Not so long ago, i draw a short comparison between change.gov and kremlin.ru. I think my main observation was that both websites are more of propaganda machines that allow no feedback mechanisms. It looks like I was wrong and I am happy to admit that.
As i noticed in the last digest, change.gov is now offering a mechanism for interaction and is trying to build an active community on their website. First there was a discussion about health care and now there is a discussion about economy. They keep those discussions limited in time, which is understandable, and it will be interesting to see how these discussions will be implemented in actual policy making.
In a number of face to face conversations I had with people following my post criticizing change.gov for lack of a feedback mechanism, was the trickiness of having an open platform when it comes to an official website. While it is natural and expected that on an election website there would be heated, and not always politically correct debates, it is not necessarily appropriate for an official government website. Moreover, while it can be understandable if messages viewed as inappropriate by the campaign are removed from the website, it is again much more complicated when it comes to an official government website. What does it say about free speech, when the government website starts making decision about appropriate and inappropriate content produced by it users. Where is the line between censorship, or even more so, appearance of censorship?
Back then, I argued that clear and up-front community rules, may be a solution for this sensitive situation. Interestingly, this is was the strategy taken by change.gov. They just published a guide to comments, which is also linked to the comments policy. They implement a set of community principles and technical tools to foster a community. For example, while you can comment each time by a different name, they encourage you to register and maintain an online identity as a means for community-building. They also have a rating system for comments, which seems like a useful tool. The comment policy is also very simple, yet it leaves an ample room for the website managers to remove content and block users.
All in all, the first steps look very promising and the snippets of discussion that I saw seem rather thoughtful and constructive. It will be interesting to see how the website managers will deal with removing content and blocking users, something that will have eventually happen.
A couple of side thoughts, though…
First, I wonder if what allows such an open policy is the fact that change.gov is not really a government website. I remember reading that the website is run by an NGO registered to support the transition team (even though I could not find a reference to that on the website now). So, formally, even though the website carries a .gov domain, it is not a government website, thus there are less strings attached to what can be done there. I wonder, whether after the inauguration, they will maintain a similar approach.
Second, I think that if this approach of using online tools for an open public discussion will take off, we will probably witness a renewed debate about the digital divide. The kind of discussion hosted at change.gov is absolutely unprecedented in its scope and it is open to many more people than any other government discussion so far. However, it clearly leaves out those who do not have the technology, or who are not technologically savvy enough to engage in an online discussion.
The MICT-related innovation of Obama administration is definitely impressive and I feel I am really lucky to being in the US to witness this.