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Change.gov Starts to Go Interactive, Intensively

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, November 25 2008

"Today we're trying out a new feature on our website that will allow us get instant feedback from you about our top priorities. We also hope it will allow you to form communities around these issues -- with the best ideas and most interesting discussions floating to the top."

Ordinarily, you wouldn't get too excited about reading those words on a website. But when they are on the official blog of the President-elect, things are a little different. In fact, this is a big deal. When you consider that for the last eight years, the occupant of the White House has essentially told the public "you get input once every four years, after that I'm the decider," this is huge.

A few hours ago, the Change.gov blog led with a post called "Join the Discussion" and pointed readers to a video from two members of the health care transition team. The first topic for discussion, "What worries you most about the healthcare system in our country?" isn't really one that leads to choosing priorities, but there's nothing inherently wrong with using a general question like that one as a conversation-starter.

Already, there are more than 500 comments on the site (make that more than 600), organized into threads, and you can also rate them (as well as the commenters) and sort them by date, rating and freshness. This comment from one Jeremiah Jahn was off-topic, but telling: "I just wanted to say thank you for giving us a place to make our thoughts and comment heard. It's about time the government provide a centralized place for citizens to express their opinions where they feel they will be heard." [Emphasis added.]

Imagine what happens if those numbers--on not just any "centralized site" but the one that symbolically and perhaps literally has the attention of the President-elect--start climbing into the five- and six-digits. Before our eyes, we are witnessing the beginning of a rebooting of the American political system.

The system being used is called IntenseDebate, a tool built by these four guys: Jon Fox, Isaac Keyet, Michael Koenig and Austin Hallock. Yes, Austin is just 16 years old. The others look like they recently started shaving. I'm including their pictures because they deserve some credit for this breakthrough.

Jon Fox

Isaac Keyet

Michael Koenig

Austin Hallock

By using IntenseDebate (and the OpenID framework), the Obama transition is actually enabling a lot of interesting community development to start happening beneath the surface of a threaded discussion. Users get their own "commenter profile" on IntenseDebate, along with reputation points, and they can carry those profiles onto other sites that use the same system. Users can also choose to follow other IntenseDebate users, so if someone is really diligent they could start to gather a group or a crowd around them.

Back on Change.gov, there is a new "comments policy" that looks eminently reasonable:

To maintain a respectful dialogue, we've posted the guidelines of our comment policy below.

* Stay focused. All viewpoints are welcome, but comments should remain on the topic set by the original blog post, discussion question or other type of initial entry.
* Be respectful. Ad hominem or personal attacks, profanity, and aggressive behavior are prohibited. Instigating arguments in a disrespectful way is also prohibited.
* Tell the truth. Spreading misleading or false information is prohibited.
* No spam. Repeated posting of identical or very similar content in a counter-productive manner is prohibited – this includes posts aggressively promoting services or products.

We retain the discretion to determine which comments violate our comment policy. We also reserve the right to remove violations. We expect all contributors to be respectful.

What can I say, other than, this is a terrific start on fulfilling Obama's promise to make government more open and participatory. (It may well be a violation of the archaic Paperwork Reduction Act, which actually requires all government agencies that want to request any kind of information from more than ten members of the public to first get clearance from the Office of Management and Budget, but thank goodness no one cares--maybe we can finally get that law amended to allow this sort of thing across all government agencies.) Yes, other government websites already have blogs with comments, though if you look at the State Department's Dipnote blog or the TSA's blog, you'll see that they filter comments before posting them. Here, Change.gov appears to be letting comments go straight to the web, unfiltered. (Mine got posted instantaneously.) You can embed a link in your comment, but you can't embed a YouTube video (I tried.)

We shall be watching this, intensely.