Apr 7, 2009

Making National Tools Local

Gov 2.0 Camp was a blast! I am so sorry that I only made it to Happy Hour and the afternoon sessions on Saturday. But there are great summaries, impressions, resources and play by plays available here, here, here, and, of course, here

For the session "Ask the President," Macon Phillips, White House New Media Director, and Bev Godwin, usa.gov guru currently detailed to WH new media team, wanted to learn how to improve the question and answer. First, a quick overview from Newsweek
The President held his first "Open for Questions" event in the East Room of the White House. Basically the White House invited people to submit questions for POTUS odnline. People could then vote for the questions they'd most like to hear him answer. The whole event streamed live on whitehouse.gov, and around 100 regular folks where invited to the East Room to watch. Over 90,000 people submitted questions and 3.6 million votes were cast.--Read the rest.
Overall, folks felt the Q&A was successful. The nagging question remained, though, that this type of forum is vulnerable to special interests drowning out more organic issues.  For example, Politico noted that pot, once again, was a top question/question vote-getter, likely via a push by NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The President addressed the drug question head on, but from a participation and technology point of view, the issue of manipulating results remains. 

The White House used Google Moderator, a simple tool that helps groups determine which questions should be asked at all hands meetings, conferences, Q&A sessions (see TechCrunch). Moderator, as designed was  intended to be used locally. Pete Peterson very smartly writes in Tech President that it's hard to make policy on a national scale.
[Can government] focus its online engagement efforts at the local level. In a sense this means using tools like Moderator as they were originally intended. The advantage of this strategy is that the content and political decision-making process involved in localized issues tend to be less complex than at the national level. Participants can more readily see the impact they will have on a community concern than a national one. This does not mean the subject of the engagement is not Federal in nature. Many Federal agencies from the EPA to Homeland Security are tasked with conforming policies to cities and regions throughout the country. Answering the “how” question of policy – specifically, “how does that rule fit here?” – can be supported legitimately by online tools. --Tech President
If all politics are local, could Moderator function locally and roll up to a national agenda? The tool could ask for users' zip code or Congressional District and questions or priorities voted on locally. This would distribute the special interests geographically. 

People could begin by discussing and voting up questions in their locality and then popular questions could "advance" to a regional and then national level.  A bonus to this system, if by Congressional District, is that members of the House could also have access to the data from their districts, helping to inform their deliberations and decisions. If the tool was used for local politics, too, it would become even more valuable. 

This isn't a time to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but to take a closer look at what actually happens when new tools are introduced. The WH New Media team is anxious to refine and enhance participation tools and are looking at each foray into new territory as a learning experience. And that's something that we can all take back to our agencies. 


  1. It seems like the impact of some special interests would be mitigated through a localization process, but wouldn't national orgs like norml still be able to organize their constituents to have an over-represented impact on the localized programs?

  2. Thanks, Rob for your comment. I think that you are right, national orgs would still organize their constituents. But let's say the folks in Ann Arbor, Mich (home to the "Hash Bash" and $5 misdemeanor's for personal possession of weed) were mobilized to comment by organizations friendly to legalization of marijuana. And then 30 minutes to the west in Jackson, Mich (home to one of the the largest walled prison in the world and to energy companies) folks might be interested in energy issues and in locking people up--to keep the local employer busy.

    Think about how the interest in an issue might be distributed--and how this might have an impact on representation? If there were 1,000 people in Ann Arbor interested in legalization of pot (just saying, not necessarily true), and a few in Jackson and Kalamazoo, and if reporting was done by Congressional District, what would the results show? I don't have data, but would like to see this investigated.


I hope that you will read and comment, ask questions and make suggestions. I just ask that you simply stay on topic, respect other people’s opinions, avoid profanity, offensive statements, illegal content, and other unpleasantries. Since this is my personal blog, I reserve the right to delete any comment.