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The Obama administration is going to “listen to citizens”

The Office of Public Liaison in the new Obama is promising to listen to citizens as it considers policy direction, legislation and otherwise brings the people to Washington rather than bringing Washington to the people. The most concrete of these proposals is to allow a 5 day comment period by citizens via the internet before the President signs any legislation. Even now anyone can offer an opinion directly to the President here. You can contribute up to 500 characters. That is roughly 40 words.

The windows are open in the White House and a new breeze of open, inclusiveness is blowing right in. This is certainly a change over the previous 8 years when the White House was shut tight, the air inside growing staler by the day. But I wonder if the administration is prepared for the hurricane force winds that could result?

If you ask for comments on pending legislation how many comments will the White House get? There are some hints from around the blogosphere. Go to Technorati and ask for a count of the word “bailout” over the last 6 months. The chart below is what you get.

The peak of over 14,000 blog posts was around the passage of the first muti-billion bank bailout in the early Fall. An estimate of the average around this spike looks to be roughly 6,000 posts per day. As the debate and finalization of the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) and second half of the bank bailout money is finalized you can be sure the number will spike again. But let’s be conservative and assume 1/3 of the average would like to comment directly to the White House on the ARRA over the 5 day period promised. That would be 10,000 comments President Obama says he will consider before signing the legislation. The current estimate of US bloggers is 22.6 million so 10,000 comments may only be a drop in the bucket.

Short of a small army of readers how will Valerie Jarrett and her staff understand this “wisdom of the crowd” input? We do know that President Obama has hired some tech vets to lead this kind of effort.

Chief among these is a former Google product manager Katie Jacobs Stanton who will be the new President’s “director of citizen participation” come March. It is not just a coincidence that Ms. Stanton was in charge of Google Moderator.

A quick look at this tool reveals the ability for anyone to post a question (or I suppose a comment) and then have others vote for its importance relative to all the other questions posted. Looking through the questions posted around the Presidential debates is another estimate I can find that might look like what the White House will experience. The breakdown of topics, questions asked, votes recorded and citizens participating look like the table below.

Votes

Questions

People

Education

6,926

96

1,183

Health Care

3,483

81

412

Iraq War

3,513

64

488

Economy

7,534

209

580

Environment

3,078

73

317

Foreign Policy

3,699

101

339

TOTAL

28,233

624

3,319

Ok here is the rub. No matter how you count what can be expected from citizens participating in the new administration technology beyond posting and voting is going to be needed. It’s not clear on Google Monitor if the categories were decided before the questions came in or after everyone posted. In any case I took the top vote getting comments from each of these categories and analyzed them again using our semantic technology to see what categories come out. I could find 90 categories in total across all those who commented. The top categories (more than 1% of the total) were the following;

That’s easily more than twice what Google Moderator can bucket things into. The point is that true participation means more than a simple tally. It should mean listening, really listening to the context, the nuances, and the breadth of what citizen’s experience in their daily lives and what they expect from their government. Volume is only the first problem for citizen participation. The bigger issue is, as the intelligence community who is familiar with these problems puts it, finding dots, connecting dots and understanding dots.

I believe semantics to be a core technology that can not only process the volume of what the White House is about to experience but can also trick out the full picture of true citizen participation. It will not do President Obama any good promise to listen to his most important constituency and latter be accused of lending a dull ear to the process. There is great promise in having the breadth and range of American opinion directly influence the highest office in the land. Everyone can see technology is the key to extending our democratic reach to every living room and kitchen table in the land. The peril is in not applying enough or the right technology resulting in enough citizens feeling as though they were not sufficiently heard. That would do democracy harm indeed.


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