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Dashed Hopes? Citizen Engagement with the Obama Administration

We're about to start the second day of EDEM 2010 in Krems, with a keynote by Micah Sifry from Tech President. His starting point is the use of online media during the US presidential election, which created a significant expectation that in office, the Obama administration would similarly utilise new and social media to develop new models for governing. This has not happened quite as much as people might have expected, though.

During the campaign, Obama made several statements promising greater government openness and transparency, as well as public participation and collaboration - and his campaign itself also empowered his supporters to become local campaign organisers in their own right. And yet, the administration as it now operates continues to be dominated by an elite with strong ties to Ivy League universities like Harvard, as well as to Wall Street.

The election was marked by a change in who would participate, and how - down to some very elaborate 'citizen ads' uploaded to YouTube and similar sites. Taking its cues from the Cluetrain Manifesto's statement 'markets are conversations', Hillary Clinton's campaign stated outright that it wanted to create a conversation about the future of the US (though this was seen as lipservice rather than a genuine approach); Obama's campaign stressed the networked approach to campaigning and enabled people to create lateral connections between one another - and Obama as politician could embody this probably more effectively than Clinton.

All of this happened against the backdrop of a highly connected electorate, too. There is near Internet saturation, especially amongst younger voters, as well as a significant amount of user-generated content; indeed, of the online videos related to Obama and McCain, which were viewed a total of 1.5 billion times, official campaign videos accounted only for 10% of the views (or 150 million). Obama was able to generate a list of 13 million supporter email address, and attracted 3.9 million individual donors; two million users created accounts on, and 200,000 offline events were organised by these participants. (Today, Barack Obama has some 8 million friends on Facebook.)

But clearly, things have changed since then - the major grassroots campaign today is that of the anti-Obama right wing. The story of the Obama campaign was that people were the campaign - but it is also important to note that Obama also received a substantial amount of funding from established sources: some 36% of the early donations to the Obama campaign came from the financial industry, for example. During january and August 2007, some 60% of Obama donations were in the $1000 or above category, and overall, some 45% of Obama donations came from large donors. In recent history, small donors dominated only in the 2004 Howard Dean campaign.

And it's important to remember that the campaign organisers took some time to understand the groundswell of grassroots support which they were able to tap into - mass mobilisation through social media was not not a major strategy during the early campaign, and David Plouffe even described the mailing-list of 13 million supporters as 'our own television network, only better', that is, as a top-down tool for disseminating the campaign's messages. Certainly, there was no strategy for what to do with the campaign Website and the Obama social network after the election.

Perhaps for the same reasons, the openness and transparency which was promised hasn't fully eventuated yet - Micah calls the Obama White House's approach 'genuinely schizophrenic' at this point. On the one hand, the White House is highly controlling in its media strategy - Obama has had fewer press conferences than George W. Bush to date, for example -, and interviews have been mainly one-on-one so far. Where the Net has been used to source questions for the president to answer, Obama's responses have been perfunctory at times. Additionally, citizen participation in the Open Government Dialogue has been relatively limited - and the site has been hijacked in part by the conspiracy theorists who believe that Obama was not born in the US.

On the other hand, the administration has pushed forward the open government data initiative, and allowed these data to be used for various purposes (data mashups, online and phone apps, etc.) - but this may be something that only geeks care about. Further, a number of new participatory spaces for online engagement with government agencies have opened up, and every government agency is using social media in some way - the State Department's Opinion Space site is a good example of this (though how this material is used in policy making and implementation remains unclear).

Certainly, tools for participation are emerging at last - but how this is making government more open and transparent is an open question, and it does not seem to have had an impact on citizens' levels of trust in the government. The high hopes which the Obama campaign had raised have not been fulfilled yet by the Obama presidency. Micah suggests that the Obama White House needs to understand that it needs to re-earn that trust, and better understand the tools which it is attempting to use. Even in the rhetoric itself, the words 'we' and 'us' have begun to disappear, and 'I' has become more prominent.

Many Obama administration operatives are highly cynical about real citizen participation, at any rate - quite a few of them are old-fashioned beltway insiders. Perhaps it is also the people who have walked away from the challenge, though - thinking that the election of Obama was itself the achievement, and that there was no need to further engage with the new administration. Either way, sustained many-to-many engagement is difficult, and it is easy to fall back on one-to-many and many-to-one models. This is also a question of finding the right tools for supporting such many-to-many engagement, then.

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