Friday, January 9, 2009

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.

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