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.