Obama’s citizen participation: How directed will it be?

President Obama has pledged to run a more open, participatory and collaborative government, and coming off a political campaign powered by unprecedented digital organizing, we have every reason to take him at his word. The relaunch of the White House web site minutes after he became president on Jan. 20 was more than symbolic. It was a clarion call to everyone, everywhere, to pay attention, to “watch this space,” to stay tuned, stay alert and stay connected.

No, it wasn’t an instantaneous remaking of the U.S. government, what we know about government or how we inform and influence it. Publishing more meeting minutes, staff schedules, blogs, mobile alerts and working papers could quickly achieve the push for greater transparency and participation in government. The hiring this week of a new business strategist from Google, Katie Jacobs Stanton, as the President’s new director of citizen participation looks like a step toward bringing more voices, opinions and data points into government deliberations. Stanton was involved with a number of projects at Google, including OpenSocial, a system for linking social experiences across web sites, and Moderator, a system that does a good – but not great – job of collecting questions, answers and opinions.

The government pursuit of collaboration will inevitably reveal the limitations of technology and the importance of leadership. Obama’s team will be tasked not only with opening up the government and inviting more ideas into it. They’ll need to organize and make sense of the input to guide policies, and, most vital of all, create stories and organize campaigns around those policies.

Will citizen participation inform those stories – or will we be “participated” and “collaborated” around stories produced by staff, special interest groups and other insiders? In other words: what’s all this participation really going to look like?

The Obama team’s precision with producing and staging events and using Web 2.0 digital tools to connect and organize millions of volunteers sets the stage for an era of political engagement unlike any before. It also sets the stage for a system of public opinion management, manipulation and manufacturing of consent drawn directly from the film Wag The Dog, in which governance is theater and politics is lit and directed by unseen artists.

Stay tuned.

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