A Panel Discussion, “Internet Technology in the Obama Age”

By Dennis D. McDonald

Monday night’s panel discussion in Washington DC sponsored by Johns Hopkins University, “Internet Technology in the Obama Age: Helping People Change Government,” had a top notch and diverse set of panelists:

* Joe Trippi (Joe Trippi and Associates)
* Adam Conner (Facebook’s Washington DC Associate for Privacy and Global Public Policy)
* Greg Elin (Chief Evangelist (Sunlight Foundation)
* Jose Antonio Vargas (Reporter, The Washington Post)
* Adam J. Segal, Moderator (Director, Johns Hopkins Internet and Mobile Communication Project)

The main question addressed was, given the Obama campaign’s successful use of modern web and social technologies online, what will now be done with these technologies to actually improve government?

That we have made substantial strides in the use of technologies to support political campaigns since 2000 was generally agreed; Joe Trippi contributed some personal anecdotes to illustrate that. But different opinions were expressed about how advanced we really are now. One panelist compared us now to Apollo 11 and 2000’s elections’ use of online technologies “…like the Wright Brothers.” (Remember Apollo 11 was a 20th Century event!)

The new Administration’s willingness to publish more government sourced information on the web was heartily applauded. Numerous examples of document availability during the Obama transition illustrated that point. Still, outmoded rules about campaign financing, government publishing, and the operation of the Freedom of Information Act were heavily criticized as beeing outdated and antiquated. Congress also came in for scrutiny with several panelists complaining about many — but not all — members of Congress being “clueless” about the new technologies. (Panelists later pointed out that the “clueless” label doesn’t extend to everyone, a point also made at the December “Creating New Opportunities for Open and Participatory Government” conference I described here.)

Distinction were drawn among use of technology in campaigns, the publishing of information on the web, and actual engagement with the public in the process of governing. One comment was, “mistakes are bound to be made,” and we need to be prepared for that.

I raised the question of whether or not increasing access by the public to communicating with Congress might force an adoption of more quantitative, automated, and streamlined techniques for managing the huge volumes of input Congress can expect to receive.

(Despite the panel’s response I am still concerned that technology could still end up being a hindrance to true public involvement. As managers of large, high volume call centers know so well, trade-offs exist between handling customer service on a personalized one-on-one basis, and handling customer service in an automated and standardized fashion. Providing personalized service, as facilitated by the use of more interactive and collaborative social technologies, may have significant costs depending on how it is implemented and managed.)

But the value of more openness and transparency in government, as exemplified by the ongoing programs of the Sunlight Foundation that were discussed, was strongly applauded by all on the panel.

I share that enthusiasm and look forward to how the web site Recovery.gov evolves, as announced this past weekend in President Obama’s weekly video address (as seen on YouTube, of course). Members of the Legislative and Executive branch are still not as accustomed to open disclosure as I believe they should be, but it appears that this Administration is off to the right start.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald (re-posted from Dennis McDonald’s Web Site)

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Sounds like a great panel Dennis. Glad to hear your description. I agree – gov’t definitely should try to be more open and get more feedback, but there will be a problem at some point of the flood of information. We’ll have to be smart to aggregate and synthesize it – but there’s smart people and I’m confident there’s a way.

Denise Hill

Great post. Thanks for sharing. The increasing access by the public to communicating with Congress might result in a couple more jobs and a new job category – online media specialist – to answer the mail.

Dennis McDonald


I think there is already a problem with the flood of information. See what happens when you write an email or a letter to a Senator of Congressional representative. My fear is that someone will try to implement a universal solution across reps to manage public interaction and it will involve more structuring of the interaction than now and, in the result, actual 2-way communication will suffer.


I hope there’s more to “Government 2.0” than that!

Thank you both for your comments!

Dennis McDonald
Alexandria, Virginia