Government 2.0?

Sure, Obama used the Web to win the election. Now comes a much bigger test: Can he use it to govern more effectively?


We thought this day would never come.


I cried in the voting booth yesterday. Like so many others, I had barely let myself believe that this could really happen–a woman and an African American, serious contenders on a national ticket.

President-elect Obama has run an extraordinary campaign, harnessing powerful social tools that came into widespread adoption just in time to help “a skinny guy with a funny name”(as he puts it) become a symbol of a truly democratic America, where anyone can in fact become President.

It is slowly becoming clear what this means to the world, but what it means for governance remains an open question. I spent election night with my friends at Current TV and Digg, who partnered up to bring even deeper engagement to the passive act of watching–or in the case of last night, screaming at–television. But it was Digg CEO Jay Adelson who caused me to choke up yet again with his confession that not so long ago, he simply wasn’t sure what would happen when people actually had a voice. “You believe in social media, what it can mean when people can truly participate…but will they use it? Will they do the right things? I wasn’t really sure.” Now he’s a believer. And not just because his candidate won, but because people actually showed up, online and IRL, and did the right things.

Now what? Adelson describes the ultimate risk that any marketer now takes: By opening themselves up to the social web, they are giving up a lot of control. Transparency and immediacy can have terrifying ramifications: Damaging rumors can spread like wildfire, destroying best-laid plans, reputations and livelihoods in the process. Of course governing involves grappling with the kind of huge challenges–national security leaps to mind–that make marketing a soda, or a candidate, look easy in comparison. Yet the promise of social media, where good ideas spring up from unlikely places, and an informed, supported citizenry fully engage in the messy business of governance, is more than worth the risk.

But rather than collect my thoughts on this, I collected yours. I reached out on Twitter, Facebook and the interwebs, and asked for your thoughts on how Government 2.0 might fulfill its promise of a truly engaged citizenry. Here’s some of what you sent me:


1) Mark Silva, Principal & Founder of Real Branding (on twitter @marksilva) takes on the idea of risk directly: I grow stronger each day in my faith in the citizens/community to self-regulate and police. I’m a big fan of access and literacy to make us more connected. I believe the upsides of a connected citizenry far outweigh concerns.

In fact, as Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff point out in Groundswell, “Social Media amplified by Social Networks have changed the game where people now source from each other what they used to through corporations. That means the ignorance or the arrogance of power is now accountable to the collective intelligence. As we look back five years from now, I believe our analysis will tell us that this is what ultimately changed the tone and tide of these elections. It made smear politics more difficult. It made previously silenced voices heard. And it gave candidates unprecedented access to constituents, influence and even funding.”

2) Andrew Raisej, co-founder of the geekily prescient Personal Democracy Forum, said this:

“I think you can safely say that no matter the way in which Obama used the technology in the elections or may in fact continue to use it in governance, the newly born networked public sphere will continue to rise and demand a seat at the table of political decision making and render the days of top down, back room, sound bite, and tear down politics, useless for a new generation of Americans coming of age.

The reason we can be hopeful for a more open, wired, and engaged democracy is because one of the bi-products of the technology is the fact that people are realizing how interconnected we all our, not just in this country, but around to world. This technologically advanced humanity is creating new responsible world citizens who understand that they can’t just demand that their leaders solve the problems of the world by voting every four years, but that they too have to take a roll in changing behavior, holding government accountable, and help solve problems through creative solutions and working together.”


3) Josh Bernioff, one of my favorite thinkers on the matter, blogged this:

“I call on president-elect Obama to create a community of committed Americans to discuss the solutions to the problems that face us. I call on him to designate a US Community Manager, with a small staff, to moderate and harvest those discussions to solve the country’s problems. Forget polls. With a few million people in, Obama will be able to tap into the world’s largest focus group. Communities are cheap, compared to most of what the government does. Create a space for the brightest people you know; use them to attract the best ideas. And better yet, use this energized community to sell those ideas to America.”

4) Sam Ford, the Director of Customer Insights for Peppercom and a research affiliate with the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, framed a very specific challenge in an e-mail:

“The president-elect now faces a communication crisis: he has marketed himself to the audience increasingly using communications platforms (the Web and mobile) that the ultimate product (our national government) does not use well.

“Citizens have been able to find out what both candidates were doing all along the campaign. The Obama camp has not only given us a constant feed about what’s happening in their campaign and what they’re thinking but constant ways to participate in the process as well.


“Now, the president-elect faces a dilemma: he will be chief executive of a large organization that is behind the curve in innovating how digital tools are used. For instance, the White House’s current interactive page features a Q&A section last updated on March 26, 2007, answering the “pressing” question, “George W. Bush is what number as President of the U.S.?” The political machines surrounding candidacy have demonstrated a savvy with digital tools that does not reflect from the government they will take over.”

5) Bentley University Professor of Government Christine Williams, has been studying the use of social media in campaigns, and contributed this:

“A social networking website is potential means to influence the agenda by rallying support behind legislation that gets communicated to the legislature (Congress). Ultimately it could change how governing is done by putting citizen based groups on a level playing field with organized interest groups.

“The challenge: It creates a possibility that is so large, it’s almost impossible to keep up, to keep it fresh, and maintain the urgency around issues and people’s desire to remain plugged in. Chief executives cannot interact and respond to comments generated through these tools on a regular basis, so the value is in creating advocacy and issue support groups at the grassroots. Those groups will not necessarily stay on the administration’s message and will have much more diffuse priorities.”

6) My friend Jennifer Fader, Vice President, eMedia, Rogers & Cowan sees reason for hope, because there’s no other alternative:


“It’s amazing how the election process has brought previously ‘fringe’ social media tools to the mainstream. Much as the social web has empowered consumers (think: Comcast sleeping cable guy on YouTube, exploding Dell computers, the ascendance of blogs like the, the same tools will help the people create a more accountable governing body.

“This is open source democracy. Legislation, one of the most glacially paced institutions in our culture, will be forced to become more agile in its ability to serve society’s new people-powered dynamics. What’s working on the social web – namely crowdsourcing, mechanical turking and microkarma payment marketplaces will return democracy its roots–the power of many to create a unified vision.

“Law is code and so one would hope that social tools will help accelerate the iteration process–just like with great software.

“What will keep this audience engaged? Meaningful social nets that aren’t echo chambers but organizational catalysts to real change–I would hope that savvy entrepreneurs are helping to build platforms that help mesh social problems with willing participants in the process who are willing to construct change.”

Thanks, oh network, my network. Keep ’em coming.


One final, personal note.

My dad fought in World War II in the segregated army, and came home to a country that barred him from voting. That, and the thousand daily indignities of being black in America, hardened him in some very sad ways.

Through the generosity of the GI bill, he became a lawyer, social worker and community organizer with one overarching responsibility: To keep his daughter safe in a world that was not welcoming to her. To become President was not an option for me; even as a kid I stuck with the much more attainable “fireman.” He made sure that I knew exactly what I was up against–it was illegal to be a mixed race family in seventeen states when I was born, a fact which I’ve been reciting since I was six. We discussed the philosophies of Malcolm and Martin, marveled at the audacity of Muhammad Ali, who seemed to tempt fate with this taunts. We expected our heroes to be killed.

So, when I walked into that voting booth, using the same type of rickety machine that he used to take me in so many years ago, I thought of him, and marveled at the day that nobody thought would come.