I attended a panel discussion sponsored by the New America Foundation, Wired magazine, and Google yesterday. The topic was how the incoming Obama administration might use the same network tools employed successfully during its election campaign during its actual time in office. There is video of the event at the New America page. If my thoughts on the discussion interest you, I encourage you to take the time to watch the video for yourself.
The room at Google, their large conference space in their DC office, was packed. I am guessing the crowd was a good mixture of pundits, wonks, government workers, educators, representatives of NGOs, activists and interested individuals.
Nick Thompson, a fellow of the New America Foundation and a senior editor at Wired, moderated. He did so with wit and aplomb, an excellent choice for a discussion that had a few charged moments. The panelists were Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation; Sascha Meinrath, research director for the wireless future program at New America; Mindy Finn, director of e-strategy for the Romney campaign who also is active in trying to bring the Republican party into the networked world; and Craig Newmark, founder of Craig’s List and still actively part of that site’s customer services group. I caught an interview with Craig a few months back at Google and was very impressed, then, about his thoughts on public activism and the interaction between the network and government. I was pleased to see him again on this panel.
On the general points, there was good consensus amongst the panelists. Ellen, in particular, laid out three principles that generally seemed supported by the remarks of all panelists. First that transparency is the responsibility of government, second that public means online and third that the quality of data and its presentation matter. Craig recommend the material at techPresident and the work being done by the Federal Web Managers Council. The executive sponsor, Bev Godwin, of that council was in the audience and pointed out, during the Q&A, how the ability to cite the work of the council already represents considerable progress towards some of Ellen’s principles.
Mindy seemed defensive from the start, I guess understandably so. The perception is that the move to government transparency and adoption of network tools is rooted in the progressive left. Despite that, she agreed with Ellen’s characterization of a federal CIO/CTO role as an enabler of her three principles. Ellen also suggested a cross agency group, a committee, to help marshal these changes throughout government. Mindy agreed with that suggestion, as well.
Nick did a good job focusing the balance of the discussion on the challenges. Sascha characterized the risks quite well, early on, in terms of the possibility of disappointment. He did a good job of describing this as the other edge to the optimism that has been shared about the incoming administration. He described harnessing the interest the Obama campaign has fostered in very similar terms to the way Clay Shirky has been talking about harnessing the recent cognitive surplus through network tools, like Wikipedia. That is a high bar indeed and the model Obama is exploring differs in one key respect. Shirky’s surplus is a bottom up, emergent phenomenon. Obama’s has a top down component though it is trying to take advantage of bottom up, net roots support.
There was some good practical discussion of how to get the most value out of online action. Craig spoke about filters, putting tools into the hands of the public to vote up good ideas and vote down the noise. There are certainly many examples already of how such systems can work well. Sascha felt the key was to make the discussion relevant to as many members of the public as possible and was generally optimistic that the value of such interaction outweighed any inevitable trolls (Craig used the actual term) that may come along along with other risks, like inadvertent information disclosure. Sascha’s remarks also reminded me of Eben Moglen’s on pairing the best minds with the hardest problems. Sascha advocated for opening up information to get it into public hands, where it may be paired with deep interest for better analysis than either the government or private interests alone can achieve.
Mindy worried a bit about how influence might actually work online. Would all of the people on Obama’s campaign list garner more influence in his administration? If not, then what did they really gain by advocating on his behalf? If so, then did that run the risk of disenfranchising those without access to the network or without the interest in engaging with the administration through it? I was reminded of a warning about the reverse network effect that was brought up at the Tech Agenda event I attended, also at Google, by Ben Scott of Free Press. If the network becomes key to public action, then the cost to those who cannot or will not use it gets magnified by its increased adoption.
Craig and Mindy also expressed some concerns about issues of free speech. Craig felt that we are already exploring these issues. Mindy wondered whether the limits and rules are the same for public offices versus citizens. Ellen mentioned the recent attempt at changing the Senate rules for use of network services. I talked about that same story on my blog and podcast. Despite the standing rules, members of Congress have been using non-governmental services like Twitter, YouTube and blog services.
There was some healthy discussion of where to draw the line between safe to disclose and what should remain classified or private. Mindy pointed out that leaks were already occurring and that the real choice was whether public officials were passive or took control of their own information and communication. This resonated with a clarification Ellen offered earlier on, that transparency and open communication in government are distinct and important for different reasons. Mindy suggested, though, that actively filtering communications begs full on management and responsibility, a sort of trap commercial information providers have been trying to deal with. Transparency and open communications, then, may not entirely be binary, either all or none.
The questions from the audience continued the theme of considering challenges and obstacles. The panel’s response was both optimistic and considered, as was the main discussion. Craig was the most overtly positive, likening the present to the year 1787 as the actually implementation of our fledgling democracy was first undertaken. The other panelists offered many examples, though, of transparency, openness and online experimentation already underway suggesting that we may be experience equal parts evolution and revolution.
The question of how soon we may be able to vet predictions was also brought up. There was generally agreement that we’d see within the first months, maybe even weeks, whether there is cause to sustain optimism or these experiments would fizzle as have others in the past in the face of political and bureaucratic inertia.