Right there with expectations to redirect the nation’s slumping economy and achieve miraculous Middle East peace, are the expectations for a new generation of openness and transparency from the Barack Obama White House.
Recently, I joined a panel called “Wiki White House” hosted by the New America Foundation and Wired magazine as the token conservative. More a pragmatist than a dreamer, I reveled in the opportunity to highlight where the Obama team’s efforts at openness should be lauded and where they should be met with a skeptical eye.
1. Updating the antiquated weekly radio address format by offering it on YouTube. The Bush White House broke ground by offering the weekly radio address as a downloadable podcast, but the times call video. I’d place my bets on the Bush White House offering a YouTube version of the address had he taken office in 2008, but unfortunately many Republican (and Democratic) Senators and Governors are still afraid to go there).
2. Accepting submissions for ideas to improve health care (presumably followed by other key issues). Even after the FISA debacle – where Obama’s supporters used his own campaign website to protest his position – the Obama team recognizes that the American people want a stake in the process of shaping their man’s positions and policies.
3. Opening up comments on the White House YouTube channel (itself a new addition, although as of this post, Minority Leader John Boehner’s YouTube response to the weekly address had not been approved).
4. Prioritizing continued communication to and engagement of the 13 million people signed up for email and the 3 million my.BarackObama.com participants. (much to conservatives’ dismay…more on that later)
5. Easy-access specific agenda items on nearly two-dozen issues on WhiteHouse.gov.
6. Forming a Technology Innovation and Government Reform (TIGR, pronounced like the Winnie the Pooh character) team for the transition.
1. Deleted Blagojevich comments on Change.gov. What standard will the White House apply to user-submitted comments? A pre- or post-censorship model forces the White House (and any agencies who follow suit) into assuming responsibility for every comment up there. Once you delete one comment, you effectively say the remaining comments are acceptable. Removing a comment from a campaign site is the campaign’s prerogative; campaigns are public. Removing a comment from a government site, namely the White House, opens one up to potential First Amendment infringements.
2. Executive orders signed before opening to public comment (or merely giving a heads up). Being transparent about sweeping executive orders before singing them is more important than providing an inside look at the whistlestop tour taking Obama to DC for the inauguration.
3. Whether we will see more meetings opened up via YouTube video. (These types of videos hint that we will, but as tough decisions are made, will the White House be as willing to pull back the curtain to the public?)
4. Whether true transparency will come along with prompts for mass participation. The briefing book effort through Change.gov asked for input on policy to be catalogued in a briefing book for the new President. Yet, input is the first step, collaboration is the next. Will the public’s ideas be considered in policy meetings, or was the briefing book effort a gimmick? A true collaborative effort would call for the White House to post the outline of a policy proposal, and invite input Wiki-style, then posting the final product for collaborators to see the fruits of their labor.
5. If you do allow mass participation, how do you ensure the conversation is not dominated by a loud, angry minority without censorship? On one hand, the loud and the angry can discourage participation by the engaged, yet tempered. On the other hand, if the administration demonstrates that active participation matters, that ideas from the rank-and-file are considered and folded in, the often inactive have an incentive to collaborate. And what about the bi-partisan approach President Obama has promised? If the Obama for America group will be depended on to act as grassroots lobbyists for the administration’s agenda, doesn’t that give grossly unbalanced influence to political, partisan activists?
6. Despite the demands of open government advocates on the Left who worked stumped their heart out for Obama, the administration has yet to announce a senior White House level CIO or CTO. Who is leading the technology innovation charge? This video demonstrates that the administration is taking tech innovation and government reform seriously, but they’ve yet to give a reason as to why no CIO, and given the power Obama is amassing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a White House-level official would be preferable to a Cabinet position by the open government crowd.
7. Finally, while the Obama administration’s overtures to focus on tech innovation and government reform win them mad props by the media and Obamamaniacs, will they overlook the basics? When a blog that strikes a partisan, propagandistic tone serves as the only source for White House happenings, it’s beginning to look like they will. Where are the press releases and the speeches?
The question the Wiki White House event sought to answer: what happens when “change” meets the obstacle of bureaucracy in governance? This is a question certainly that the Obama administration grapples with – with power brings the pressure to control ones environment.
Despite the challenges, we should expect for a White House that focuses more on transparency, open, collaborative governance and technology innovation than any other.
Yet, if and when they falter, it’s the minority party’s job to hold the vehicles of power accountable. Yet, we must do so by setting an example, not as hypocrites. We can't let bureaucracy be an excuse; we must challenge the status quo like John Culberson did when he started tweeting from the House floor and House Republicans did by refusing to let the majority ban linking out to YouTube and other social media from House web properties. We can’t ask of the Obama administration what our own fail to offer.
One man’s challenges are another man’s – or party’s -- opportunity.