Posted: April 26th, 2012 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Open Government, Technology, Transparency | 1 Comment »
Is that all there is?
You’ve landed on a Whitehouse.gov petition on an issue that’s close to your heart, and you’re thrilled that’s it’s finally getting some visibility. Of course, you sign the petition, but then you wonder Who are these people? What else can I do? How can I get plugged in?. In way too many cases, the people who started the petition leave you to your wits, and of course to the Google. It’s like a 3am infomercial without the 800-number. What were they thinking?
My inspiration and goad to build tools for the White House “We the People” petition site was the story of an activist who had, in effect, lost her work gathering signatures when she failed to reach the necessary threshold after a month of work.
Along the way, I wondered how often petition initiators added links to their petition text, to provide more information to potential signers or to supplement their work on whitehouse.gov by building a community on a site that gave them more control.
“We The People”-scope
To investigate, I’ve built a live, interactive database of petitions currently visible and open for signatures at the White House. How well are petitioneers using WhiteHouse.gov traffic and visibility to build activist communities? The results aren’t pretty.
90% of the time, you’re on your own
Of the 39 petitions open for signatures this morning, only four include links:
- a request for funding of an MIT anti-viral drug links to a press release providing further information
- a call for legislation implementing various economic and legal reforms (NESARA) links to an activist website and to a religious/New Age Ning community
- a call for increased funding for NASA includes a reference to a website for that issue campaign, and
- a request that the Administration veto any legislation that extends tax cuts for the highest earners includes a reference to MoveOn.Org.
None of the links (actually in plain text, since the petition site doesn’t allow hot links) make it easy to plug in to community. The NASA funding campaign website is focussed and includes further calls to action, but does not provide a community forum or a mailing list sign-up. The NESARA-related websites provide a wealth of information and, via Ning, a community. However, I could not see how I might easily connect with other supporters of the linked petition. MoveOn.org is a major activist community, but nothing on its home page references the current tax-related petition.
So, of 39 petitions, only three provide links that would allow a signer to tap into a larger community, discuss the petition, and monitor progress, and even those three links are muddy.
What if, instead, a petition linked to a well-designed landing page that encouraged people to sign up to track the progress of the petition, support the cause via other actions, and connect with fellow activists. It’s a missed opportunity.
And there’s more!
(The petition overview can be filtered and sorted in many different ways. For instance, you can highlight the backlog of petitions that have met their signature goal but don’t yet have an official Administration response, or focus just on the petitions for civil liberties, human rights, or immigration issues – almost half of the total currently open.)
Posted: March 1st, 2012 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Open Government, Technology, Transparency | 4 Comments »
Last week, I used a trial run of a new “petition scraping” plugin I’ve developed to see which states most strongly supported the recent White House petition that requested the Administration to rescind the health care reform contraception mandate for Catholic employers.
Today, I can add a second, opposing petition to the analysis. It urged the Administration to “stand strong” on the no cost birth control requirement. From what I’ve seen on the petition site, this is unusual – some petitions garner few signatures, but very few petitions are arranged in pro/con pairs. We can take advantage of this “natural experiment” to compare state responses on either side of the issue. (Signature data for the “Stand strong” petition can be downloaded at the csv link below.)
Nebraska, North Dakota, Kansas Against; DC Engaged
The outliers, highlighted in red in the chart, are the story.
Kansas, North Dakota, and Nebraska – in the bottom right – showed significantly stronger support for the Rescind petition, at 309, 367, and 487 signatures per million, than the national average of 117. In contrast, their support for Stand Strong was fairly close to the national average of 89 per million – they’re well within the “cluster” on the left axis.
Something even more interesting is going on in DC. At 509 signatures per million, it is the standout supporter for Stand Strong. But notice that, at 229 signatures per million, it looks a lot like Kansas, North Dakota, and Nebraska in per capita support for Rescind. (I’d guess that DC’s intensity reflects the pro-contraception response by longterm residents combined with combined with the response from advocacy groups on both sides.)
This table provides the details for the chart above:
Download as csv file (4k).
The animated map shows how signatures flowed from each state, normalized by its population, with the petition “closing” on February 10. Click on the slider to see how each state contributed signatures starting on February 3.
In many respects, signers responded similarly to both petitions:
|Days to reach 500 signatures (visibility threshold)
|Days to reach 50 states and DC
|Percent of signers not providing a place
Download the “Stand strong” signature details as a csv file (660k).
See the previous post in the series for details on the Rescind petition and more information on the mechanics of petitions and signatures at whitehouse.gov.
A note on statistics
Some of the variation of a particular state’s response with respect to the US will be due to chance, rather than a fundamental difference in this state’s political leanings vs the US. For instance, weather patterns or state preoccupation with a sports event might have reduced Mississippi’s engagement; it might generate more signatures per capita on similar petitions at another time.
Statisticians measure how much an indicator departs from the average in standard deviations. The standard deviation captures the variability of a set of numbers. In the case of the petition signatures, if the response of a particular state differed from the US average by less than two standard deviations, e.g. Mississippi, this could occur by chance more than 5% of the time.
The bottom left quadrant contains all the states within two standard deviations of the US average.
The remaining three states and DC are outliers indeed. On the Rescind petition, Kansas’s response is more than two, North Dakota’s almost three, and Nebraska’s more than four standard deviations above the US average. This would occur by chance less than 5%, 0.3%, and 0.007% of the time — i.e., from rarely to never. DC’s response to Stand Strong is 5.7 standard deviations away from the mean, which would occur 0.00001% of the time by chance.
The outliers, in other words, are radically more engaged in these respective petitions than the rest of the country.
Posted: February 23rd, 2012 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Open Government, Technology, Transparency | 2 Comments »
Open government often carries a significant risk to activists: organizing efforts may be “locked up” by Federal agencies, even with the best intentions.
The rewards, and risks, of squirreling away
Consider Terra Ziporyn Snider. Last fall, she initiated a petition on the White House website requesting changes in school start times. Then current White House rules required that she gather 5000 signatures within 30 days in order to keep the petition on the site. She and her supporters encountered various technical problems – intermittent site outages, difficulty in signing up new users — and as the deadline approached, with 1575 signatures recorded, Dr. Snider realized that the fruit of her efforts was about to be digitally vanished, per White House rules.
I was taken by the lengths she went to transplant the list of names she had built at the White House to Move-On. Though these signatures had been gathered through her online organizing efforts, and of course were stored on a hard drive somewhere in the whitehouse.gov domain, she had no way to access these data easily. Instead, she printed out the petition and, apparently, retyped the signatures by hand.
Imagine a New England squirrel storing away nuts for next winter in the trunk of a tourist’s car – it’s secure today, tomorrow, and perhaps even next week, but when the snow comes, the car — and the nuts — are in Florida, and the squirrel starves.
Of course, in the case of White House petitions, the potential of reaching a wider audience for your cause and of getting the attention of the Obama administration may make this risk worthwhile.
But, as Dr. Snider found, sometimes the car drives away, and you’ve got to scramble not to be left empty-handed. How could one reduce the risk, particularly for activists who don’t know or don’t have access to sites live Move-On?
A tool for liberating signatures
Her story was my inspiration to build a page scraping toolset that would allow activists to get the benefits of White House web petitions, while reducing the risk.
As a proof of concept, I set the plugin to work on two recent petitions. The first requests that the Administration rescind regulations mandating that religious institutions provide contraceptive coverage under their employee health insurance plans, even if this is contrary to their religious precepts. The second urges the Administration to “stand strong” in maintaining this mandate.
In this post, I’ll focus on the signature data from the “Rescind” petition. A follow-up post will provide details on the “Stand strong” petition signatures. [Update 3/2/2012: I've posted the "Stand strong" results and a state by state comparison.}
If you're familiar with the mechanics of the White House petition site, skip to the next section for the results.
The mechanics of initiating and signing petitions
Anyone may initiate a petition. Per the rules currently in force, new petitions are visible only to those web visitors who already know the specific petition URL. Once a petition receives its 150th signature, it is listed by the White House in the index of current petitions and can be found by appropriate search terms.
The initiator and all other petition supporters then have 30 days to gather at least 25000 signatures in total. If they fail to reach that threshold within 30 days, the petition disappears, as Dr Snider experienced. If 25000 people "sign" the petition, the White House promises to post a response.
A WhiteHouse.gov login is required to sign a petition. To get a login, you provide your email address, your name, and, optionally, city, state and zipcode. Each petition signature block includes the first name and last initial, the signature's order in the overall total, the date the signature was provided, and the city and state of the signer, if provided. For instance:
February 22, 2012
Signature # 1,079
Example: Signature data from the "Rescind" petition
From January 28 through February 10, the Rescind petition gathered 29,127 signatures. The inset below displays the raw data gathered by the page scraping toolset, which can also be downloaded by the link at the bottom of the table.
This animated map shows how the signatures flowed in from January 28 to February 10, normalized by the population of each state.
data for the Rescind petition
Download as csv file (1.1 mb).
More detailed analysis shows
- that the petition took off pretty quickly – two signatures on day one, 32 on day two, 1,386 on day three (reaching all fifty states and DC)
- that state participation varied dramatically: Nebraska provided more than 480 signatures per million residents, North Dakota more than 360, while Mississippi provided just 31 signatures per million inhabitants. (Overall, across the US, 127 signatures were provided per million residents, if we assume that all signatures came from the United States.)
- 4,951 signatures were provided by people who did not state their location — which shows up as NULL in the data.
Next post: How does the signature flow for the “stand strong” petition compare? What surprises do we find when we compare states’ activity on these two opposing petitions? Are these signers as reluctant to provide place information as the Rescind signers?
A postscript for data geeks
- Each signature is numbered. The same sequence number may appear multiple times on the signatures page, indicating, presumably, two or more different people who signed almost simultaneously. For instance, if the third, fourth, and fifth signers all acted simultaneously, the first six signatures would be numbered 1, 2,3,3,3,6.
- One Rescind signer was particularly eager: he signed twice in quick succession, so his name and place show up twice in a row with the same sequence number. This anomaly can’t be tracked by the software currently, leading to a database count of 29,126 signatures, one less than shown on the White House site.
- In addition to the “no location” signatures, 28 people provided place information for military post offices or mistyped their place information.
- The scraping tool captures the first name and initial of the signer as shown on the petition, but I’ve omitted this column from the download for the moment.
Posted: September 18th, 2010 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, crowdsourcing, Open Government | 1 Comment »
When I venture into new arenas – social media, crowdsourcing, online engagement - I’m fed by discussions with people who are doing this work. But, too often, the conversation gets bogged down by arguments about definitions.
For instance, in a chat about crowdsourcing recently, someone offered online commenting on government regulations as an example, then someone else – it might have been me – almost derailed the conversation by asking whether commenting really counted as “crowdsourcing”.
The problem: the person who’s just run a rule-making process that received thousands of comments knows what she did, how participants responded, what seemed to work, what fell short. But she – and all the rest of us – are clueless about whether this really is crowdsourcing.
In general: when we’re describing an experience or process we’ve experienced, we know what we’re talking about. But when we debate whether this experience is an example of crowdsourcing, we don’t.
Bold claim on my part, I know. And, one day, we’ll be able to agree, quickly, on whether my friend’s process was crowdsourcing, or collective intelligence, or prediction markets, crowd-storming, or peer production or something else entirely.
Why? We’ll, collectively, have more experience, and we’ll have come to (some) agreement on who the authorities are, and there’ll be some benefit to the definitions.
But today we’re still groping, learning what’s been done, identifying new combinations that haven’t yet been tried but look promising.
In effect, we’re crowdsourcing the definition of “crowdsourcing”
(And if you’re thinking that this advice applies to discussion about “social media”, “Gov2.0″, and “online engagement” as well, you’ve got my point exactly.)
Posted: May 3rd, 2010 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Metrics | 3 Comments »
Start with “how do I know it’s working?”, not “what can I count?”
E-democracy.org has 16 years of experience in creating and hosting online civic forums via email and the web.
I participated in an email thread there recently that began with this question:
“How would you measure engagement on public issues via interaction in online spaces?”
It led to a lively exchange, but it left me unsatisfied. “Measure” and “metrics” create a kind of tunnel vision, focusing attention on what’s easy to count on the web (hits, number of posts per day, number of posters, pageviews, unique visitors), and away from our understanding and experience of online forums.
As it happens, Steve Clift, the founder of e-democracy, recently reported the results of a grant to create four online forums centered on a number of towns in rural Minnesota.
The report discussed a number of ways that forum discussions had affected their communities:
- A discussion about new regulations regarding the handling of household wastewater led the county’s director of planning to reconsider regulatory language.
- Discussions in a second forum generated stories in the local newspaper.
- Participants used a third forum to get advice on how to fight the city’s withdrawal of their permit to raise chickens in their backyard.
- Participants in another e-democracy forum, not covered in this report, used it to organize their response, including meetings with city officials, to a mugging near a transit stop. The transit agency’s community outreach staffer joined the forum, and then the discussion, based on their actions. The president of the local neighbors group participated as well.
- The report also noted that local government websites had linked to some of the forums and, in one case, the local government had sponsored the start-up of the forum.
These stories suggest a variety of measures that could be applied to e-democracy forums:
- How many local government officials are forum members? What percentage of all local government officials are members?
- How many of these post, and how often do they post? How many of these posts reflect concrete changes in behavior (meetings scheduled, agenda items added or changed for official meetings, changes to legislation or regulation)?
- How many discussions have been used to organize meetings in the community or with government officials?
- How many discussions have received links from local or regional newspaper websites?
These measures all need development, and we could likely find booby traps in each. But consider the conclusion of two (hypothetical) reports on community impact of a (hypothetical) forum in Smallville:
Based on web metrics
The forum received 500 pageviews from 200 unique visitors per month.
It had a membership of 128 at the end of the year.
The average length of a visit was 3.5 minutes.
The average visit includes 4 pageviews.
Based on “grow your own” measures drawn from these stories
Two of the five members of the city council became members of the Issues Forum. One joined after a discussion of the city’s response to last winter’s monstrous snowfalls erupted in the forum and led to a delegation of forum members testifying before the council about ineffective snow plowing.
One councilperson posts at least once a week. Three times over the course of the past year, she has responded to questions in the forum or asked for further information. She also introduced an amendment to a local zoning ordinance based on concerns raised in the forum.
A dozen forum members from Smallville South used the forum to organize a meeting with the transportation department to discuss the pothole problem on local streets. They are using the forum to follow-up on the meeting, and an official from the transportation department posts updates on actions taken relating to potholes at least once a month.
The Smallville Gazette has used the forum to solicit feedback on its coverage of the city council.
On average, one out of four of its weekly online issues include a link to one or more Forum discussions.
Which would be more likely to persuade you that Smallville’s online forum had actively engaged the community?
Posted: October 30th, 2009 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Government, Social networking, Technology | Tags: linkedin | 2 Comments »
Don’t ask “how do I make the business case for Gov2.0?”; tell us about your agency’s relationships, and the case will become obvious.
Imagine that you’re a savvy Federal staffer in US Defense Military Health System Program. You’re excited by what the US Patent Office accomplished with its Peer to Patent program, eager to copy the success of Twestival 2008 which used Twitter to kick off events in 200 cities across the globe and raise $250,000 for water charities, and inspired by OSTP’s open government initiatives. So on Govloop, or on your blog, you pose the question: “what’s the business case for Gov2.0 (or social media or Web2.0 or Twitter)?”
and … crickets – a kiss of death for the conversation. You may get some well-meaning feedback from others who have confronted the same challenge, but the thread runs out pretty quickly. It seems that no on can help you.
What happened? You’ve focused your readers towards technology (Twitter? Youtube? Maybe a wiki?) and generalities (“communication is good”; “crowdsourcing rocks!”), and away from the relationships, mission, history, and other specifics of your organization that would give you and your readers the raw materials to create the business case.
Worse, we’ve all become distracted from your unique role in this conversation: you know the agency’s goals, its current challenges, what keeps senior management awake at night, what appropriations they’re looking forward to, and what headlines they’re dreading. You know that, or ought to. The rest of us don’t.
So, consider, instead, this conversation opener:
I work for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. As you may remember, one of my boss’s predecessors was featured in the Washington Post’s 2007 expose of poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and we’re still working to rebuild trust with injured soldiers and their families. We’re also trying to strengthen our relationships with medical researchers. And, by the way, we run TRICARE, the military’s HMO, and we’re working hard to keep the program affordable, with low deductibles and co-pays. What Web2.0 tools would be useful to us and how should we measure results?***
Imagine the roaring conversation this would inspire:
- Your readers from the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will be typing their suggestions before they’ve finished reading your post.
- Someone might point you in the direction of OrganizedWisdom — an aggregator of health expertise — and suggest that you to explore how you can engage your customers in becoming guides to military health issues
- The success of PatientsLikeMe will be mentioned as a model for supporting the wounded warriors you serve.
- Someone else might point you to Healing in Community Online, a sort of Second Life for patients and their families.
The question of metrics would become easier as well: TRICARE already surveys its beneficiaries regularly to determine how they perceive the accessibility and quality of care (and if you didn’t already know that, rest assured someone would tell you). Surely you could work some questions into that to evaluate your Gov2.0 initiative?
Now, with your help, your readers are brainstorming how your agency can accomplish its mission and deal with its challenges.
So, tell us about your agency’s key relationships, inside and outside government, and the ones that are most troubled, and watch the conversation explode.
(***Background on USDOD – Health Affairs is drawn from NAPA’s description of top “prune” jobs in the Federal Government. It might be an eye-opening exercise to review the other positions listed and brainstorm how Gov2.0 could, specifically, help each of these appointees.)
(Cross-posted from Govloop.)
Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Ethics, Transparency | Tags: lawrence_lessig, linkedin | 1 Comment »
Lawrence Lessig’s recent “Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government” in the New Republic, has generated controversy and comment, in part because it has been misread as an argument that information on political and financial influence should be restricted rather than released.
This post summarizes the parts of his article that pertain to the current government transparency movement and his cautions, criticisms, and remedies. Later posts will summarize some reactions from Carl Malamud, Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, and others, and then offer my take.
Focus: “Anti-corruption transparency”, which …
Lessig is concerned with one one specific kind of transparency: projects intended to reveal improper influence or outright corruption, e.g. by correlating incentives provided to legislators, such as campaign contributions, with the their votes.
Transparency is good when information is provided in usable form to those who are able to use it wisely, e.g. the miles per gallon ratings which guide individuals as they buy automobiles. Consumers can benefit from “mpg transparency” without much effort.
… misleads us because we don’t pay enough attention.
In contrast, benefitting from what one might term “anti-corruption transparency” requires a long attention span.
But people, often quite rationally, limit the attention they devote to interpreting information. Indeed, politics has become the art of exploiting short attention spans, “tagging your opponent with barbs that no one has time to understand, let alone analyze”.
So, in too many cases, we jump to the conclusion that money has bought a vote…
Unfortunately, what others call “connecting the dots” is the path of least resistance.. For instance, a journalist or an opponent highlights that First Lady Clinton opposed the Bankruptcy Bill in 2000, that soon to be Senator Clinton received $140,000 in campaign contributions from credit card and financial services firms later that year, and that she voted for the bill in 2001. Although there are many reasons why she might have switched her position, “[e]veryone … ‘knows’ just why she switched, don’t they?” We connect the dots.
Lessig argues, in contrast, that “[a]ll the data in the world will not tell us whether a particular contribution bent a result by securing a vote … that otherwise would not have occurred.”
Anti-corruption transparency is problematic because of “its structural insinuations–its constant suggestions of a sin that is present sometimes but not always”.
… and become cynical about government, and that’s bad.
It is already the “opinion of the vast majority of the American people, [that Congress] sells its results to the highest bidder”, and anti-corruption transparency, “unqualified or unrestrained by other considerations”, will just make this worse. He wants to to reduce this cynicism.
But this transparency can’t be stopped.
But we will not find the answer to our problems in a Luddite counterattack: “The network is not going away…. [T]ransparency is here to stay–indeed, … it will become ever more lasting and ever more clear….”
Instead, let’s restructure campaign finance.
Instead, the solution is “[a] system of publicly funded elections [which] would make it impossible to suggest that the reason some member of Congress voted the way he voted was because of money…”. “Qualified candidates” would be provided with a publicly funded “grubstake”, then permitted to raise additional funds from citizens up to a low cap. $100 per person per cycle.
This will increase people’s trust in Congress “by establishing a system in which no one could believe that money was buying results”.
See also these noteworthy reactions from around the web:
Posted: September 25th, 2009 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement, Social networking | Tags: linkedin | No Comments »
What was good.
Returned earlier today from a useful Twitter 101 session hosted by CAP’s Alan Rosenblatt at the Internet Advocacy Roundtable. It was great. The next one could be even better, if we could learn more about what the presenters knew in their bones (see bottom).
Like many discussions on how to get started with social media, the conversation bounced around.
Tech: twazzup, übertwitter for blackberry , and hootsuite were new to me and look interesting. Much more on Twtter resources here, courtesy of Shaun Dakin.
Stories: AAUW is drawn out of silent lurkerdom when they respond to a tweet from a disappointed soon to be ex-member who has misinterpreted a local chapter’s action; conversation results, the member is mollified and AAUW managers see the value. Dakin’s carefully nurtured network of robocall sleuths identifies the first (known) robo-sex-call one night, and the next day, the news hits the Rachel Maddow show.(I realized Dakin is, in effect, the real-time web’s ombudsperson for robocalls. )
Tips: Twitter is a tool, not a strategy. When you start, decide what your voice is going to be. Keep your twitter stream focused – eclectic is ok, but beware that if you veer from months of all business to throwing in your sports enthusiasms, you’ll lose followers. (Via @epolitics) Why would you want to hear only from people who agree with you? (Via @digitalsista)
Get senior manager’s buy-in by getting him/her on the rostrum for a new media conference, and let the infectious energy work its magic (Via @GloPan)
Conservatives tend to cluster around a few hashtags, e.g. #tcot, while progressives tend to use specific hashtags for specific issues. (This seems important, perhaps because it demonstrates degree of focus.) (Via @digitalsista)
Effectiveness requires listening, which amounts to research, and it’s hard, time consuming work. (Via @henrim)
What would have made today’s session even better?
One of the presenters crystallized this for me when he insisted that the social – non-technical – aspects of using twitter could only be discovered in practice, not taught, and that it was more art than science. But there are more than a few art schools, and though you can’t teach inspiration, you can teach craft.
I suspect that today’s presenters (and more than a few audience members) knew in their bones more than they could say about how to do it well. These questions might have helped:
- How do you insert yourself in conversations and get heard?
- What are your rules of thumb for getting started on a new campaign?
- When you “listen” to Twitter, how do you do it, what do you listen for, and when and how do you respond?
- When you’ve “fallen off the horse” in your use of Twitter, how do you get back on?
I’m sure that the presenters did their best to tell us all they knew how to say, but I doubt they told us all they knew how to do. I’m hungry for more.
Posted: May 1st, 2009 | Author: Chris Berendes | Filed under: Civic engagement | Tags: linkedin | No Comments »
The Recovery Accountability And Transparency Board (RATB) is sponsoring a public, web-based dialogue on promising IT to support transparency and accountability of the Administration’s Recovery Act spending. It is groundbreaking. However, seeming parallels with Digg, Slashdot, and other social media sites are misleading. Indeed, they obscure steps that could still be taken to make this effort, and future efforts, highly effective models of citizen engagement and transparency. Clay Shirky is a wise observer of the rise of easy online collaboration processes for large groups. His work provides us with a framework to clarify the ways in which the Recovery.gov effort is fundamentally unlike many more familiar social networks and to suggest tweaks that would help it realize its unique potential.
Shirky’s Promise, Tool, Bargain
In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky argues that successful web-based coordination communities meet three challenges:
- A plausible promise – not too mundane, not too sweeping – that persuades would be participants to join the group
- A useful tool that supports the desired coordination, and
- A bargain that develops through interaction and over time, often implicitly, which specifies what participants can expect and what is expected of them
For instance, Delicious.com’s promise is that it provides personal value – storing your bookmarks and making them accessible from anywhere – from the get go. The tagging component of Flickr provides a tool that makes it easier for members to connect with other participants who have posted similar photos, famously, of the Coney Island mermaid parade. And the bargain for Flickr’s “Black and White Maniacs” group requires that participants who have posted a photo immediately comment on at least two other photos, in order to keep an interaction going.
How does the National Dialogue website fare on Shirky’s criteria?
Promise: the good stuff is vague
The introduction bills the Dialogue as an opportunity to help the Administration keep its commitment to make Recovery spending transparent and accountable:
Your ideas can directly impact how Recovery.gov operates and ensure that
our economic recovery is the most transparent and accountable in history….
Participants can refine these ideas in open discussion, and vote the best ones to the top.
The call for participation email message from 4/23 notes
The results of the dialogue will be reviewed for the most innovative suggestions around making Recovery.gov a more effective portal for transparency.
The “about” page makes a commitment:
Upon the close of this dialogue on May 3rd, 2009, the President’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board will review the results of this discussion.
The promise is vague, but might be glossed as “you can put your proposal in front of us – the government – and we will review it carefully”.
Unlike the first promise of Delicious, thenationaldialogue.org does not promise to serve the participant in a direct or tangible way, nor to connect him or her with other participants.
Further, the central part of the promise – “we will review it carefully” – in fact happens mostly outside of the tool, indeed, out of sight.
(More on apparent listening/reviews already underway.]
Tool: the payoff happens offline and out of sight
The website seems adequate for the first part of the promise – participants can submit proposals quite easily and there is a tutorial as well. There is little to go on to determine how well the tool serves the review process. Since proposals can be sorted by average user rating and number of comments and the invitation states that participants can vote the best ideas to the top, we can infer that these criteria will be used to select the proposals for review. But, again, it’s vague – the top 10 ideas? The top 10%?
An even bigger question is whether voting and commenting by fellow participants are appropriate features, given the promise and purpose. Digg and Slashdot are misleading models for thenationaldialogue.org: they support lateral communication between participants. For Digg or Slashdot, the reading audience is also the voting audience.
Thenationaldialogue.org supports, instead, vertical and asymmetric communication – from participants up to RATB IT staff. These ultimate “idea consumers” are as far as we know not the voters or commentators on the site. Thus, it’s plausible and even reasonable that Federal IT staff will evaluate and adopt ideas with low ratings or few comments. So, how will participant ratings of ideas be helpful to them?
Further, one could imagine situations where voting is actively counterproductive – if a small company or one person firm proposes an idea that is feasible and valuable but contrary to the interests of a large IT company whose employees are participating in force on the site, the behemoth could easily and conclusively vote down the dangerous (to them) idea. It is to the credit of the participants that this doesn’t appear to be happening, but it does raise the question of why voting is a feature on this site.
(In a future post, I’ll examine ways in which the RATB could create future events that explicitly supported participant to participant interaction as an appropriate part of the promise, tool, and bargain, but for this post I’ll focus solely on the Dialogue as an event for suggesting IT ideas for Federal review and adoption.)
Bargain: “Wham, bam, thank you, citizens” is not the way to go
With only one week allotted for the current discussion, thenationaldialogue.org is not yet in a position to benefit from an evolving bargain – there’s no time for it to develop.
Inches from greatness: Suggested improvements
I’ve worked with the Federal Government, notably on an early web-conference in support of then Vice President Gore’s Reinventing Government initiative – similar in some respects to this effort – , and I’m fully aware that the perfect can be the enemy of the good.
It is remarkable that this site exists, and I think it provides a great foundation for future efforts. It also makes sense to view this event in a broader context and consider additions and changes that build relationships not only for this event, but also for similar events in the future. So I’d like to focus on where RATB could take it from here.
Clarify and bolster the promise of careful review
RATB should recognize that some of the lessons from Digg, Slashdot, and similar social media sites do not apply, to the extent that this site is for asymmetrical communication between developers and idea-mongers on one side and Federal IT staff on the other and tune the explicit promise with this in mind.
RATB should clarify whether each idea will be reviewed and, if not, how comments and ratings will be used to prioritize ideas for review, and announce this clarified promise on the site and in email in the coming days.
At this point, it seems likely that the total number of ideas will come to less than 600.
It would not be unreasonable for participants to expect that each idea will get at least one thoughtful comment. In any case, RATB should be explicit, transparent even, about this.
Align the tool with the promise – make the review transparent
To fulfill the promise of careful review for ideas, RATB could require that its IT reviewers use this site for comments and votes on the ideas, rather than doing the review offline and out of view. Comments and votes could be anonymous, if necessary. But thoughtful feedback, on the substance of the ideas, their feasibility in the ARRA context, and on the way participants presented them, could be a huge win for participants. And it would be a tangible fulfillment of this site’s promise.
For future events, RATB and others in the Administration should consider whether voting and rating is appropriate, given the differences in social context between Digg and these events.
Build the bargain for the future: there will be more dialogues
Shirky reminds us that the bargain develops, organically and implicitly, over time.
If you look carefully, you’ll see that the content of the earlier Health IT dialogue from October 2008 is still present on www.thenationaldialogue.org. From what I can tell, the profiles and userids of the previous event are entirely disjunct with this event.
I’d suggest that future dialogues break the precedent of discontinuity and, instead, build explicitly from this event. RATB should invite current participants to continue to follow the development of recovery.org via a specific feed (email, twitter, blog). People arriving in a week or a month or a year should of course also be invited to join, but current participants should be treated, welcomed, and celebrated as “early adopters” and pioneers.
In addition to using the site to present Federal IT staff comments and ratings, it could also be used for new ideas, initiated either by RATB or by ordinary participants. The need for new ideas and the inevitable generation of new ideas surely won’t stop on May 3rd.
Keeping the site “hot” would jumpstart subsequent dialogues and build a base of participants who are wise both in the use of the tool itself, and in the issues and constraints involved in Federal IT issues.
RATB might also draw on its interagency relationships to bring promising ideas to the attention of IT staff in other Departments and Agencies. Minimally, it could send email showing other IT managers how to use the tags and the search engine for a quick review of ideas that may be of interest to them. (Imagine a headline highlighting a small business that used this Dialogue to grow its relationship not only with RATB but with another Federal agency, with great benefits to transparency and efficiency.)
More on Recovery.gov listening efforts [back]
It is too soon to tell whether the promise will be fulfilled, but two things suggest that some amount of review is already happening:
First, as of 3pm ET on Friday afternoon, Google reveals that 13 of the roughly 400 ideas have received comments from participants who are designated “dialogue catalysts”, notably one person from the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board. A tweet from @Natldialogue describes the catalysts’ role as trying “to ask focusing [questions and ] add detail [to] discussions; they promote further exploration w/o a particular POV”. A review of the catalysts’ comments suggests that they are meeting their goal, typically encouraging the author of the idea and asking in specific ways for more information. But why for only 3% of the ideas?
Second, mass email from the organizers to the participants on the morning of the fifth day noted:
The Dialogue has brought forth lively discussion on how to make Recovery.gov a place where the public can monitor the expenditure and use of recovery funds. The growing number of users and ideas posted on the site in just a few days illustrate how interested the IT community is in impacting the operation of Recovery.gov….
Now with three days left in this week-long Recovery Dialogue, we are receiving some interesting and thoughtful submissions. However, there are a few key concepts around which we need your ideas and approaches.
This could be read as a direct reaction to the ideas posted, but given its vagueness, it’s equally plausible that this email was drafted before the Dialogue began.