Archives for the month of: March, 2009

I enjoyed linking in to President Obama’s “Open For Questions” online town hall last Thursday. The format has much to recommend it, especially the fact that over 100,000 people cast over 3.5 million votes to pick the most relevant and useful questions.

But, as I outline in this boring video, my immediate reaction was that the event could have capitalized on its “onlininess” more. (The video is also embedded at the end of this piece.) It would have been very cool, for instance, for the top questioners to have been present (or linked on remotely) so they could ask follow ups. That would have created a give-and-take, but would have done so on the basis of crowdsourcing.

These thoughts were in my head the next day when I ran across a theater review by my friend Peter Marks. He reviews an after-show “talkback” and his description provides some great ideas for anyone who is seeking to create a participatory experience:

It would have been easy for Theater J’s artistic director, Ari Roth, to have turned the [talkback] . . . into a posturing focus-group gab-a-thon.

Instead, what transpired Wednesday night . . . amounted to a watershed in the evolution of immediate dialogue between a political play and its audience. . . . [T]he way Roth constructed the event, bringing together actors, theatergoers, experts and even, via e-mail, [the author] herself, conferred on it some of the formalized gravity of a symposium and the messy urgency of an emergency meeting.

It was, for this professional spectator, fascinating. . . . Listening to the sharp give-and-take became as integral to the experience, in fact, as listening to the eight fine actors seated around a table, reading from Churchill’s script and the scripts of two other playwrights. . . . The atmosphere will no doubt be altered each time this exercise occurs, and the formula might be difficult to replicate, depending on who leads the talk and who shows up to participate.

Key ideas:

  • Bring together disparate people (actors, audience, author)
  • Use multiple channels (in-person, email)
  • “Gravity” and “messiness” can coexist

This is also a great reminder of how much we have to learn, in public life, from our friends in the arts world.

One of the greatest pathologies of public life today is its pervasive gang mentality. We are constantly labeled by others — and at the same time do that very same labeling. By our actions, we divide ourselves up into tribes, Us and Them. It’s our hatred of Them that continually leaves us far, far short of our ideals.

When one enters the public square, when one speaks up, others listen and judge. Who is this person? What tribe are they with? Are they on my team or the other team? Are they friend or enemy?

Sometimes without realizing it, we give clues to answer those questions. Whether I refer to “Barack Hussein Obama” or “President Barack Obama” says a great deal. Whether I link to a CNN or a Fox News story does too. It all adds up and within thirty seconds a first impression has been set. 

Trouble is, most people aren’t really like their stereotypes. Think about the stereotype the “other side” has about your own tribe. How fair is it? How correct is it?

  • Maybe you’re “liberal.” It’s probably not only unfair but also incorrect to say that you favor a move to socialism, or that you care more about redistributing wealth than you do about personal morality.
  • Maybe you’re “conservative.” It’s probably not only unfair but incorrect to say that you are only interested in furthering the interests of the rich, or that you are just a mean-spirited person.

Yet these are the labels we smack on the other side.

My point: This is not only corrosive to public life — but it’s plain dumb. By allowing these incorrect stereotypes to persist in our own mind, we live in a delusional world. We don’t understand other people, which means we don’t really know what is being said in the public square.

I saw this play out in an ironic way just a couple of days ago. I noticed a derisive comment in a liberal avenue about some “stupid conservative’s” article that contained a misspelling. I went to go take a look.

Sure, the article was angry (conservatives feel quite besieged at the moment) — but it was thoughtful. More to the point, it was sincere. And it contained this complaint, describing what it’s like to be a conservative in the current environment:

“My intentions are mischaracterized, and then I am judged by those mischaracterized intentions.”

Actually, that’s an apt description of the public square as a whole. We can do so much better . . . because we are so much better.

My friend Lars Hasselblad Torres (who may have the coolest name I know) pointed out a really fascinating project.

It’s “The Intellectuals Circle” — a circular bench designed to encourage “a clear form of verbal communication without visual cues or theatrics between participants.” As it has been a long time since I’ve been a to a meeting with no irksome theatrics, I am intrigued!

I am even more introgued by a comment embedded in some of the design notes. The designers (MIT, natch) see this as a sort of reverse Panopticon. 

I have always been fascinated by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. What is it? Here’s a description from an earlier article I wrote:

In 1787, one of the great thinkers of English history, Jeremy Bentham, proposed a new design for a prison. He called the design the Panopticon. The idea was simple: from one point in the center of the building, a single guard could see any inmate at any time. All of the inmates knew this, but could not tell when, or whether, they were being observed. The concept was intended to promote the moral development of the prisoners, as the constant possibility of scrutiny would serve to make them less likely to behave badly. The Panopticon was a leap forward in its day. Designed to replace the infamous Botany Bay, it was among the first prisons to incorporate the idea of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Instead of being seen as beasts, prisoners were now assumed to be able to regulate their own behavior. Bentham’s design would have provided the motivation for them to do so.

What does it mean for soemthing to be the reverse of the Panopticon? The designers: “Instead of using a centralized theme of observation as a means of control, the Intellectuals Circle allows participants to converse freely on the periphery, without direct visual contact with each other. There is no center at all, only 4 ways in which to enter, sit and exit at will.”

The intended effect of the Panipticon is not punitive but moral. It is designed to foster a positive morality and correct a lack of morality. What effect will the Intellectual’s Circle have? Surely it won’t be the converse!

The White House is experimenting with using a freely-available, “crowd-sourced” tool as part of the backend to the “electronic town hall” it announced earlier this week. You can go here to see it in action.

The Town Hall is set for this morning. Here’s the White House blog post about it.

The system is using Google Moderator, which is a simple tool that allows anyone to submit a question and then vote on which ones ought to be asked. It is intended to harness the “wisdom of the crowd” so that the most relevant and interesting questions bubble up.

It’s introduced by a video message from President Obama, which is hosted on YouTube. Here it is:


For the most part, I applaud the experimentation and the use of widely-available tools. It’s pretty cool!

There are some tweaks that might be useful, though, when applying what was originally designed to help out at tech conferences to public issues.

When it comes to thorny public issues, often it’s not the “wisdom of crowds” that rises to the top but the “voice of the mob.” As people vote on what questions they want answered, sometimes the quiet, wise questions asking about the trade offs behind policies can get shoved aside.

For instance, when I first accessed the “health care” topic, the top questions were all versions of “why can’t we have ‘single-payer’ health care?” The question I would like to see answered, instead, might be: “What would the trade offs be if we moved to a single payer health care system?”

This is not a fatal flaw, just something to think about. Indeed, the White House team has given enough thought to issue a caution:

This experiment is about encouraging transparency and accountability, so ask the President exactly what it is you want to know – but let others do the same.  It is a community-moderated system, but remember that even though you may not like the viewpoint behind someone’s question, everyone has a right to their opinion.  Also remember that Americans of all ages will be participating in this event, so be thoughtful about the words you choose.

This is good, and there are guidelines provided, but it would be useful to see if there is a more structural way to filter in thoughtfulness and filter out yelling. Maybe that’s only something that can be done by an “editor,” but it’s worth pondering. 

It’s useful to think about, in fact, in many contexts. I would put the strategic question this way:

As we shift to more and more direct-input tools in public life, how can we ensure the fundamental questions don’t get pushed aside by the most intense voices?

As some of my readers know, I am a peripheral part of the NCDD network. That’s the National Coaltion for Dialogue and Deliberation, a network run by Sandy Heierbacher. Sandy is one of the most impressive civic entrepreneurs I know, having bootstrapped NCDD into the pre-eminent collection of people doing work in this “field.”

Sandy was naturally invited to attend a recent White House-convened meeting on the administration’s new Open Government Initiative. This is one of the signature initiatives of the Obama White House, even though it may not be getting the heat it deserves just now due to other issues on the radar screen.

The meeting, convened March 11 by the director of the White House initiative, Beth Noveck, was a “listening session.” The White House is hoping to draft its new initiative and present it by May 21.

According to Sandy, Noveck said (this is paraphrase, as Sandy was furiously taking notes):

We’re looking for ideas and recommendations on how to create a more transparent, participatory, and collaborative government. We want to know about events and happenings we can learn from or be involved in. We’re interested in principles for this work. . . . We’re currently in a brainstorming period, which is open to all. In mid-April, we’ll need to drill down to specifics (mechanisms for implementing goals) for the drafting phase of the open governance directive. Our goal for the finished product is May 21st.

The more detailed and concrete your advice and ideas, the better. We need explicit commitment to participation, collaboration and transparency. We don’t need organizations coming to us and saying “we love transparency!”

That last comment got me thinking about some of the ideas that came up in a recent talk I gave, in which I ended with five principles for organizations that are seeking to engage citizens (probably not detailed enough, but this was a speech after all). More on that here.

I urge you to read Sandy’s notes from the meeting, as they include what each representative said. It is a great overview of the field. More important, it provides a sense of what the chief organizations in civic participation see as their “elevator speech.” And they do run the gamut!

Thank you, Sandy, for this incredible service in moving the field forward.

One point which should go without saying on Sandy’s notes: She was not at the meeting as a journalist and the notes are just her impressions. They aren’t meant to be the “official statements” of any organizations!

As many of my readers know, I write “issue guides” — discussions of difficult public issues designed to elicit small group dialogue. In my work on such guides, sometimes I develop fragments that are useful but just don’t fit into the ultimate publication.

I came across an old passage I wrote that outlines our nation’s difficult relationship with people who are “different.” For reasons of space, it is not going to make it into a publication I am now working on, so I thought I would share it. It’s a good reminder of where we’ve been — and how far we have to go.

An Uncomfortable History

America does not have a good record when it comes to the treatment of ethnic and cultural difference. Slavery of African Americans is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind in reviewing this history. It began as early as 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia, when Africans arrived at the first English settlement in the New World. At that time there was no law yet allowing for the ownership of people as slaves, so they were instead indentured servants. In 1808, importation of slaves was officially banned, but it continued unabated — the slave population in the United States rose to 4 million slaves in the 1860 U.S. Census. Slavery ended officially with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865.

Slavery, of course, is not the only marker along the path of our nation’s poor treatment of different cultures and ethnicities.

Almost from the outset of the colonization of America, killing of the Native American Indians began. An early example is the genocidal Pequot War of 1637. Hostilities lasted in various forms throughout the westward expansion and lasted until at least 1890 when the western frontier was closed. Thousands of people were killed and whole tribes were forced to relocate as America grew. Many argue that, though the wholesale violence may have ended in 1890, the taking of Native American land and water rights, which continued for years, was just as damaging.

The Mexican-American War ended in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which held that Spanish and Mexican land grants were legitimate. But the immigration of anglo settlers brought about, according to historian Richard Vogel, “widespread oppression that sparked mass exile and repatriation. . . . Besieged refugees abandoned their farms and ranches.”

Later in the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrant labor built one of the key drivers of the settlement of the Western United States – the railroad system – but this influx of Chinese people was ended when the Chinese Exclusion Act placed a moratorium on immigration by any ethnic Chinese in 1882. This act was in force until its repeal in 1943 – at which time an annual quota of 105 was put in place. This quota was not lifted until 1965.

Anti-Semitism – hatred of Jews – has also been a part of our nation’s history. In 1915, it was the lynching by prominent area citizens of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia that led to the creation of today’s Anti-Defamation League, an organization that combats anti-Semitism.

And, during World War Two, Japanese Americans on the west coast were forced to relocate in 1942. Those who did not make their own way out — approximately 110,000 – were placed in a number of internment camps. Only in 1976 was the order establishing the camps – Executive Order 9066 – rescinded, though the camps themselves were terminated in 1946. This particular episode was viewed as so shameful that the United States made official reparations in 1988 to all who had been relocated or placed in camps.

All these share in common the taking of what may begin as a simple mistrust of difference – and, over time, turning it into a set of policies and attitudes that together work a grave injustice on one or another culture. Certainly, many newcomers to America or people who were otherwise seen as marginal had a difficult time of it. But, in some cases, this poor treatment became more than that and instead became racism.

The national story of race, then, continues. Many point with pride to the significant strides made in the Civil Rights era and to the praiseworthy expansion of opportunity over the last few decades to include more and more Americans. But others say that this issue of ethnicity and culture continues to be difficult for America — that the same trends that have played out over history are at work today.

Today, in the twenty-first century, decades after the Civil Rights Movement, against the backdrop of a citizenry that is on track to become one in which no ethnicity holds a majority, America remains a nation that has difficulty addressing racial and ethnic tensions.

Last week, Lisa Hickey wrote a piece in which she mused on some of the societal effects of social media. She makes a number of good points, but one in particular stood out for me — the relationship between online and in-person conversations when it comes to trust.

Think about all the times you’ve had a conversation with someone, who later asks you, “you’re not going to post this on Facebook, are you?” They’re anxious that something they see as private and personal (a face-to-face conversation with you) will become public. That’s a fair concern, and sensitive people who are devotees of social media need to be mindful of it.

However, I see a divide between the assumptions of people who are users of social media and those who are not. They are in conflict — most social media types assume that conversations are open for sharing unless they are specifically asked not to. But most people who do not use social media see it the opposite way.

As I have been experimenting with video lately, I started a thread on the issue at the video-conversation site Seesmic. Here it is (though I had to shift the video to YouTube for technical reasons):

The full Seesmic conversation thread can be found here, if you would like to see responses and join in.

What do you think? Where do you draw the line? Where do you think society at large will draw it?

My friend Peter Levine, in an article that examines ways to look at the question of “whether President Obama is trying to do too much too fast,” mentions an analogy Bill Galston makes to Jimmy Carter’s early days in office.

In Peter’s view, those days are not at all comparable to where we are now. In making his case, Peter encapsulates the overal shift rightward that was occurring as the 70’s ended as well as I have seen anyone:

[T]he Zeitgeist was against poor old Jimmy Carter, as we can tell now that the Owl of Minerva has taken flight. Most of the industrialized countries moved substantially right after 1970. Liberals had already enacted the popular parts of the welfare state. They had consolidated prosperity for a majority of their populations, who were decreasingly generous toward the remaining poor. Keynsian policy couldn’t seem to handle stagflation. Liberal coalitions had shattered on the shoals of controversial social issues. Conservatives offered law-and-order and lower taxes, and that was a winning package. The only reason Carter was elected was that Richard Nixon had administered a deadly wound to his own party that took eight years to heal. It was hardly time for an ambitious liberal agenda.

What interests me is Peter’s perspective on that pivotal time, and the language he uses, spoken with the benefit of hindsight.

It seems evident that we are now in a similar shift, only moving the other way. When we look back, fifteen years and more later, what kind of language will we use? What tectonic factors will be relevant, and which will be just static?

That, of course, is a thought experiment and unanswerable. But it is worth thinking about, if only to gain perspective on the now.

Seth Godin wrote recently about the plight of agents. Literary agents, travel agents, stock brokers, real estate agents — all either extinct or becoming so. Why? Anonymity:

The problem with being a helpful, efficient but largely anonymous middleman is pretty obvious. Someone can come along who is cheaper, faster and more efficient. And that someone might be the customer aided by a computer. . . .

Middlemen add value when they bring taste or judgment or trust to bear on a transaction that isn’t transparent. . . . Key point: anonymous agents are interchangeable and virtually worthless. Agents that don’t do anything but help one side find the other side in a human approximation of Google aren’t so helpful any more.

Does that mean the business of being an agent is dead? No! It means it’s time to make sure you’re not anonymous. Add value that can’t be added otherwise — and that is where discernment comes in. Agents can provide a powerful filtering (or editing) function.

But, in order to provide this function, agents need to say “no,” perhaps as often or more than they say “yes.” This means they need to brand their own identity as someone who is a helpful nexus of good content, be that content a steady stream of well-priced homes, a stable of awesome authors, or a collection of well-performing startups.

This may mean there is room for fewer agents in the world, but it also means that the ones who are left can play a more important role.

My friend Cindy (who also collaborates with me on Rockville Central), is a formidable community volunteer, both in her work and in her personal life. She’s been on both sides of the volunteer aisle — being a volunteer, and leading other volunteers. Together, we formed the leadership team at the helm of a local Cub Scout pack, and that went quite well.

Cindy just finished up a very successful, and volunteer-intensive event, and this has got her thinking about what it takes to motivate volunteers and keep them effective.

I wish I knew her seven keys long ago, as they are excellent:

1.) The cause has to be meaningful. If a volunteer is not familiar with your organization, you need to introduce them. . . .

2.) A volunteer has to have support from others in their personal life. A parent praising the work or a friend already volunteering make a big difference. . . .

3.) The experience needs to be fun. . . . The task doesn’t matter but the interpersonal relationships do. . . .

4.) You need to make sure the volunteer winds up having the time to get the job done. We only have so much time and sometimes our jobs or commitments change. . . .

5.) Your expectations need to be reasonable. . . .

6.) Make sure the volunteer job is a good fit. . . .

7.) Volunteers should grow either professionally or personally. . . . Volunteering can create safe environments to improve or discover hidden strengths.

These are edited down. Read the whole article here — it’s worth it.