Web Experts: Obama's Vision for E-government Will Take Work

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has used Web tools to solicit donations and hear from his supporters during his campaign, but it's still unclear how many of those methods will translate into electronic government, a group of e-campaign and open-government experts said.

In addition to a robust online fundraising effort, the Obama campaign used blogs to communicate with potential voters and solicit their comments, posted hundreds of videos on YouTube, and sent thousands of e-mail and text messages to supporters. And many of those efforts continue, with Obama still posting videos and using his Change.gov site to organize meetings of supporters this weekend, noted Sam Graham-Felsen, a member of the Web site team for the Obama campaign.

Obama will continue to seek a dialogue with the U.S. public, Graham-Felsen said Friday, although he didn't offer a lot of detail about how that will happen once Obama is president.

But Obama will face several challenges when attempting to translate his use of participatory technology to government, said other speakers at a conference on technology and participatory government, hosted by Google. Many federal agencies still resist putting the information they control online, or they don't have resources to make it happen, said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for the National Security Archive, an independent library at George Washington University.

After Graham-Felsen talked of putting entire Obama campaign events, including audience questions, online live, Fuchs suggested there's much more government can do, including posting more in-depth evaluations and budget details of government programs. "It's not enough to put an event on the Web," she said. "You've got to go farther. Accountability is part of it."

One audience member questioned whether politicians were using the Web as "just another communications medium."

Graham-Felsen and representatives of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, said their bosses are pushing for more participatory uses of the Web and more agencies to put more information on the Web. Obama and Coburn worked together to push through legislation requiring the launch of USAspending.gov, and Coburn is optimistic that the site will add more and more information, with support from President Obama, said Chris Barkley, a Coburn aide.

But several speakers and audience members raised questions about just how a new kind of e-government would work. One attempt at participatory government, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Peer to Patent program, seems to have worked well, but it has a limited scope that looks for objective results -- prior art that would invalidate a patent application, said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's director of public policy and government affairs and a member of the Obama transition team.

Many government questions, such as whether the death penalty should be allowed in a certain case, don't have objective answers that public participation could help determine, McLaughlin said. "When is [asking for public participation] a feel-good maneuver that makes people happy, and when is it actually contributing to government?"

The problem is that there have been few real attempts at participatory government, said John Wonderlich, program director for the Sunlight Foundation, a Web-based government watchdog group. "We don't know what's going to happen, and we should experiment with it," he said.

If government agencies begin to seek public participation in a major way, instead of the occasional request for comments, they could also be flooded with "white noise," added Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, a tech trade group. In addition, the way Obama and other politicians have sought feedback means that the comments come from a self-selected group of people and may not reflect the attitudes of the public at large, he said.

"There's a lot of 'Kumbaya' in the room, but there are a lot of challenges" to achieving participatory government, he said.

It will be largely up to the Obama administration to make participatory and open government happen, said Jeff Eller, president and CEO of public-relations firm Public Strategies and a former director of media affairs for President Bill Clinton. "You have to go in every day and fight for what got you here and fight for more openness," he said.

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