When Jason Goldman asked for feedback when he joined the White House as its first “chief digital officer,” I tweeted out several immediate observations to the #socialcivics hashtag on Twitter. Welcome to the campfire, Mr. Goldman!
Now that he’s transitioned to an official @Goldman44 account on Twitter, inheriting former White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer’s followers as well as his role, and responded to the initial round of feedback, I wanted to circle back to respond in more than 140 characters.
I think Luke Fretwell’s advice and Tim O’Reilly’s thoughts on the architecture of participation are relevant and worth reading on their own, so I’ll start by recommending those approaches, along with the other responses Goldman linked up.
Pure politics or democratic governance?
For my part, I think there’s an inherent tension that Goldman is facing in this position that may not be easily resolvable. In the Politico article that broke the news of his role, President Obama is quoted as saying that the goal of hiring Goldman and Shailagh Murray was “to spend the next 20 months pressing his case that he and his policies saved the economy.”
If Goldman may have a 21st century title, but if his role boils to down advising the president about how to communicate about his policies online, focusing on conversations on social media may well advance that goal but may not necessarily engender democratic participation. A critical question will be whether democratic feedback would lead the White House to change a policy, as opposed to selectively highlighting certain voices to further an existing policy goal, as in a campaign.
Separately, efforts to improve civic engagement from the White House are going to continue to face strong headwinds. The monumental challenge for him and his colleagues is that Goldman joined the White House at a time of historic lows in trust in government.
He also joined the White House at a time of historic political polarization, and just as the next presidential election swings into full gear.
The stated mission of creating conversations and increasing the quality of civic engagement using digital platforms is further complicated by the likely participants in them. The most politically engaged Americans are even more polarized than the rest of the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center. Asking millions of people who are skeptical, disengaged, cynical or simply apathetic to join that scrum may be a tough sell, especially judged against the “bread and circuses” of our day provided by Silicon Valley, Hollywood and major league sports.
Add to that the reality that the “architecture of participation” of the popular social media platforms of today may not only support but exacerbate political polarization.
Combine that context with confirmation bias, users that can mute, block, unfollow and unfriend, network effects that reflect existing offline ideological preferences, and conversational mechanisms that reward getting attention over driving towards conflict resolution …and we see a frequently toxic brew. Popular social media platforms (including the ones that Goldman asked for feedback about #socialcivics on) are operated by corporations that may pay lip service to their new role in civic discourse but in many cases have only recently responded to problems users have asked for help addressing for years.
This state of affairs isn’t hopeless, but it’s certainly relevant context for thinking through what Goldman is being asked to do around “social civics.” Here are some other dynamics that people should be watching as the White House enters its “fourth quarter” in the final two years of this presidency. I suspect they’ll be relevant to the next occupant of the Oval Office as well.
The efforts of Dan Pfeifer and others to “make Obama viral” by going direct online and visiting numerous outlets and unconvential venues are now well-known, but they’re still relevant. While saying so has disappointed some serious Dungeons and Dragons fans in the past, given the misclassification of the undead, it’s worth re-emphasizing that zombies are the gateway ghoul to civic engagement. References to popular culture can resonate in ways that press releases never will.
When the administration took a risk in a humorous response to an e-petition on building the Death Star from Star Wars, it drew massive attention to the platform.
When President Obama went on “Between Two Ferns” for an interview with comic Zach Galifianakis in 2014, the online video drew millions of viewers who then visited healthcare.gov. In 2015, he recorded a video with Buzzfeed that also went viral.
Respond to questions posed to the @WhiteHouse and @OpenGov
Once upon a time, the White House took some risks by resharing opposing views on its social media channels. Now, it looks like a lot of broadcasting with occasional chats. Active listening is a crucial part of having conversations on 2-way platforms: when @OpenGov responds to people proactively, it’s worth acknowledging that there’s a shift.
Engaging with angry constituents isn’t easy and is certain to carry with it some risks, but if the Obama administration genuinely wants to have conversations, ignoring people in these spaces isn’t an option. Individual secretaries and officials are engaging, but leadership in this space means using the millions of connections the White House has accumulated across social networks for more than pushing out the message of the day.
Tap into existing efforts to engage the public using digital tools
When Goldman wrote about “social civics,” he didn’t link to or acknowledge the White House Open Government Initiative, Directive or the nation’s involvement in the Open Government Partnership. These efforts shouldn’t be siloed or left to policy wonks and advocates. “We the People” became interesting because it was the first digital open government platform to hit scale, with millions of users. If Goldman wants a test bed for improving dialog, how about an effort to get millions of Americans involved in the third National Action plan for Open Government?
It would also be useful if the administration engaged in some public reflection regarding what went wrong with the Open Government dialogue in 2009 and change.gov. Again, if the goal is simply to communicate the administration’s positions, Goldman has an easier job, but he’s framed it as more.
This work isn’t happening in a vacuum, either: numerous federal agencies have been working to use digital platforms for civic engagement for years now, from the Red Cross to FEMA to the CDC to the Interior Department. As Goldman is thinking through how to use social media platforms designed to get attention for civic participation, existing playbooks are probably worth recognizing and elevating by acknowledging and using them.
Clear the @WeThePeople backlog
First, as Goldman acknowledged in his followup, it would be helpful if he did whatever he could do address the backlog on the White House e-petition platform, “We the People.”
As I’ve written elsewhere, these e-petitions can matter when they’re combined with concerted offline action, but the lack of response to 19 e-petitions that have met the threshold there, including 7 that have been languishing for over a year, is a recipe for more disaffection, apathy and cynicism, not more. Skeptics think Washington is captured by special interests, not responsive to the people. Ignoring these petitions reinforces that view.
The White House could start with the epetition that asks the government to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, requiring law enforcement to get a warrant to access cloud-based email or data. If President Obama thinks digital due process matters, he should say so and make it clear where he and his administration stand on reform efforts in Congress. His advisors have made public remarks to that effect and said they’ll work with people on Capitol Hill but the epetition has languished.
Unless people see evidence that the online conversations that they’re being encouraged to join actually matter, more distrust, anger and cynicism are more likely outcomes than the change millions of people hoped to see in Washington.