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White House 2.0 – the efforts so far

On Thursday of this week I’ll be hosting the book launch for Yes We DidRahaf Harfoush’s story of the role of the new media in the Barack Obama campaign and its implications for business. The deft use of digital technologies by Obama’s team during the primaries and the election itself is already the stuff of political legend.  Obama strategists promised that a President Obama would continue to use the Internet and social media to open up the government to greater scrutiny and give Americans a stronger voice in how the government is managed. Recently, Macon Phillips, the Director of New Media at the White House, released a video [see above] on the White House blog that highlights the new media channels that the Administration has created to help fulfill its campaign pledge of more open government. As the video shows, a lot has been done in drawing back the curtains, but much remains to do.  To be fair to the White House, opening up the government’s entrails to scrutiny and comment hasn’t been easy.  Yesterday the Center for American Progress published an essay by Peter P. Swire, who served during the Obama-Biden transition as an attorney for the New Media team that operated the transition website change.gov and developing whitehouse.gov.
The Obama campaign broke new ground in its use of new media and social networking technologies such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to spread information and engage supporters. It also sparked imagination about how these Web 2.0 technologies could usher in a new era of government transparency and citizen participation. Some observers, however, have been disappointed with the Obama administration’s apparent caution in deploying a wide range of these same technologies on WhiteHouse.gov. In an April poll by Nationaljournal.com, “new media experts from across the political spectrum gave WhiteHouse.gov an average grade of C+. Although they mostly saw the site as an improvement from the previous administration’s, many noted that it remained a one-way forum.”
Swire discusses why life is different when running for office than after the election when you become head of state.
The ideal model for citizen participation would utilize Web 2.0 technologies to enable valuable citizen input that can make a difference in government policy and actions while also fostering a sense of participation, so that those outside of the government feel that they are a meaningful part of the process. The trick is how to accomplish these goals given the White House’s real world constraints. The Web 2.0 approaches used to date have addressed the problem of scale, when the sheer number of participants can overwhelm the handful of employees on the New Media team. They have recognized the burdens of “clearing” answers across the federal government, with the result that only a small subset of questions and comments receive an official answer. And they have avoided any features where a binding decision is made on behalf of those participating-the public does not get to decide outcomes or anoint anyone to speak on behalf of the government. These constraints could be a source of frustration, leading to the conclusion that the White House cannot effectively promote citizen participation. A better outlook, I suggest, is to see this as an historic opportunity for software developers and participation theorists alike-now that we know the constraints-to figure out how can we build the best, most participatory White House 2.0 over the coming years.
I share Swire’s optimism.  We are a long way from the transparent and inclusive government spoken about so frequently during the election campaign.  But it is also clear that the Administration views this issue as a priority and has the political will to make progress.

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