Friday, December 12, 2008

A Brief Guide to Obama's Site

The incoming Obama administration's website is taking advantage of a number of standard Internet tools, using them for the first time in such a high-profile way to give citizens a sense that they are participating in the structure of the new administration. I say "give citizens a sense" because it remains to be seen how the citizen feedback will be used and what impact us "ordinary folks" will have on the new administration's policies and procedures.

Here are the tools that strike me as particularly worth talking about:

1. Most of the site ("except where otherwise noted") is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, which permits users to share and adapt the material provided they attribute it to This is probably the highest-profile use of a Creative Commons license to date.

2. A periodically-active "Open for Questions" tool allows individuals to post questions that they would like the transition team to answer. Users can vote on submitted questions, in a Digg-like fashion, a feature that racked up more than 600,000 votes in OfQs first round. The team has promised to respond to some of the "most popular" questions.

The OfQ tool also allows users to "Flag as inappropriate" any question, presumably relying on people's common sense to flag profane or off-topic issues. It appears, however, that the tool was also used to bury questions that were merely "uncomfortable," in particular those that included the name "Blagojevich." It will be interesting to see whether the next iteration of OfQ modifies the "flag" feature.

3. "Your Seat at the Table" promises to publish all materials submitted to the transition team by interested third parties (read "special-interest groups"), which in addition to opening up the lobbying process a bit has probably resulted in a drastic reduction in the volume of written material submitted to this transition team versus what was submitted to previous transition teams. Meetings between interest groups and the transition team are also noted. At the time of this blog entry, the list of submissions runs 22 screen-pages.

Users can both comment on submissions and submit their own documents to be considered in connection with each submission. The entries are searchable, which is helpful given that they appear to be organized chronologically.

4. "Join the Discussion" periodically posts short videos that describe issues, then encourages users to comment. A recent discussion topic was "How is the current economic crisis affecting you?" After comments are received (3,572 in this case) the topic is closed, and the transition team responds.

5. Health care has been identified as an issue of particular concern, because gives individuals an opportunity to sign up to host local discussions on health care issues between December 15 and 30. The selected moderators will receive a "a special moderator kit that will give you everything you need to get the discussion going. And Senator Tom Daschle, the leader of the Transition's Health Policy Team, will even choose some discussions to attend in person."

The site also has the usual sort of pages: a blog, a pressroom, an agenda page, a page that encourages people to share their stories and hopes, and a lot more.

The Internet makes this the easiest time in history for individuals to connect with their leaders. It's great to see the new leadership team taking advantage of these tools. The risk, of course, is that peoples' already-high expectations will be heightened even further by this process, and there will be an unpleasant backlash when compromises have to be made for the sake of politics.

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