As has been widely pointed out, the Obama campaign was masterful in the way it used the Web, social networking sites, text messaging and other technology to assure its victory on Nov. 4. In addition to raising consciousness and money online, the campaign even used text messaging to remind people to go to the polls.
The Obama Web site made it very easy for people to donate money, find local events and - as did John McCain’s site - give supporters online access to a phone bank of voters to help spread the word and get out the vote.
But now that we’re in a transitional period, the question is how the incoming administration will continue to use technology to further the president’s agenda. A sitting president isn’t in the same position as a presidential candidate. For example, it’s not at all clear to me whether he can legally use his campaign e-mail or text messaging lists to promote his presidential agenda.
But we do have a clue as to one way he might use technology. The “Office of the President-Elect” has a new Web site called simply change.gov, which appears to be almost an extension of Obama’s presidential campaign.
It shows news stories, including an embedded MSNBC video of transition team Co-chair Valerie Jarret’s appearance on “Meet the Press” last Sunday. There is also a link to Obama’s radio address from last Saturday and, of course, a video of Obama’s victory speech from election night.
There's also a bit of meat on this site, including information about the president’s Cabinet and - perhaps of great interest to some - information about how to apply for a job at the White House and other federal agencies, including an “online expression of interest form” for job seekers to put their toe in the water.
But, if you’re inclined to express an interest, the site warns that "if and when you are considered for a specific position, you will be asked to fill out additional forms, including financial disclosures, and be subject to other reviews which may include FBI background checks."
As the New York Times has reported, candidates for high ranking jobs and cabinet positions will also be asked to provide detailed information about their backgrounds, including their online personas; any emails or blog posts that might embarrass the President-elect, and any profiles on Facebook or other social networks and "aliases" or "handles" used to communicate over the Internet.
I wonder if they will scrutinize your list of MySpace or Facebook friends to see who you've been "palling around" with online.
Change.gov also includes a “blog,” but aside from the fact that it’s organized in reverse chronological order, it’s not all that bloggish. It’s mostly well polished short articles and a couple of videos but, unlike many blogs, there are no links for user comments.
There is a link where you can “share your story” about “what this campaign and this election means to you.” I’m not sure if they’re deliberately still calling it a campaign as if to say that there are still struggles ahead or if they just cloned this from the old campaign Web site and forgot to update the language.
Speaking of updating, CNET’s Delcan McCullagh wrote here on CBSNews.com that the site initially had detailed agendas for Homeland Security and technology that were deleted over the weekend, to be replaced by “a vague statement saying that Obama and running mate Joe Biden have a ‘comprehensive and detailed agenda’” that will “‘bring about the kind of change America needs.’”
The deletion of that agenda could very well be the beginning of recognition that Obama is no longer in the mode of making campaign promises but on the verge of having to deliver actual policy.
That’s a natural transition that all presidents-elect have had to deal with, but in the past they weren’t quite as exposed to online scrutiny as is this incoming administration.
Although it’s not exactly what I’m looking for, I am pleased to see that change.gov also has a place where visitors can share their "vision for what America can be, where President-elect Obama should lead this country. Where should we start together?” It falls way short of what I’d like to see in terms of participatory democracy, but it is a start.
The incoming administration can start by using the Internet to fulfill its promise to make government more transparent, by using the Internet to share information on legislation and policy discussions. But to do so effectively, it must be in a way we can all understand and with a mechanism for people to have their voices heard.
To be understandable, information can't just be in government-speak. The Library of Congress's THOMAS Web site has long made it possible for citizens to see the text of proposed legislation but I take my hat off to any layperson who can actually understand the text of a congressional bill. What's needed is for non-partisan interpreters to objectively explain these bills in language that we can all understand.
We also need a transparent feedback mechanism where citizens have the option of sharing their opinions, not only with the administration, but with fellow citizens through blogs and forums. I would like to see the President (or at least his surrogates) actively participate in an open online discussion. Admittedly, that could get so lengthy as to be become unwieldy but if these discussions do blossom, I'm sure news media and bloggers who follow these discussions will bring interesting nuggets to light.
Change.gov is clearly a work in progress which is certainly understandable considering how little time has passed since the election. My hope is that the administration will extend this effort into something that truly does involve citizens in government. We can all use a little more sunshine.
By Larry Magid
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