The following case study is part of a project by MPA students at the Presidio Graduate School on information management technology and policy. You can read the rest of the series here.
By: Kari Kiser
“Government 2.0” is not a new idea anymore. It has moved on from being an experimental idea to one that is being embraced by local, state and federal governments. It is changing the way governments operate internally, and how they interact with the public. But what does Government 2.0 mean? It is a vague phrase that is necessary for the rapidly changing world of technology.
But why is it now become so important?
Building transparency in government has been a major theme in President Obama’s administration. In a memo sent to all his executive team and agencies he stated “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” (Transparency and Open Government, 2010)With President Obama’s call for engaging citizens federal agencies have expanded their online presence. The new media team has been trying new ways and new technologies to deliver content and create more meaningful opportunities for citizens to connect to the federal government and participate in the democratic process.
America has a long history of fighting to find new ways to keep their citizens informed. In 1792, in a debate about getting newspapers distributed to all citizens, Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said “However firmly liberty may be established in any country, it cannot long subsist if the channels of information be stopped,” (Blumenthal, 2010)
In 2009 the Knight Commission reported out on the needs of informing communities in a digital age. The report states that “local information systems should support widespread knowledge of and participation in the community’s day-to-day life by all segments of the community.” (Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, 2009)
It is clear that today’s citizens rely on the internet to get the information they are looking for, participate in debate and provide feedback. The federal government is following suit with more access and better tools for engagement. On December 8, 2009 when The Office of Management and Budget issued the Open Government Directive a strategic plan was created and tools where developed to take advantage of the online opportunities to engage citizens.
Over time ideas have been refined and most agencies have expanded their online content and provided ways for people to learn and participate. One new tool that has become increasingly popular with the White House over the last year is the use of live video on social networking site. This is a way that attempts to reach out to broader segment of citizenry that traditionally has not participated much in the government process. The long term question will be what is the value of using this tool to engage citizenry?
This case study will look at two examples of how live video has been used on social networking sites.
President Obama’s Press Conference
On April 28th President Obama had a simple press conference titled “Obama Makes a Personnel Announcement” It was not long or complicated but they streamed it live on Facebook in an application that allowed dialog chat box alongside the feed. You can also see it live on the White House webpage but there they do not have the chat function available.
What is interesting to think about is what value is achieved by allowing the chat box alongside a live feed. In many cases the White House is not using Facebook live feed and chat to add to the conversation of the video that is streaming. They are providing information to the public but not seeking input. So why would they have a chat function?
Many believe that allowing people to have a venue to have their say is valuable in and of itself. Critics might say that the developers of this functionality created for use in a different type of interaction such as a question and answer section and by taking away that function for some video would cause an unwanted uproar.
In this case very little of the discussion in the chat box related to the speech in the video. About 85 percent of the comments were people stating various opinions about federal policies and past events. The other 15 percent were those who commented or rebutted statements made in the video. Certainly this is no surprise that when given an open venue to say whatever you like it did not stay on topic. For many this is a great opportunity to feel like they have a voice. Even if no one responds they feel like they have had their say.
One interesting outcome of not moderating that box is seeing how the crowd moderates itself. For instance there was one person who consistently made extreme comments. Initial reactions were negative but eventually some in the crowd began asking for people to behave respectfully. One comment that highlighted it all was: “All of our opinions are valid – demonizing each other is just useless – Accusing those who ask questions of being racist or terrorist is ridiculous – Allowing each person to have an opinion is what makes this a democracy so remember that. And for those that do nothing but race bait and hammer those who do ask questions, don’t back down — stand up to them – We will not be ruled by squeaky wheels!” (Obama Makes a Personnel Announcement, 2011)
America’s Great Outdoors Listening Session
Now let’s compare this experience with a listening session that was done for the America’s Great outdoors initiative on March 3rd. In this case Nancy Sutley, the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator, sat down with a moderator to answer questions and hear people’s concerns and hopes about the President’s initiative around America’s Public Lands. (Open for Questions: America’s Great Outdoors with Nancy Sutley and Lisa Jackson , 2011)
People were invited ahead of time both in Facebook and public outreach through the media and stakeholders. They were invited to send in questions in multiple forms. They could email, send a video or submit question live in the chat box.
In this example what happened in the chat box was very different then in President Obama’s press conference. In this example 99% of the comments were directly connected to the topic. Since people were invited to ask question in the live forum they felt free to do so (sometimes repeatedly). Many of those questions got answered.
It is questionable whether or not having a chat box during a speech or press conference will add content value. I think it is worthwhile and take little effort to have it available. It does get people participating. And that in and of itself is good in that it can lead, with careful management, to more meaningful participation.
If you have ever gone to a public meeting you know the lengthy process it is for getting through everyone who choose to speak on their opinions. Having an online forum where they address questions and ask for input may be more efficient in collecting people’s opinions but one challenge will be for administrators to best measure comments that are unique useful and will lead to creating better and more effective regulations and legislation.
The future of Government 2.0 is exciting and ripe with opportunities to encourage citizens to participate in the democratic process. For critics of Government 2.0 they fear a loss of connectivity and drop in person interactions with our government. But others see it as a tool that will increase effectiveness. In a Pew study on the future of the internet social relations one interviewee saw the future thusly; “The tension between the net and social engagement will vaporize in much the same way that thoughts about the telephone network vaporized and it came to be taken-for granted. People do not ask if the telephone is an alienating social force. The phone is a utility supporting social life. Likewise, the net will come to be assumed as a utility for social life.” (Anderson & Rainie, 2010)
There will continue to be adjustments as we figure out how Government 2.0 is going to work. It is moving beyond simply making government more transparent to the public. While transparency is central to the core beliefs of American democracy so is participation. If through the use of new technologies we can bring into the conversation some of the quieter voices or some of the disenfranchised then government will be the better for it.
Anderson, J. Q., & Rainie, L. (2010). The Future of Social Relations. Washington DC: Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.
Blumenthal, P. (2010, March 23). The History of Transparency — Part 1: Opening the Channels of Information to the People in the 18th Century. Retrieved April 12, 2011, from Sunlight Foundation: http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/taxonomy/term/history/
Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. (2009). InformingCommunities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age. Washington, D.C: The Aspen Institute.
Obama Makes a Personnel Announcement. (2011, April 28). Retrieved April 28, 2011, from White House Live: http://apps.facebook.com/whitehouselive/
Open for Questions: America’s Great Outdoors with Nancy Sutley and Lisa Jackson . (2011, March 3). Retrieved March 3, 2011, from The White House: http://apps.facebook.com/whitehouselive/
Transparency and Open Government. (2010, February 5). Retrieved April 12, 2011, from The White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Transparency_and_Open_Government/