little disappointed that today he was unwilling to admit that getting zero republican votes in the House was due to mistakes on his part. Instead, he blamed Republicans, which isn't going to make them any more likely to become "bipartisan".
  • He did call on the Huffington Post, which is a good sign for engagement with new media journalism

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How much longer can Obama claim "transparency"?

This is getting out of hand.

Slate is running a great article about how Obama has blown a few critical opportunities to demonstrate his dedication to transparency by disclosing troublesome tidbits about some of his nominees. The latest instance, Tom Daschle's back-tax-induced imploding nomination, is truly outrageous as an example of failed transparency.

I have to believe that Obama's team knew about the tax problem before the press did. At the very least, we know that he stood by Daschle even after the information was out. I'm pretty frustrated that Obama decided to play this one close to the chest. I can understand his feeling that political nominees should not have to step down at the first sign of trouble; I also believe that Daschle's nomination probably could have gotten through if he had stuck with it.

But look, when you institute the toughest ethics guidlines the White House has ever had, you can't allow exception after exception in your first few weeks. I was a big proponent of Obama's "it's not about the principle, it's about what works" attitude, but I'm starting to worry that he is so intent on getting the job done that the principles may be left behind.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Back on track with blogging

Thanks for being patient the last few weeks as my blog has been pretty much idle. I've had to focus on my job and it was taking up a lot of my free time. Thank you to many of my readers for sending me tidbits and suggestions for posts; it was great to know that people are following the events in bringing transparency to government (or not).

A lot has happened during the time when I wasn't posting, including the inauguration of our new president, Barack Obama. Here's a quick update on some of what has happened:

  • No five-day window for commenting on new laws. (thanks to Eitan for this link) President Obama has signed his first bill into law as president, the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay act. Whatever you think of the law, we should definitely be disappointed that Obama did not handle his first signing in the way he promised. During his campaign, Obama promised to post all non-emergency bills on the White House website for comment from the public before signing them - and this promise is even repeated on the White House website (see the last line of the "Participation" paragraph). Frustratingly, there doesn't seem to be any place on the website where such bills are actually posted! (PolitiFact has the full story here). I understand that they just got the website up and running, so I'm hoping this is a failure of organization, not a change in principle. It will be interesting to see how they handle the potential stimulus legislation.
  • A not-so-transparent stimulus proposal. The House has passed a stimulus bill with a price tag of over $800 billion, and Obama is calling for the stimulus to speed through the senate so he can sign it into law. The prospect of this kind of spending has Americans debating the the best way to try to save the rapidly deteriorating economy. Here's the catch - no one seems to know the facts, myself included! The House bill is 647 pages long (and it took a few minutes of google searching to find it), so I think it's safe to say few citizens have read it. The House website doesn't even mention it on the hope page. Neither does the White House! I managed to find a website: which will be used to track the spending, but only after the bill is passed! I will write more about this soon - it's such a critical opportunty for transparency and we just aren't getting it!
  • The bizarro White House website. (thanks to Ian for this link) Some people aren't waiting for Obama to lead the way on citizen participation. Jim Gilliam has taken matters into his own hands, and created White House 2. You can check out his introductory video here, and it sounds like a great idea. He tries to solve the problem of swarming an issue by requiring people to force-rank their priorities. You can make medical marijuana your number one issue, but you can't shout louder to get more attention. And you can't have a dozen issues all as your number one, you have to make tradeoffs. The website then summarizes all the input that people have given into a list of national priorities. There's even a tool to show how Americans rate the spending items in the stimulus plan. I wish the real White House site had such great tools!
  • White House tech hiccups. Obama's young and web-savvy team arrived in the White House to find it was a little more old school than expected. No facebook, no IM, no myspace and even no WiFi! On top of that, they even had their email services go down for a while. For the big man himself, it appears he will get to keep his BlackBerry (though not a version you could buy for yourself) and may even have a computer on his desk in the oval office.
  • Obama launches Organizing for America. I have to admit that I haven't yet had a chance to read up on the details, but this post by Marc Ambinder explains the basics: Obama and his aides have launched a group to encourage Americans to get involved and promote his agenda. They will use email, texts, house parties and all the usual campaign tools to get the job done. I'll give this a full post later, once I know more.
  • Restoring science's place in society. More on this later, but it was really amazing to hear Obama talk about this so firmly in his inauguration.
OK, I'm sure that I've missed a lot, but hopefully this helps everyone get a little bit caught up on all the exciting developments.

Friday, January 9, 2009

John Mayer: Apparently not the leader of the free world

New York Times has a great article about how Obama is so committed to keeping his Blackberry in office that he's essentially giving the biggest celebrity endorsement in history to Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes Blackberrys.

The article mentions that while RIM has no relationship or contract with Obama, they have managed to get John Mayer to shill for them. But as NYT perceptively points out, John Mayer is "a popular guitarist but hardly the leader of the free world."

So true.

Open for Questions Round 2: The good, the bad, and army of gay soldiers has wrapped up Round 2 of the Open for Questions feature, and the results are...interesting. There are definitely some issues left to be worked out, and some decisions the transition team is making that lead me to be a little skeptical of their commitment to transparency and openness. Still, there are some great highlights as well. The numbers are way up. Round 1 had roughly 20,000 people casting 1 million votes. Round 2 has blown this away with 100k people casting nearly 5 million votes.

I didn't cover it when it went live, but there were also some changes to the way Google Moderator was used to handle all these questions. This time around, there were many categories of questions like education, national security, economy, and the open-ended "Other issues. And the answer format is different as well; we get to hear our answers directly from Robert Gibbs (soon to be the White House press secretary) in video form, rather than getting boilerplate policy notes like we got in round one.

My favorite moment in the response video is when Gibbs answers a citizen's question "Is the new administration going to get rid of the 'don't ask don't tell' policy?" to which Gibbs gives a wonderfully succinct answer: "Yes". This is a well-handled political move by Obama's team. They've taken a lot of flack in the last few weeks over the decision to invite Rick Warren to speak at the inauguration, due to his anti-gay views, and the decision to answer this question so clearly is definitely an attempt to give something to the gay community.

(Incidentally, Obama is also positioning himself ahead of Bill Clinton with this move. Clinton famously promised the gay community equality in the military, but then compromised to settle on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Many in the gay community felt this was a betrayal of sorts, so Obama is trying to send a strong signal here that he will do one better.)

But it's not all roses and gay soldiers in this round of Open for Questions. There are some definite concerns as well.

Unlike after Round 1, it appears that you can't access the submitted questions in their original format anymore for Round 2. This is a major breach of trust and failure of transparency in the implementation of this tool, so I hope I'm wrong and that someone can provide me with a link to the original submitted questions.

Why is this such a big deal? Because now we can't see the questions that Gibbs didn't answer. We also can't see if the team is truly answering the top-voted questions, or if they are picking and choosing.

This all leads to a slightly depressing take on the feature - it's not really open or transparent, it's just using the web to gather comments from the public to create the illusion of public support for the administration's goals. There were plenty of questions in there that were not so supportive of Obama's goals, but we didn't get to hear the answer to those.

On the one hand, this is fair and reasonable, and we can't expect the transition team to seek out antagonistic questions and highlight them in a video. On the other hand, Obama has talked about moving beyond partisan politics and into a new era of elevated discussion. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday that will require engaging people who disagree with the administration's views and giving them a respectful and persuasive response.

But hey, the economy is crashing, inauguration is less than two weeks away, and the Middle East is dealing with a bit of a conflict. I can understand how Round 2 of Open for Questions might not have been the most important item on the transition team's list this week.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Changing with the Times

If I had to name the single industry with the most urgent need to adapt to the rise of the internet, it's definitely print news. Newspapers in particular have been falling apart across the country, and the decline has only accelerated with the economic downturn. The Chicago Tribune company has filed for bankruptcy, the New York Times company's debt has been downgraded to nearly junk bond ratings, and small papers across the country are cutting back staff and relying more on outsourced content.

This is bad news for them, but good news for everyone looking for cues on what it really means to "innovate or die." The movie and TV industries have been able to stay decently ahead of the internet curve by watching the total disaster that the music industry experienced when they failed to adapt.

Here is a great piece that the New York Times is putting together. It's a multimedia composite piece about debt in America. What really stands out to me is how easy and accessible it feels. They could have taken the lazy way, and simply offered a series of articles, perhaps with links to a few photos spread throughout.

This is a different beast entirely. You can browse through it with no effort and no commitment. You can choose the type of media experience you prefer: photo essays, articles, interactive graphs and of course, videos. This venture into new media tools doesn't mean that the level of journalism has dropped off, either - almost every component of the piece includes new information uncovered by Times reporting. And it's so beautifully tied together, it truly goes far beyond what we could have expected from a newspaper even 2 or 3 years ago.

Now take a look at the website for the House of Representatives, or even the White House. These websites are not too bad, and certainly have come a long way in recent years, but don't invite exploring and interactive discovery the way the New York Times piece does. No question, creating that sort of feature took a lot of work from staff dedicated to improving the online experience. The Times is forced to devote that energy to their online experience because they have no other viable path forward. The government doesn't have that kind of pressure, but perhaps they can learn from watching others, and stay ahead of the curve.