December 5, 2008

Joining the Discussion at Change.gov

After a presidential race in which the internet played a huge role in empowering ordinary citizens to participate in the political process, folks like myself have been wondering how the new administration is going to adapt a campaign built on direct interactions with voters to the everyday business of running a government. After all, the freewheeling, bottom-up orientation that worked so well in the context of a political campaign presents a host of potential problems when migrated to an officially sanctioned government space.

Change.gov, the official transition site of the new administration, offers a fascinating look into how the administration is approaching these issues. While the site is still a work in progress, the Obama team has clearly opted to err on the side of encouraging debate and interaction and sort out the details as they go along. That much is apparent from the recent online discussion of health care, which has so far garnered more than 4,000 user comments and a video reply from new HHS Secretary Daschle (the administration has since opened a similar discussion for the economy).

Over at the Sunlight Foundation’s excellent blog, Greg Elin lays out (in elegant detail) the key features of the “Join the Discussion” health care site. While other government sites have offered some aspects of the Web 2.0 experience (the TSA blog is a good example), change.gov pulls all of these elements together in a way that represents a potentially huge leap forward in terms of citizen involvement with government.

Yet although this represents an excellent first attempt, some questions still remain. First, just how scalable is this type of discussion? As Chris Korakas notes in the comments of the Sunlight Foundation blog, the logistics involved in reading and assimilating more than four thousand user comments are daunting to say the least. Even with user ratings in place to highlight particularly salient posts, it seems likely that someone in the administration had to do a fair amount of pruning before the major findings reached the desk of Secretary Daschle. Why not allow the community to make those decisions, as opposed to an army of staffers who could otherwise be doing other useful things?

The second (and related) question: to what extent is this model truly collaborative? Allison Fine at techPresident pointed out recently that the “Join the Discussion” site is more an online suggestion box than an actual collaborative effort between citizens and the government. To steal Allison’s comparison, it’s currently the Huffington Post when it could be Wikipedia–both are wonderful sites with active communities, although the roles of those communities are extremely different in each instance.

As noted above, change.gov is obviously in “sand box” mode at the moment; and for a host of reasons both practical and legal, it is likely that the website of president Obama will look far different from that of president-elect Obama or candidate Obama. With that said, it’s encouraging to see the government experimenting with online tools in order to take advantage of the collective intelligence of the American people.

Finally, a shameless plug: in our 2008 post-election survey, we are fielding a battery of questions on Obama supporters’ expectations for continued online involvement with the new administration (as well as Republican voters’ expectations for continued online contact with the GOP opposition). If you’re interested in this topic, keep your eyes peeled for a report on this topic coming soon!