Bringing Citizen Participation to the Heart of the Administration

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, 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.

Social Obamedia

Great post this morning by Emma Mulqueeny on a recent report on Obama’s social media strategy. My reaction to the Social Obamedia phenomenon has been one of contradictions: pride that the campaign’s application of key social media principles has been successful, optimism that it has generated such an avalanche of interest from the mainstream, and frustration

Perhaps my greatest frustration, to echo some of your sentiments, is that things have not advanced more rapidly here in the UK. As an American living here and devoted to the Govt Social Media realm, I can’t help but point out that for a while, the UK was further ahead . Given the size of the country, the centralised nature of its government, and the reasonably collegial nature of regional governments (so I am lead to believe), I believe that the UK has, and is, particularly well placed to innovate and scale approaches to Govt 2.0/eParticipation/etc. The eDemocracy movement has been strong here for some time. Folks like Emma and Jeremy Gould have been doing this stuff for ages and have insights aplenty. And for some time now, we have a spectacular minister at the cabinet level intensely devoted to this subject. The US has no such thing (although given the way that the West Wing operates, Macon Phillips is well positioned to play one). When I started the idea of polyWonk a year ago, I had the naive notion that I’d be able to easily arrange to get 20K out of some department to develop and run a pilot project around ‘open-sourcing policy’ (as we called it then). The government would get a tangible product and demonstration of its democratic agenda, and a strong start-up in a growing space, to boot. Alas, despite the rhetoric within government, this proved significantly harder than I had predicted, and I have had to turn to private individuals for development capital.

Let me finish on a note of optimism, however. Based upon my recent investigations across the pond, the US hasn’t cracked this nut yet. At all. As you can tell by this report, much of the discussion re: social media and govt is still focused on the political side – i.e. running campaigns, mobilising people, and communications. They still need to make the same leap to incorporating not just the tools, but the *principles* of social media into government: active collaboration and engagement, and user-contributed/generated content. The same goes for Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. There are many experiments and a growing hunger, creating great opportunity for innovation and the sharing of ideas. There are still no household names in this realm, no trade magazines for govt 2.0, no simple primer for the vast number of civil servants out there who are struggling to understand social media and their implcations. The social and commercial potential are still great. But we must act, once again allow the US to take lead in an area in which the UK has no shortage whatsoever of great ideas, and great people.