The American public has lost trust in its government, its elected leaders, and the media institutions that have covered it for so long. But the public hasn’t dismissed or forgotten the role it can play in informing and improving the world. With the tools now available to us, the opportunities are greater—and the stakes higher—than they have ever been. We have the potential to reengage the public in its democracy and for the nation to flourish as never before. The question is: how will it happen?
Our society has changed, dramatically, over the past few decades. We talk about it all the time in the context of business (flattening), media (speeding up), and community (connecting). But what about government?
While the audience used to watch the government operate, now we are in the middle of it. Technology and the Internet have given elected officials new ways to reach constituents. Citizens have unprecedented opportunities to access information and, at the same time, myriad ways to see issues obscured. Information is accessible and available to all who are interested. And there are new tools for communities to come together and explore different ways to address the serious challenges that exist in our society.
Still, for most Americans, technology and the Internet haven’t changed government. Our leaders remain out of touch. Politicians appear to care more about being reelected than they do about fixing real issues. Not only do the struggles that everyday Americans face still exist, but in many cases the speed at which our society now moves seems to have only made things worse.
The promise of open government is great. Technology can help to improve how policies are made and implemented, open the halls of power, hold elected officials more accountable, and reengage citizens in the functioning of our democracy. But technology won’t fix government by itself. Making information available isn’t enough. For the promise of open government and the benefits of transparency to truly be felt, we need to change the way we think, act, and organize. We need to change the way we talk about public service and listen to what the public needs. Everything we know about government, and how it operates, must be reconsidered.
With the explosive growth of the Internet, the pervasive use of mobile technologies, and the seemingly ubiquitous accessibility of people across the globe, President Obama began his presidency with a historic opportunity to communicate more directly with the American public—and with the entire world. The world, in turn, had an opportunity to monitor, inform, and influence the Obama administration’s actions and policies. It was the beginning of a new era for our nation and for our government.
In many ways, this put President Obama in a stronger position than any previous president, allowing him to more easily engage citizens in the process of leading the nation. His administration had new tools to help overcome the communication obstacles and unseat the entrenched interests that exist in government, as well as bypass traditional barriers erected by the media when governments engage their constituents. Moreover, President Obama brought with him a massive and loyal network of supporters and volunteers who, throughout his campaign, were inspired to play a role in supporting their government and were empowered to participate in finding solutions to the challenges facing our nation.
It is no accident, of course, that President Obama took office with such a strong foundation from which to lead—through its use of technology and the Internet during the campaign, the Obama campaign has, in the words of the New York Times’ Adam Nagourney, “rewritten the rules on how to reach voters, raise money, organize supporters, manage the news media, track and mold public opinion, and wage—and withstand—political attacks, including many carried by blogs that did not exist four years ago” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/04/us/politics/04memo.html). For the first time in history, it’s possible for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people to have a single conversation. But the Internet is far more than just a way to raise money or mobilize supporters. It’s a way to shrink the distance between people and politicians.
This new era of leadership and engagement presents many obstacles. For starters, would the president be able to transfer the knowledge and experience from the campaign to the hard work of governing? President Obama and his administration can deliver their message as never before, by bypassing traditional channels or choosing to create their own direct channels to the public. At the same time, the risks of trying to control what is said (and how it is delivered) range from an unchecked president to a disappointed and disillusioned electorate who won’t support his agenda or help to reelect him in four years.
With all the issues that demand attention from the president—a global economic crisis, two wars, a broken health care system, and failing schools, among others—would the Obama administration have time to engage the population and welcome their contribution?
And could the public, with so many distractions and a low tolerance for the partisanship that has long defined politics in Washington, move beyond their established beliefs and overcome their lack of interest to take advantage of the opportunity to be involved when the solutions aren’t as easy to figure out as they might expect?
The answer to all these questions, so far, is largely no.
Our society is increasingly powered by a bottom-up, grassroots-fueled, emergent process that can be applied to the production and distribution of information or the organization of people in support of real action. The act of a citizen or group of citizens playing a role in the process of making policy, passing legislation, or implementing a program on the local level is an advancement of our democratic principles at work. The intent is clear: by providing independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging, and relevant information and opportunities for participation, we bolster our democracy. That information and participation is now available to everyone who can connect—communities, businesses, government agencies, pundits, journalists, and everyday people. Using technology and the Internet to foster that discussion, and convert the interest of those involved into meaningful, measurable action, requires a different approach and skill set, however.
People want a place, digital or otherwise, where they can gather and learn about the community in which they are a part, a place where they can get in touch with the issues. The Obama campaign turned the Internet into a gateway for millions of ordinary Americans to participate in the political process, and now the administration fully expects these people to continue on their own, acting locally, to bring about change in our communities. The Obama campaign also demonstrated through its online campaign efforts that they had trust and confidence in their community. That trust and confidence, when shown at the national level by the candidate and his team, transformed people from supporters into participants. People were actively thinking about why they supported Obama and how to express that.
Now that opportunity exists on the local level as well, and it must be applied to the substance of government work. It’s not just Obama supporters who are feeling the need for change, and who have access to these tools. The opportunities offered by the Internet are available to all who seek to engage on issues and deliver change. What is missing is the participation of the media and the audience together to make it happen.
Technology and the Internet have given us greater control over our own media experience—what information we get and share, how we spend our time, and to whom we are connected. We are more diverse as a society, more informed as individuals, and more involved as communities. Government, however, hasn’t changed much in this new, fast-paced digital era. And change is slow.
Because the pace of change is not aligned with the rhetoric that calls for new approaches, we have lost sight of what real change in government looks like. The creation of sites such as Recovery.gov, the launch of the White House blog, and the inclusion of the online audience in the president’s town hall meetings have received a lot of attention—and the White House deserves a lot of credit for being open and welcoming. But what has really changed about government?
The websites for the federal government (and some state and local governments) have absolutely improved—they feature better design and usability for starters, and more information and access to elected officials is coming every day. More and more data is filtering out, and everyone from think tanks to media to individual citizens is mashing things up in creative and compelling ways. Perhaps most importantly, the public now has someone who is on the inside listening. This is progress.
Still, the release of data alone is not an accomplishment. When the discussions at a town hall meeting are divisive and inflammatory—or worse—the fact that more people are participating in those discussions than in previous years is not so important. And while millions of people sign petitions online every day with one click of a mouse, those petitions rarely (if ever) change minds or impact the outcome of a vote in Congress.
Because we can use the tools that are now widely available online to conduct campaigns, send notices, and raise awareness of issues—more efficiently and cost-effectively than ever before—we have lost sight of what real impact looks like, how to change behavior, and how success should be measured. We’ve settled for low open rates for emails and names on an email list as signs of success instead of demanding more from our leaders, and ourselves, and working harder to make things happen.
Lots of things aren’t changing. There are still too many layers of bureaucracy; technology is supposed to make things more efficient, but we aren’t seeing that in government yet. Most/all of the legislation that is passed/signed into law doesn’t do enough to address the core issues it is designed to address, and there is little evidence that better legislation is going to emerge from the current Congress anytime soon. The implementation of policies remains largely out of the reach of average people. And perhaps most dangerous of all, the public’s opinion of and perceptions about Congress, the president, and other elected officials remain largely negative.
Put another way, the Internet has made us lazy, and has obscured our focus on what truly matters. The activities that have defined the opening of government and the release of government information are overshadowing the discussion of whether any real impact is being had. Too much attention has been paid to the process of making our government more transparent and not enough consideration has been given to whether the goals of transparency are truly being achieved.
During a recent presentation at the New America Foundation, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt said, “The vast majority of information is still not searchable or findable either because it’s not published or it’s on websites which the government has put up which no one can index.” He was referring to the U.S. government, one of the world’s largest depositories of data, which has been unwilling or unable to make millions of its web pages accessible to search engines.
According to the Washington Post, “a wide array of public information remains largely invisible to the search engines, and therefore to the general public, because it is held in such a way that the web search engines of Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft can’t find it and index it.” The Post added, “The National Archives expects that its entire database containing descriptions of its holdings will be available to Google by January…the EPA has made some sites accessible…and the Smithsonian has sent Google the links for 78,000 pages.”
We are barely scratching the surface.
The idea of searchable government information is appealing, but incomplete. Beyond just being able to locate this information, aligning what users want when searching for government agencies or regulations (and such) is the key to success. Accessibility is not enough. We need to make this information “findable.” As I wrote in Media Rules!, findability and meeting user expectations in the connected age is critical:
Your ability to be located and to become rooted in the consciousness of your target audience is perhaps the greatest challenge you will face as an organization. Call it your Findability factor.
Findability is not only about being found on the Internet, having your name and address in the Yellow Pages, or placing a billboard where all can see. Findability is the likelihood that someone encountering your organization can get the relevant, timely, and compelling information they expect throughout their interaction with you. If they do, they are far more likely to remember you and return again. If they don’t, that person from your audience will make a judgment about you that puts you at the bottom of their priority list. And when they go out looking for someone to sell them something or to answer their question in the future, they will have plenty of other, better choices to look to for help.
Organizations that support their audience in finding the information they want and need have a lot to gain. Organizations that don’t, or can’t do that, invite increased competition. Most organizations fail miserably when it comes to findability, because they don’t consider the interests of their audience over their own interests. The good news is that it is not that difficult to make yourself more findable.
The challenge of making government information more findable will require cooperation between the government and search engine operators, and shifts in behavior and perspective from both. At present, the government produces information it believes serves its audience and search engines are trying to make that information available. Findability is about making that information relevant, on top of everything else, and currently neither the government nor Google seems all that interested in meeting that standard.
Much of what is produced and made available by government offices and agencies is of little or no interest to the broad audience of constituents it is designed to serve. It is written in a format, or with a tone, that appeals to only a narrow band of experts. And it is distributed at a time and place when few citizens are paying attention. The search engines, meanwhile, aggregate the information effectively, but the multitude of choices quickly becomes unreasonable for the audience to wade through. It’s wonderful to know that thousands of pages of results have been returned on your query, but in practicality, it doesn’t help you find what you need in most cases.
The search engines deserve to be commended for their commitment to making government information accessible (though the cynical part of me thinks they are just interested in the increased revenue that comes from search ads aligned with queries). And the government’s interest in opening its doors more to the public is commendable. However, if they don’t commit to creating a more findable government, and begin to move with that goal in mind, the likely impact of having government websites and documents newly available across the Web will have only limited value.
It is absolutely necessary that we talk about the future of government in a connected society—but we have to do it in order of priority. First, we must clearly define what we want from our government; how it will support the citizenry, and what kinds of services it will provide. Second, we need to look at what is working in government, and what fails to live up to our expectations. Third, we have to ask ourselves how to improve or change those issues. And then, only then, should we be talking about what technology to use, what data standards to create, and the like.
The conversation about the future of government is stalled until we can have a real conversation about how to change what government does. If we can get that conversation started, the rest will flow (more) easily from there.
That is why everything needs to change.
When I talk about everything changing, I am not just talking about functional change—the fact that almost everyone owns a cell phone or people spend a lot more time shopping online than they used to, the rise of social networks, the speed at which information moves, or the lack of time we have to process everything. Those are important data points, evidence of the change that we are seeing. I am talking about how our expectations are changing, in terms of the information we spend time with (or want to spend time with), the access we hope to have (to people, or anything else), the level of participation we might demand or our willingness to collaborate on things we used to do alone, and of course, our increased awareness of the need for something to have a real, meaningful, measurable impact to warrant our attention.
Unfortunately, while many people recognize that the world is changing and that what we are doing isn’t working anymore, few are willing to embrace what that means in terms of how they need to communicate and operate. When I tell people that their marketing isn’t as successful as it used to be, heads nod, but nothing changes. When I suggest to people that their audience (be they customers, or voters, or donors, or readers) won’t engage in the same ways as before, people scribble notes, but they don’t put into practice any of the things they need to adapt.
Do you know why nothing changes? Because change is hard. It’s difficult for people to change course. It’s difficult for people to look past the short-term metrics and instead focus on long-term impact. And I understand that. And when things are difficult, we tend not to do them.
Whenever I hear that change is difficult, I think of a speech that the (fictional) president of the United States (played by Michael Douglas in the moving The American President) gave:
Everybody knows America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship.
You gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating, at the top of his lungs, that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free, then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.” Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.
Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free…. We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious men, and if you want to talk about character, Bob, you’d better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll show up.
It is just a movie, but the message is clear. Change requires a lot of effort. But change is also possible.
There remain so many opportunities to invite supporters to contribute ideas and policy suggestions. There remain so many issues where a simulation or calculator would help to clear up much of the confusion. Feedback from people across America is now more welcome in the conversation, but it rarely seems to be integrated. The tools exist, and they will only improve. But before we put more energy into facilitating conversation, we must elevate the dialogue. Before we make choices about which platform to use in sharing information, we need to understand more about the challenges that citizens across the country share. And before we claim more progress as a result of a new website launching or a new store of data being released, we must ask the audience whether their lives have been improved and whether they are seeing progress.
We have barely scratched the surface of what is possible and what is necessary if we are going to truly repair the damage that has been done to our democracy over the years. I have high hopes for how the Obama administration will use technology and the Internet to open the process of running this country and give all of us a little opportunity to change and improve things ourselves. I also have high expectations for us, as citizens, that we will answer the call and take the opportunity to become more involved. Government is truly the best place to experiment with the uses of technology and the Internet to increase participation and drive deeper levels of engagement by citizens around issues.
Brian Reich is the managing director of little m media, which provides strategic guidance and support to organizations around the use of the Internet and technology to facilitate communications, engagement, education, and mobilization. He is well known for his expertise in new media, Web 2.0, social networks, mobile, community, e-commerce, brand marketing, cause branding, and more. Reich is the author of Media Rules!: Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience (Wiley, 2007), and serves as director of community and partnerships for iFOCOS, the media think tank and futures lab that organizes the We Media community, conferences, and awards. He is the managing editor of WeMedia.com. He is also the editor of Thinking About Media and contributes as a Fast Company expert.
 Media Rules! Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience, Brian Reich and Dan Solomon, Wiley, 2008.