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Open for Questions: Meh or Yay?

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, December 10 2008

Change.gov: The Obama-Biden Transition Team | Open for Questions

Say what you will about the jobs section on Change.gov not ultimately leading to any actual, you know, employment or how Tom Daschle seemed to scan the first page of comments in his health care "discussion." The Obama transition team seems eager to win the award for most interactive White House by shear volume -- even if they haven't exactly gotten the details right. I draw your attention to Change.gov's latest experiment in participatory government: Open for Questions.

The way it works is thus: you ask the Obama-Biden team the most pressing question on your mind, and your fellow participants give your question a thumbs down or up. The top rate (I'm guessing, as they never really say) will get themselves answered. It's built on the newish Google Moderator, the same tool that members of the Open Debate Coalition were pushing to be used to make the presidential debates more engaging.

But the tools themselves are a bit rudimentary, letting users to only give questions a yeah or nay on the highest rated questions, with random questions sprinkled in the mix. Or, you can skip a question by clicking a button labeled "meh...," which is likely the first time that word has been used on in an official U.S. government capacity. Originally called "Dory," after the inquisitive fish played by Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo, and aimed at prioritizing questions during tech talks, Moderator is a fairly linear system. It's tough to see how it scales into the best way to navigate a swamp of user engagement. (The fact that Obama's gone back to the Google well here isn't going to please some who think that, with the transition's use of YouTube, he's growing far too cozy with Mountain View.)

And considerable navigation is going to be needed. Launched about six hours ago, Open for Questions has already pulled in a remarkable 105,280 votes on 1,455 questions from 2,423 people. The top rated question at the moment is "What will you do to establish transparency and safeguards against waste with the rest of the Wall Street bailout money?" It's worth nothing that more people are voting, repeatedly, than are asking questions themselves.

We're going to be tracking the progress of Open for Questions on Twitter. Follow @open4questions to stay in the loop.