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From #GovWebCon: Katie Stanton and Bev Godwin on Citizen Participation and Engagement

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, April 28 2009

Sheila Campbell and Rachel Flagg kick off the second plenary session of the Government Web Managers Conference, noting that this the seventh annual web managers conference. (In 2001, it was just 12 people sitting around a conference room, Sheila notes.) They also note that these sessions are open to the media, but the breakouts will be off the record. Up next are Katie Stanton, director of citizen participation for the White House, and Bev Godwin, director, online resources & interagency development, White House. Their topic is citizen participation and engagement, and we expect to hear about new initiatives to engage the public online, and what people can do at their agency to build greater participation with target audiences. Again, here are my verbatim notes, not precisely for quotation, though when I put something in quotes, it's pretty accurate. Comments and observations in [brackets].

Katie Stanton starts off by joking that she's tweeting that she's arrived on stage. First off, the White House new media team isn't here to tell you what to do, but to learn from you. We share in a lot of what you're doing. She's got a slide show for us:
-What is public participation and engagement? "The process through which the public participates, influences and engages with government information and services." That's how we're looking at this.
-Background: Citizens hae been disengaged and disconnected. ~30% not registered to vote. Even in 2008, only 61.6% of voters came out. [Her slide says registered voters, but she means eligible voters in general.]
-Shows a slide showing the Simpsons episode where Homer tries to vote for Obama and McCain's name keeps coming up. People fear that their vote doesn't matter. We need to change that.

Bev Godwin picks up the thread. We've come a long way in a year.
-The benefits of participation and engagement; can help achieve an agency's mission and goals, by providing official information; an informed public feels govt is listening and takes ownership; the public can help identify problems and solutions and help each other.
-Three types: 1. Governement to people. 2. People to government. 3. People to people.
-Government to people: this is where our websites are. E-newsletters, RSS feeds, SMS messages, the President's weekly address on YouTube--these are all still pushing information to the people. There are still benefits to getting the word out (cf, swine flu). We're all managing online programs, not just our own websites. This also includes keeping government transparent, so people know what their government is doing. Meeting people where they are is also important, and correcting errors on other sites where they congregate matters.

Stanton picks up the thread again. The second type of communication:
-People to government. The example she cites is the launching of "Open for Questions" on the WhiteHouse.gov website. She plays President Obama's announcement video about the economy online townhall that they did last month. This was a really cool experiment; it was one of the first projects I was able to work on when I arrived. Over 90,000 citizens submitted questions; over 100,000 questions were posted. The President was delighted that we were able to involve so many people. She also cites the TSA blog, the EPA web video contest and the current Recovery.gov IT dialogue. This reaffirms to our citizens that they really matter, and that we're listening. (She shows a map of the US with dots on it showing where all the questions to the WhiteHouse came from.)
-People to people. This is new. Her slide shows Serve.gov and a WholeFoods Market website [alas, unexplained]. This week we're going to have a townhall in Missouri and we want to keep highlighting these activities. Praises Craig and Craigslist for Service. Also mentions President Obama's video message to the people of Iran, and how people shared the video with each other on Facebook. When we looked at the data, there were more people watching it in Tehran than in San Francisco. [Wow. Now we know what those YouTube cookies are good for!]

Challenges? Bev Godwin tells some war stories of coming to the White House and the new media team having a big list of problems they needed solved. For example, NARA requires government video to be shot in an old format that no one uses any more. "We feel your pain," she says. At the White House there are additional challenges, like the Presidential Records Act.

Best practices to overcome challenges? Godwin's list, which comes from this community:
-Stay focused on the goals and users, the public
-Work together (content, tech, legal) towards your goals. The conversation is shifting from "if we should do something" to "how."
-Keep projects simple. Experiment. Iterate. She cites Open for Questions as a good example. "Risk and failure are really OK."
-It's OK not to have all the answers.
-Share knowledge, experience, leverage
-Templatize process and tools
-Bring in outside innovation where needed
-Trust and leverage the community--the public
-Measure success (and failure)

She notes all the new agreements GSA has managed to put together regarding legal issues (like getting rid of logos or persistent cookies, when using these services) and creating new terms of service enabling government web sites to use the following products:
-Blip.tv, Blist, Facebook, Youtube, Myspace, Slideshare, Vimeo, Flickr, AddThis (agreed to yesterday).
-They're considering Google products, Intense Debate, iTunes and iTunes U, Microsoft products, Ning, Yahoo products, others.
Unfortunately the providers still need to get these agreements signed per agency, rather than for the government as a whole. (Kundra, she said, was willing to sign for the whole government, but the lawyers balked.) The products are on the list because either the Office of the President, the GSA or a government agency has said they want to use them. The agreements are all being shared government-wide. This is an example of the power of us all together.

Question/Answer discussion.
Top question from Open for Questions: How do we get our arms around the records management rules when we use other social network sites like Facebook? From Wayne at USDA.
-A, from Godwin: Each agency decides what is a web-record. Some are saying content on third-party sites are not government records. Others are saying that they only put official government content already on their own sites on these sites. In the White House, we don't have the option of saying that anything we write is not a presidential record. We haven't started a Facebook or MySpace or Twitter account but we will. Keep watching. Probably when we start all our record-capturing will be manual, but there is technology to deal with this.

Q: What tools do you use to capture and interpret the mountain of data from all the participation taking place on your sites?
A, from Stanton: We do have analytics from the tool that we inherited, and it's ok, not great. We don't have a good centralized measurement platform for all the usage across all 24,000 government websites, obviously.
A, from Godwin: Use the community to help you moderate (in relation to mountains of participation). Let the public flag things that are inappropriate or off-topic.

Q: What are you doing to address the digital divide?
A, from Stanton: Mentions using mobile phones to help provide info to pregnant mothers.

Q: Steve Hagen from Richmond: Any examples of cities/states dealing with these terms of service issues? Are they piggybacking off of your work?
A, from Godwin: Our negotiations are aimed at addressing federal law. The providers don't know how to do this at the local level, because they don't have a GSA equivalent to talk to focus the conversation.

Q: Sy Kidd (sp.?) from the Patent and Trade Office. If you got 90,000 questions, the community can't really help you filter them? What sort of resources did you have to apply to get those questions vetted and answered, so the community would feel like their questions were answered?
A, Stanton: We really did little work, using Google Moderator to do the filtering. We watched it carefully to make sure there weren't hateful questions, or people ignoring their table manners. The community did help. No one in the government or the White House touched those questions. [She only answered half his question. Ironic.]
A, Godwin: The technology does allow you to block certain words, whether its vulgarity, or in the White House, Sasha and Malia were not allowed as question terms. She also notes that while many questions couldn't be answered right away but have been farmed out to various agencies for responses. She also notes the power of the video questions, which were just 1% of the total submitted. In their postmortem, they're thinking about how to lower the barrier to more questions coming in via video.
A, Stanton: Jumps in to emphasize that they didn't remove a single question (presumably except for the ones flagged by the public as inappropriate). [Too bad no one has asked about how they dissed the legalize marijuana questions, so I go up to ask...]

Q: I ask, What did you learn from the handling of the marijuana legalization questions that rose to the top of Open for Questions, given that about 40% of Americans support legalization and yet the question wasn't really taken seriously:
A, Stanton: "I disagree that the president didn't take the question seriously. He did answer the question. There are a lot of special interests in Washington. Those guys [meaning the marijuana legalization advocates] are really organized. The lesson for us is how do we make sure that the special interests don't take over the process and that really representative questions do rise to the top." The same issue arises now in relation to health care concerns, she notes, adding that there's a need to make sure authoritative information is given out.

[Gee, if 40% favor legalization, why call that a "special interest"? That's not a very narrow interest. I guess Stanton and I will have to disagree about how they handled the issue, though I can understand why in the first White House run of Open for Questions they would have chosen to dance around the more disruptive AND popular topics. If they keep operating that way, however, it will hurt her efforts to improve public trust and participation. Listening to the public means listening even when you may hear things that the elites in DC laugh at.]