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.

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