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Bringing Citizen Participation to the Heart of the Administration

January 30th, 2009 by Mitch

Over the past several weeks (and months, really) much has been made of the Obama campaign’s impressive application of the internet and Web 2.0 to connect with, raise funds from, and mobilise his supporters.

I have long applauded those activities, particularly the degree with which such efforts enabled supporters to feel part of the movement. However, I’ve also said that mobilisation is only one step of the engagement process. Despite the popularity of my.barackobama.com, it did not provide much of a mechanism for supporters and other interested parties to actively participate in the development of the his policy agenda. Activities like the Briefing Book aside (which was a great experiment, I must admit), my understanding is that his policies were generated in the old-fashioned way: by a coterie of policy advisors, think-tanks, and external experts.

Which is why I have been immensely pleased at the imminent inclusion of a Director of Citizen Participation directly within the White House. I had heard through the grapevine that such a post was being created, but saw that it was announced yesterday that Google executive Katie Jacobs Stanton is taking this appointment.

This announcement excites me for two reasons. The first, and perhaps most importantly, is that it is placing Participation with a capital “P” at the heart of the administration’s activity. As I have argued in the past, Web 2.0 at its heart is about a set of principles, not technology; principles of collaboration, and user-generated content. It is the notion that expertise, experience, and creativity are all around us, and that the more our governments embrace and engage broad participation, the better our policies will be. And the better our outcomes will be. And the stronger our democracy will be.

My sense in the past is that the resistance of government to Web 2.0 tools hasn’t been so much resistance to technology, but resistance to these principles. Broad participation is, quite simply, antithetical to bureaucratic operations. This isn’t because government is nasty and doesn’t want to involve people, but simply because the way government operates does not easily make allowance for it. The power structures, the hierarchies, the general risk intolerance, the workload, the limited resources, the need for accountability — all of these make it hard to simply open the floodgates to really broad engagement.

And this is what excites me so much about Ms. Stanton’s appointment. Because it means that — all fancy technologies aside — that the Obama administration is well and truly committed to the principles. By placing Ms. Stanton’s close to the seat of power, and with the voice of our new leader clearing her path, that the US central government writ large is better positioned than ever to chip away at the bureaucratic obstacles and infrastructure which hamper meaningful participation and engagement. Because if we can get the government to truly adopt a participative and collaborative culture, then the rest, including technology, will just fall into place.

Which brings me to the second reason that I’m excited for Ms. Stanton’s appointment: because she comes from Google – the heart of the tech landscape, and an innovative, private sector juggernaut to boot. It means that technology can’t help but be a part of her Participation Agenda. And all of my ramblings above aside, I am a geek at heart. I would so love OpenGov technology (such as polyWonk!) to be one of the primary mechanisms to help transform my government, the way policy is made, and the way the people are included at its heart. Because as many have said before me, that is the true meaning of democracy.

P.S. Thanks much to Emma Mulqueeny for prodding me yesterday to get these thoughts finally down onto paper.

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