Archive for Government

President Obama’s Social Network

obamaThe accepted storyline on President Obama’s souped-up hot rod of a super-secure executive branch Blackberry runs like this: Presidents too often exist in a bubble, insulated from real people and the world outside the sturdy White House gates. There’s some truth to that, of course, but much of that isolation has tended to be self-inflicted rather than mandated by statute.

While it will undoubtedly help him keep his connection with non-governmental friends and ideas, the Obama Blackberry also has another important function that I’m pretty sure our new President is well aware of: it’s an important symbol of access and permission.

Yes, I know the new PDA will be limited to email addresses of those pre-cleared by the Secret Service – and that President Obama’s emails will legally fall under Federal record-keeping regulations. Those email conversations aren’t likely to have any references to predator drone attacks inside Pakistan or Congressional strategies around the stimulus bill. They will be limited.

But that misses the point. The President will still be carrying a portable web browser where ever he goes. And while he might only use it to check Chisox boxscores, the potential exists for a more direct link to the daily swirl of information outside of his daily briefing books. Read the rest of this entry »

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Change.gov vs. Change.org

If President-elect Barack Obama and his transition team are looking for a model that uses the power of social networks and citizen democracy to open up government, they ought to bring their own homepage – Change.gov – and replace the g-o-v with a little o-r-g.

Online social activism portal Change.org, whose origins predate (by just a little bit) the theme of the Obama ’08 campaign, has opened up a super-connected suggestion box on national policy – and if they’re smart, the new Obama Administration will dive right in. I can almost picture a Capraesque scene in the Cabinet Room come January: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel dumps a huge hamper of Change.org suggestions on the big, shiny and table and calls on the startled Secretaries to “dig in” as President Obama nods in approval.

Not that you’d divine that sort of attitude from the dot-gov side of the Change domain spectrum: Change.gov is a handsome, well-designed billboard with a light Obama agenda, the latest transition news, and the ability to apply for jobs and send in suggestions. It’s the polar opposite of the much-lauded MyBO site of the campaign, where the campaign allowed organizers to – well – organize publicly using the Obama team’s digital plumbing. And no, your once-prized MyBO log-in and identity won’t work in the Office of the President-elect.

I don’t think you can fault the transition team of Change.gov, especially given the campaign’s track record on balancing real online collaboration with total control over the big brand messages – and I can see some of the wisdom in its skeletal “no drama” approach.

But man, imagine if they’d gone with the Ideas section of Change.org?

I was hanging out over there earlier today and the breadth of the suggestions for the Obama Administration – most of them pretty clear from Obama supporters, as least in the general – was pretty amazing.

The site throws Barack Obama’s quote on open government right up top – both an as encouragement and as a not-so-subtle challenge: I will open the doors of government and ask you to be involved in your own democracy again.”

The ideas number in the hundreds and they’re divided up by causes – economy has the most suggestions, followed by energy, government reform and education. The suggestions are voted on by Cause.org members – high vote-getters include: closing Guantanamo Bay, gay marriage initiatives, fighting global warming, and legalizing marijuana. Yeah, it’s a young liberal crowd on the whole. But there are some really interesting ideas – I was taken with the suggestion of Michael Kleinman, who describes himself as an aid worker from L.A.:

The most effective reform would be to establish a new cabinet-level Department of Development, with the power to coordinate US foreign assistance across and throughout the Government, while also implementing a long-term, strategic approach. USAID, as a sub-cabinet agency, lacks the ability to play such a role.

There are a lot of efforts out there to keep the super-wired organizing work that came to life around the Obama campaign alive – and even grow it into a real national movement that transcends a mere election campaign for a single politician. What Al Giordano is attempting with his network of Field Hands is a good example of the post-election “keep-it-going” mindset. It’s light on any unity of policy yet, but as Giordano points out, people are talking actively about their own roles as participants in democracy – something that is, frankly, a pretty new concept for a lot of Americans. And that’s what the Change.org transition site alternative is all about – a potential complement to the Change.gov side, the “outside” to the politician’s “inside.”

“I see it as parallel attempts to get people involved in civic life again — one through the public sector, the other through the private,” said Josh Levy, editor-in-chief of Change.org in an email. “I think they can work together.”

Transformational Government: The Ultimate Wired Cause

Most of the old Palace of Westminster was lost in a disastrous fire in 1834, and much of what was rebuilt to form the modern Parliament chambers of Great Britain by the Victorians was damaged or destroyed by German bombs in the Second World War. So the seat of British democracy is a mixture of very old remnants and more modern recreation. Yet there remains one grand public space that dates to the 11th century – Westminster Hall, constructed on the orders of William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. It is covered by a brilliant wooden hammer-and-beam roof commissioned by Richard II. And beneath a corner of the hall, down a few stairs is the tiny St. Mary’s Undercroft, a hidden chapel that survived fire and blitz.

Widely credited as the first blogging MP, Tom has been named Minister for Transformational Government by Gordon Brown, charged with helping to reinvent British government through information technology. And he took full advantage the new cabinet position last week with a speech that was a rip-snorter, and has fired its way through the blogosphere on both sides of the Atlantic over the past few days. Here’s a bit, and I must, it’s tailor-made for my book CauseWired, which I’m working hard at finishing up this spring:

Any community organiser or activist knows just how hard it is to get people together to do something. Weeks of backbreaking work required to organise a campaign. My earliest childhood memories are of endless hours of turning the handle of a manual duplicating machine whilst my dad fermented revolution in the pub.

Social media has removed the requirement for my son to turn the handle for his dad. It allows people to organise a demonstration or a lobby at a single click, with global effect. This is profoundly democratising.

And profoundly challenging for politicians. It also means my son can spend more time on the CBeebies website leaving his dad computerless.

And it’s not just cheaper or easier for organisers. The personal cost in time and effort has diminished to a mouse click. With unsurprising results, more people take part. The maths is pretty simple.

Over 7 million electronic signatures have been sent, electronically, to the Downing Street petition website. 1 in 10 citizens have emailed the Prime Minister about an issue. The next stage is to enable e-petitioners to connect with each other around particular issues and to link up with policy debates both on and off Government webspace.

The challenge is for elected representatives to follow their customers and electors into this brave new world.

That is entirely the challenge. Tom posted a hyperlinked version of the speech on his blog, which is – of course – what every politician should do with a major speech; imagine if Obama had posted a hyperlinked version of his famous discussion of race, or if Clinton did a fulled annotated and linked version of an economic policy speech?

Media critic Jeff Jarvis found Tom’s speech through 10 Downing Street’s Twitter feed, ad thought he detected in some of the Tory reaction “the start of a liberal-v-conservative clash of worldviews approaching open, digital, social government and society.” Probably right, but the Tories particularly dislike my friend Tom – it’s the combative blogging nature, I suspect. Over at techPresident, Micah Sifry said Tom’s agenda “makes me drool,” and added:

Imagine one of our presidential candidates making it (even Barack Obama, who has done the most thinking on this topic.) You can’t. But maybe, if we pay more attention to our cousins across the pond, soon someone will.

Five years ago, Watson was one of the first MPs to blog, and notes that even though it opened him up to daily abuse, “the blog broke down the walls between legislators and electors in a way that interested me. So I persevered.” Now he says, “I believe in the power of mass collaboration…. I believe that the old hierarchies in which government policy is made are going to change for ever.”

I think Micah is right about something else as well – “This isn’t your father’s e-government, which has all been about making it easier for people to download forms from websites or file their taxes online.” It is about actually engaging people living in a democracy in the filthy business of running that democracy. And it’s also about the recognition that good ideas can start in the populace itself – with entrepreneurs and regular people – that government programs actually begin as causes to change something.

Tom will in town this week and I’m hoping to get together. But on a side note, his big move reminds me of just how prescient I was last year after our visit in Westminster:

I must be careful here, but I will attempt an observation on behalf of my Right Honorable Labour friend. It seemed to me, as we breezed about, that Tom Watson is seen by his colleagues as a man who will return to government in some prominent role in the near future. His resignation as assistant defense minister was quite the story last year – all intrigue and rumor – and it helped start the exit door opening for Tony Blair. But this old political reporter could see in the greetings, in some of the hints,handshakes, and by-play – and frankly, in the enthusiasm that greeted his American guest – that Tom is reckoned as a man to be reckoned with.

Nailed it.