Sometimes it’s not the Technology — Focusing the Human Side

Yesterday’s Washington Post had an article headlined “Web-Savvy Obama Team Hits Unexpected Bumps — Issues of Technology, Security and Privacy Slow the New Administration’s Effort to Foster Instant Communication” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/01/AR2009030101745_pf.html).

While highlighting all of the information technology innovations the new “web-savvy Obama Team” has begun to employ, such as a Presidential blog and YouTube channel, as well as noting a couple of easily remedied technological issues (e.g. lack of a mass emailing system, inadequate comment space on the web page, etc.), the primary problem according to the article, in fact “the only pledge that the president has broken outright so far” is that it has not posted non-emergency legislation to the White House blog for five days prior to a bills signing.

Is this a technology issue?

Sometimes the obstacles to effective use of the new communications technology are not the technical ones; they’re the human ones: difficulty getting material cleared, failure to update the site regularly, failure to organize information effectively, letting the site slide into disuse and abandonment, etc.

I don’t want to draw too many conclusions about the maintenance of the Whitehouse.gov site from a newspaper article, except to note that while the headline identified the problems as technological, the body of the text described the age old human problems of keeping information current and accurate.

From my own experience, there is often a sense that information on web sites takes care of itself, or that a webmaster should be able to ensure that accurate information is posted in a timely manner without input from the “subject matter experts.” Yet those involved in developing or drafting policy often distance themselves from how the policy is made public — whether it’s by having all questions referred to the Press Spokesperson, or by funneling all web content through a webmaster. I’ve tended to favor automated content management systems because they put the responsibility for the accuracy and currency of the content squarely on the subject matter expert.

In a similar vein, a decade or so ago we pioneered an online discussion with the public about policy goals. Rather than have public questions answered by a public affairs officer, we had the “subject matter expert” answer the questions. There was concern that public interest would be overwhelming and would demand too much time from a person who was normally focusing on the issues rather than engaging with the public, but in fact the public had to be encouraged to respond in order to keep up a lively discussion. Nowadays, with live “web chats” sometimes the questions pour in, but sometimes there are pauses that have to be managed. But these fora can help connect the subject matter expert directly to the concerns (or lack of concern) of the public.

There are many technologies now that can help us engage and interact with the public and each other, and while a number of technological issues may remain, often the reason for lack of engagement and interaction is still the human one.

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Amy Hooker

I think you make some good points, Andre. It’s very easy for these kinds of silos to occur and for everyone but the webmaster to not want to think about how it gets ‘out there.’ With all of the good content management tools out there today, subject matter experts will find it as easy to put the information online as it is to put it into a Word document–if they let themselves. Unfortunately, the psychology of many folks is that if it’s on the Internet, it must be complicated and difficult. Overcoming this mindset can be difficult. Any ideas on how to approach the psychology behind the issue?

Andre Goodfriend

Thanks Amy for your comment. In some ways a primary benefit of using online fora like this one is simply for the practice of working with each other via the Internet. In the past, information posted to the Internet always had to go through an intermediary and there was a mysticism to how it was made public. Now social networking site are demystifying the technology of “posting,” and raising another issue: now that everyone and his brother/sister can post, do we really have anything to say. We see the discussion with regards to Facebook being something for youngsters to exchange cute inanities, or Twitter being a lot of tweats about nothing. It’s a healthy turn in the discussion, turning it away from being about the technology to being about the benefit. What are social networking sites really good for in a work context? As the non-technologists begin to understand the benefit of sustained engagement with a constituency or with colleagues via these technologies more subject matter experts will turn to them. And when the subject matter experts are comfortable with both the technology and can define the benefit for themselves, they will to a certain extent push the technologists aside and not only agree to post directly, but insist on doing so.