Transparent and Connected. Can We Handle It?

Something very interesting happened over on the Obama transition team’sChange.gov site a week ago. It was the day before Thanksgiving, so it didn’t make as big of a splash as it might otherwise have. An invitation was issued toJoin the Discussion and tell the Obama team “What worries you most about the healthcare system in our country?” Transition team members Dr. Dora Hughes and Lauren Aronson opened the discussion with a video request for feedback.

“Today we’re trying out a new feature on our website that will allow
us get instant feedback from you about our top priorities. We also hope
it will allow you to form communities around these issues — with the
best ideas and most interesting discussions floating to the top.”

Making use of a system created byIntense Debate, the threaded discussion grew into 3,701 comments. Six days later, comments were closed, followed by anvideo response yesterday from Aaronson and HHS Secretary nominee Daschle.

I know I’ve done my share of Obama cheerleading but that’s not what motivates me to find this chain of events pretty damned impressive. First, it’a a helluva change from what we’re used to. As noted ontechPresident.com

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t get too excited about reading those words
on a website. But when they are on the official blog of the
President-elect, things are a little different. In fact, this is a big
deal. When you consider that for the last eight years, the occupant of
the White House has essentially told the public “you get input once
every four years, after that I’m the decider,” this is huge.

Second, I think it’s fair to say that it signals that Obama and Co. want the electorate to believe they are serious about those campaign promises regarding enabling citizen access to the process of government via technology.

I’m optimistic but still a bit cynical, or at the very least cautious. I am fascinated at the prospect of an actual meaningful exchange, but I use the word “signal” deliberately. We obviously aren’t yet able to take full measure of the true extent of the interactivity, from both sides. The Daschle response video was short and shallow, mostly intended to get the point across that “We’re listening!”

The signal’s been received, noted, and appreciated, but now what? What happens to that input? Having a forum makes a difference to the citizens but will it make a difference to the policy makers? How do we know and what will we see as proof of follow-through? There’s a good argumentmade here that a more wiki-like approach would greatly enhance the conversation. It’s also likely that some system of revision control/notice will have to be put in place to demonstrate transparency.

Change.gov took another encouraging step on 12/1 by switching the site’s content over to a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, which in effect, says that the content on the site is free to the American public to take and use as they want. Imagine that…

We can assume that other issues will be opened to a forum on Change.gov. I think we can also count on the White House website morphing into something much more Change.gov-like after the transition of power. Ideally, if promises are kept, this will bring information access, interactivity, and greater transparency into the daily business of governance. And what about us? Will we respond accordingly and participate?

3 thoughts on “Transparent and Connected. Can We Handle It?

  1. Doc says:

    This is awesome. I’m not thinking that those ideas were vetted by the head folks, but the fact people are willing to listen makes me happy.
    True story: I had a problem with my imac in which instead of going to sleep, it shut off. I tried to get it fixed three times and each time, the kid tweaked something in the system to keep it awake longer, but never really fixed it. Finally, I heard from a friend that there was something about this online. Turns out, it was a flaw in the design and they had done a recall on them.
    I tried to get in on the recall, only to find out that I was about two months outside of the window for when they’d allow it, even though it was the problem they outlined and my serial number fit the range of recalled units. I called the help line and was told to fuck off in no uncertain terms. Finally, I saw online that Steve Jobs had actually posted his personal email address and that if you were at all unhappy about anything Apple, you should email him.
    I sent the email, explained the problem and figured I’d get the “thank you for your concern” email. Instead, I got a call from a VP type guy in executive relations. We hooked up, he took down my info and said he’d look into it. A week or so later, he said he would call the local Apple store and authorize the repairs. Full coverage. He said he and Mr. Jobs appreciated my loyalty and hoped this was satisfactory.
    I don’t believe for a second that Steve Jobs ever saw that email. That said, I know they fixed the problem and that someone above the Time/Life operator of doom was willing to look at my issue and try to solve it.
    I don’t think Obama’s checking site traffic or reading emails at night sent by random folks. That said, it looks like someone important is working to get a solution. So happy about that.

  2. hoppy says:

    I looked at that invitation to express my ideas, then noted that over a thousand had already done so, and not wanting to read all thousand of the previous comments, I just passed the opportunity. In fact I find it very hard to believe that anyone actually sat down and read all three thousand comments, taking notes, totaling the number that wanted free liposuction, etc., and finally produced a report summarizing the experience. That is just a huge amount of reading to do.
    I’m still impressed that Obama did that, and I hope after taking office that he continues to do that, with an adequate staff to actually make use of the comments received. This is still like an out-of-body experience for me – competency and caring in the Oval Office isn’t something I can remember or ever dreamed of getting.

  3. joejoejoe says:

    They solicited input by email too and my Mom responded. She started nursing school in 1948 so she’s got some ideas on health care. She was excited about it. I’m not sure blog comments or having a website are the important thing (don’t something like 90% of readers online never comment?) so much as just asking people, all people, what they think. It’s a sign of respect if you listen, even if you don’t agree.

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