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Obama's "Online Townhall" Forum: Transparency Theater?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, July 2 2009

During last year's election, candidate Barack Obama staked out an expansive position on the ways that technology and the internet could be harnessed to open up the political process to ordinary citizens. And so far his administration has been delivering on many of his promises, most notably with projects like Data.gov, IT.Usaspending.gov and the Open Government Initiative, and potentially as well with the as-yet unfinished Recovery.gov site. Not only is the administration steadily making the federal government more transparent in its spending activities, it's beginning to involve the public directly in conceiving and drafting policy. Judging by their comments at this week's Personal Democracy Forum, and their work, like Vivek Kundra, Macon Phillips, and Beth Noveck seem quite comfortable trusting the "wisdom of crowds" and opening up the administration to approaches that trade some loss of control for a big increase in public participation.

But one element of his technology innovation agenda seems stuck in control mode: Obama's so-called "online townhalls." Yesterday's health care forum is a case in point. As far as I can tell, there was nothing about the collection of questions from participants online that made Obama's forum anything to get excited about. People were invited to submit questions via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, but while this generated a lot of input--including a healthy number of video questions--so what? While Obama said he'd answer some of the "more popular" questions, there was no mechanism established to determine which ones were indeed popular. Instead, Obama's staff chose which questions he would be shown to respond to. (At best, one of the three internet-generated questions came from what White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said was a hot topic on Facebook and Twitter during the forum, about possibly taxing health care benefits.)

In doing so, they produced a forum that was less spontaneous and less-townhall-like than if all the questions had come from citizens live at the event using no technology at all. In effect, Obama's health care forum was like last year's CNN/YouTube debates--only instead of CNN producers hand-picking the video questions, here the White House eliminated the middleman!

If the Obama White House wants to use the internet this way, no one can stop them, but let's not dignify the event by calling it an "online townhall." It's more like "transparency theater," in the words of my colleague Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation. These canned messaging sessions remind me more of the early days of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, when she declared that she wanted to have a "conversation," invited people to submit questions via her website, enabled no community filtering of those questions, and then had a staff blogger read softballs to her to answer via web video. No wonder Phil de Vellis made his "Vote Different" video mocking Clinton's "conversation." Perhaps Phil should make a new one, mocking Obama. This sort of backsliding makes me wonder whether the decision-makers in the White House are really listening to the savvy new media hands on their staff, like Phillips.

Obama's first online townhall (on the economy) also invited the public to submit questions but it also allowed people to vote up their favorites, and even though that meant some disruptive issues made it to the top (i.e., marijuana decriminalization), the Google Moderator tool did have the effect of aggregating attention where the hundred thousand-plus people who joined in the event wanted to focus it. By contrast, this "townhall" was rightly attacked by the White House press corps yesterday, during Robert Gibbs' daily briefing, as a sham. The back-and-forth between Gibbs, Chip Reid and Helen Thomas reveals other cross-currents too, like the resentment of traditional media journalists at seeing a blogger from Huffington Post tapped during one of Obama's regular press conferences, and it's not as if Reid or Thomas want citizens to be able to bubble-up and vote on the questions that should be asked at their events. But Gibbs suggests the online process is more open than in fact it was.

One thing the White House could do to shore up its approach to these things is ask the public--and especially the people submitting questions--whether they think the process is satisfactory. Or they could listen to the guy who ran for the presidency last year from Illinois. Candidate Obama had a great position about how to use technology to open up these kind of events. Last fall, when the Open Debate Coalition was pushing for the use of "bubble-up" style public question filtering for the national debates, in particular for the one "townhall" style debate, he declared his support for the concept (as did his opponent, Senator John McCain). Obama wrote:

Town hall debates such as the October 7 debate provide an excellent opportunity to utilize technology to give voters more of a role in determining which questions are selected and asked. For example, during the MTV forum in which I participated last year, the Internet community voted to ask a question regarding my position on network neutrality, which I support. I support the use of such technology in debates as the Coalition proposes in its letter.

I think Dan Gillmor is right to criticize Obama for allowing his staff to put on these stage-managed events and try to pass them off as "online townhalls." It's no longer acceptable to say, "You have no idea how technologically or bureaucratically difficult it is for us to do new things here," six months into the new administration. They can do a lot better than this.