Is Obama's Web-based political revolution real or smoke?

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 10, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Has a presidential adviser ever before asked you to tell her where the economic crisis is hurting you personally? Has a future Cabinet member ever sought your ideas for improving health care?

Barack Obama's incoming administration does both on its transition Web site, change.gov, and the appeals are drawing thousands of e-mail respondents. So is the site's invitation to "share with us your concerns and hopes," and more than 300,000 people have taken up the site's invitation to apply for political appointments.

Want to join a policy debate? Your e-mail will appear on change.gov. Readers then rate your submission using icons whose thumbs are up or down. Submissions that are deemed the best rise to the top of the screen.

To proponents, these efforts by Obama's team to build a Web-based network of support can democratize the government anew. To skeptics, however, change.gov is little more than a clever public-relations device, a way to keep Obama's fans revved up about him and give them the illusion of influence.

"Change.gov is obviously fantastic," said tech-prognosticator Clay Shirky, the author of the book "Here Comes Everybody," an upbeat prediction of what networked people can accomplish.

"Just the idea that the president-elect is soliciting ideas from outside the traditional pool is a profound potential change," Shirky said. "It convinces people that they can be involved in government and it creates the expectation that this is how Obama will govern."

David All, a Republican consultant who's known for Internet creativity, thinks that the revolution is well under way. Future presidents will find it impossible to abandon Obama's innovations in openness, he said. "So they're setting precedents before people realize what's happening."

If they're ever analyzed carefully, all the recent submissions to Obama might yield what's often called the wisdom of crowds and make leaders smarter and their governance enlightened, proponents say. Indeed, what Shirky and others envision ultimately is that Obama would yield significant power to the will and ingenuity of socially networked activists.

There's no guarantee of that, however. Nor is it clear that Obama aims to surrender any authority at all. About all that's clear is that change.gov is a place to learn and talk about what the new administration might do, and to ask for a job application.

According to skeptic Matthew Hindman, the author of "The Myth of Digital Democracy," change.gov may simply be a new application of "an effective political strategy that Obama has pursued before. It's listening: getting across that he listens to and pays attention to people, including those who think differently from the way he thinks."

That assumes that someone in the Obama camp is paying close attention to what people submit to change.gov, but that's not clear either. Indeed, the huge number of essay submissions raises its own question: Who reads them?

"We have an incredible group of volunteers who read through the essays with a goal of reading through all of them if possible," e-mailed Jen Psaki, an Obama transition press aide.

A few submissions have been singled out on change.gov, including suggestions for health-care restructuring. They may not be yielding much new insight, however.

For example, two of the three health-care ideas that Tom Daschle, Obama's expected choice for health and human services secretary, lauded from more than 3,700 responses came from the first of 59 pages of suggestions.

While Daschle hailed all three in a YouTube video posted on change.gov as "fantastic ideas from the American public," two — preventive medicine and cost containment — have been major topics in the health-care debate for years. The third idea, a Peace Corps-like Health Service Corps, already appears elsewhere on change.gov as an Obama proposal.

Then there's the question of how thousands of job applications from people seeking political appointments in the Obama administration are read. According to a recent New York Times story, "more than 50 staff aides" are classifying and downloading a record 300,000 e-mail applications for roughly 3,300 positions. (That's 6,000 applications per aide.) The number of applicants is expected to double by Inauguration Day.

"Good luck!" reading their submissions, responded Marlyn McGrath, the director of admissions at Harvard College, where, she said, a single thorough reading of a typical applicant's file takes about 45 minutes.

The administration's application form is far longer and more detailed than Harvard's, and submitters have longer lives to sum up. Even at 45 minutes, a single serious read of the expected Obama administration applicant pile would take a thousand readers well into March.

When it comes to discerning good new policy ideas, the thumbs-up system of taking readers' favorite submissions to the top may not be helping much either. That's due to what Lillian Lee, a language-processing researcher, calls a "rich get richer" bias.

"High-ranked posts are put at the top of the page so that lower-ranked posts are never seen in order to be rated in the first place," explained Lee, who teaches computer science at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

(The system, designed by Intense Debate, also lets readers sort by date or latest entry, but lots prefer the third option: ranking.)

Mitch Kapor, a new-media pioneer and philanthropist who's been advising Obama's team, raised a larger concern about the emerging e-democracy: "Not everybody is online," he said. "Among those who are online, the number who are comfortable with Facebook, MySpace and Twitter is very small. Most of my friends and colleagues forget that."

According to a survey in May by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 41 percent of non-Hispanic blacks don't use the Internet. Nor do 65 percent of people older than 65. A third of rural residents and more than half of Americans who never finished high school don't use the Internet either.

That will change, Internet-governance advocates say, and they draw great encouragement from change.gov's innovations in its first month, however flawed.

In the long run, predicted Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum, a Web site that promotes Internet-aided political engagement, the new model of citizen participation "will be as revolutionary for the American public as the discovery that the world was round was for seafarers."

Then again, about 38 percent of eligible Americans didn't bother to vote in November, a reminder that citizen engagement remains spotty at even the most basic level.

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