Change.gov, the website of president-elect Obama, claims that it is Open For Questions. This new section on the site allows anyone willing to give a name and a zip code the ability to log in to both pose and vote on any question that they want the transition team to answer.
Obama’s staff has already proven its savvyness in understanding how to leverage new media to help make his campaign both one of the most effective and genuinely grassroots in recent history (though George W. Bush’s in ’04 qualified as both, it did not use tech near as competently, nor was social media in the same place then). Now it’s keeping its promise of continuing this process of engagement on Change.gov.
What’s been interesting to watch is how the site has evolved since it was launched a couple of days after the election. First it was just a couple of static pages, with one offering a space for input, encouraging you to “Share Your Story”. A couple of weeks later other interactive spaces were created where specific questions were posed about people’s opinions and experiences in regards to health care and the economy.
All three of those instances were innovative compared to anything any US president has done in the past, though at the same time they were controlled and rather safe. The one that was completely open ended, asking you to share your story, didn’t make public what people shared, and so was overall risk free. For the latter examples, the administration focused the content of the discussions on issues that are its major priorities.
Open For Questions feels a bit different. There’s a certain wild nature to it, where the Obama administration is letting go of the reins, and potentially losing control of the narrative. Though I recognize that there is certainly plenty of control that exists in how they engage in that process of letting go, I also can’t help but notice that the most popular question at the time of my writing pertains to whether the administration would consider legalizing marijuana to help boost the economy. This isn’t exactly an issue the administration has had to say a word on very often over the course of the campaign.
The real question here, though, is how open is open? Obama claimed again and again that his administration would make transparency a priority. What he’s done so far, given that it’s been just over a month since his election, has been remarkable in terms of continuing dialogue and engaging real people. At the same time, in the scope of what real transparency means, it’s relatively small potatoes. If this kind of innovation in terms of transparency continues apace of what’s it’s been, then I’m optimistic. But with that kind of open dialogue and transparency comes a real change in the dynamics of governance, and it remains to be seen whether that’s something that can remain a priority when Obama inevitably encounters a time when the public is not as friendly as it is right now.