The recent step by the president-elect’s team to gather input directly from citizens through a Citizen Briefing Book is welcomed with favor by all those who, like me, truly believe in the transformational role of social software in government. As the email sent by the transition team to those registered to Obama’s site says “it’s an online forum where you can share your ideas, and rate or offer comments on the ideas of others. The best-rated ones will rise to the top, and after the Inauguration, we’ll print them out and gather them into a binder like the ones the President receives every day from experts and advisors. If you participate, your idea could be included in the Citizen’s Briefing Book to be delivered to President Obama. “.
As my colleague Anthony Bradley says in his recent post, this is crowdsourcing and out-of-the-box thinking, and certainly worth attention and follow-up. However this also raises a few issues that exemplify how difficult it is for governments to enter this space.
Let me take a few examples.
- In order to submit proposals and vote them up or down you need to register to the site. This is the only way to avoid multiple voting, but it also allows to track proposals and orientations to individuals. In a representative democracy, individuals appeal to their representatives (be they members of parliament, city councillors or whatever) to make proposals and push those they are most interested in. Voting processes involving individuals do not imply that their identity is disclosed. of course one could argue that an email address does not constitute an identity, but yet it allows to profile people.
- On the other hand, the registration mechanism is unlikely to prevent those who want to push a particular agenda from doing so. Interest groups can create hundreds or thousands of fake addresses on a free consumer email site, and vote proposals up and down.
- There are already plenty of proposals: how reasonable is it to expect that citizens will browse through them all and look for those they feel more strongly about? How will the ordering of proposals influence their opinions? And, since they can see the actual ratings of proposals, to what extent could this influence their voting?
It is encouraging to see the new US administration breaking new ground. However, as I said in a previous post, using social software for campaigning and for actually governing are two very different things.