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Promoting Change. Inviting Change.

Posted @ 4:50 pm by P. Montgomery | Category: Community & Social Media, Strategy, Technology, User Experience | 0 Comments

The history of the Web has seen many milestones. Netscape. Amazon. Craigslist. Blogs. Wikis. People finding love.  People inventing new technologies, services, and modes of commerce. The inauguration of the next President of the United States in now within one week. It is time to reflect on another major milestone in the short life of the Web: the advent of Change.gov. (All images in this post are clickable.)

Launched on November 5, 2008, just one day after the nationwide Presidential Election, Change.gov instantly became a major vehicle to promote the transition plans and communication strategy for the office of the President-elect Barack Obama. For those who live much of their day-to-day lives using the web and digesting content via the web, it may come as no surprise to see articles and news posting online. Realize, however, that this is the Presidency of the United States. This is not a shop selling handmade Yak-wool scarves. This is not a site promoting the AORBS (Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas). It is not even another major site from General Electric, Wal-Mart, Yahoo! or Google. This is a site representing the focal point of the future of the government — and thus of the people — of the United States of America.

On launch day, a post on Change.gov’s official blog included:

Change.gov provides resources to better understand the transition process and the decisions being made as part of it. It also offers an opportunity to be heard about the challenges our country faces and your ideas for tackling them. 

This is a great example of fulfilling the social and communication promise of the Web. It is great to see online community being used at the national level. To some extent the promise of the Web and social media, and the long-tail-ization of news production and consumption, is that anyone can publish information and that all information should hold equal weight. As Howard Rheingold wrote in Smart Mobs in 2003, “Everyone can be a publisher or broadcaster now.” Nonetheless, there is clearly a different level of gravity and impact when the publisher is the office of the President-elect, an office soon to be in charge of directing trillions of dollars in funds, commanding the largest workforce in the nation, the ability to wage war, guide Climate Change laws, and the ability to direct major programs affecting everyone living in America.

Transparency

The transparency shown on Change.gov is a breath of fresh air coming from government. For some of us who lived through periods of secrecy (or at least lack of communication) such as Watergate, or the Iran-Contra cover-ups, or even your local City Council’s inability to post garbage pickup days, or School Board policy decisions, it is truly remarkable to see the official items expressed on Change.gov.  Just a few examples include:  PDF files spelling out the Presidential transition plan details; agenda papers declaring the official position on topics from Health Care to National Security; job applications; dozens of videos with key cabinet level personnel telling you their opinions and visions directly; lists of all the people responsible for decisions in the various departments and committees; and daily blogs and news posting and videos from Obama himself and the Obama team.

Dissent and Community

More than just a boosterish campaign site, Change.gov has also become a platform for dissent and criticism. Foes of the in-coming Obama administration are allowed to post comments and be heard. As Clinton veteran Peter Daou puts it:

It speaks well that they aren’t using a heavy hand to moderate the outrage on the site. It’s also encouraging that across the web, activists see Change.gov as a place to express their views. Bloggers have been sending readers there to tell the transition team how they feel about Warren’s selection.

For me, this is the raw power of the medium, the ability to communicate and aggregate at will, massively and instantaneously. It’s not the YouTube addresses and the capacity to ask questions and receive boilerplate policy answers that will mark Obama’s as the first truly wired presidency, it’s the freedom to speak out on a global scale, both in support of — and in opposition to — the incoming administration. Kudos to Obama’s team for providing an official platform for that to happen.

 On the constructive side, on day one Change.gov started soliciting user input and comments to be sent directly to Obama’s team using the “Tell us your vision for America” online form.

Team

There are some great stories online about the genesis of the Change.gov site, including that of the domain name itself: http://michellemalkin.com/2008/12/20/document-drop-the-story-behind-changegov/

The folks behind Obama’s internet strategy and transition to Change.gov are no slouches. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes became a key player in the Summer of 2008 (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/07/technology/07hughes.html), and former IAC executive Julius Genachowski acted as Obama’s Chairman of the Technology, Media and Telecommunications during the campaign and transition. With Hughes involvement, Change.gov reaches a higher level of polish, gloss, focus, clarity of purpose and approachability than your standard government Website. The branding, user experience, and content are professional and on par with good corporate Websites, and better than most global news portals.

Tools and Copyrights

Surprisingly, and to the delight of most of us in the Web profession, Change.gov has opted to use inexpensive low friction off the shelf tools instead of building some wacky roll-your-own proprietary solutions. Multimedia web technologies are integral to Change.gov, including the use of YouTube and Flickr. Imagine the backroom discussion to approve this “Hey Smitty, is it okay if we create an Obama account on Flickr?”[ pause] “Yeah, dude, sure. Cool.  Do it.”[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/i5_spDNuA4Q" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Additionally, Change.gov is not averse to using best of breed commercial solutions for particular parts of the site.  On January 14, the “Citizen’s Briefing Book”, an online forum where you can share your ideas and rate or offer comments on the ideas of others, was launched using Salesforce.com CRM tools.

Community based rating is one thing for restaurants and dog grooming, but it is interesting to think about the implications for national public policy, or determining funding priorities.

Dispelling the white-knuckle control focus of some administrations, Change.gov has also adopted open Web-generation practices such as the use of Creative Commons for copyright policy and fair use of content. Sharing and dissemination of information seems to be the order of the day.

Future

It is hard to tell how the postings, tools, lessons, and open forums of Change.gov will be used once Obama becomes the President. There are many rumors regarding the potential interplay between the two existing sites Whitehouse.gov and Change.gov.  It is not clear how open and rapid the President will be able to be once in office, officially representing the county. As we have seen in recent weeks Obama will not be allowed to use his BlackBerry device going forward. There are privacy and security issues linked to the person of the President. The transition team says that the open forum, and citizen input, and transparency will remain. And that the use of the Web will continue with the posting of detailed Administration budgets, decisions, and positions.  This all sounds promising. One thing that is for certain: the Web is here to stay. Tides change. Attitudes come and go with Administrations. In the future there may be a lockdown on information and a new rise of paranoia. For now, let us relish this brush with collective action, openness, and community.

-Peter Montgomery

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