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!