Government By the People 2.0

Tonight, I spent the evening listening to a number of people discussing the future of the Obama Administration and how technology may enable it. I live-blogged the event and provide my transcript below:

NYSIA January Monthly Meeting: Government By the People 2.0

Is technology changing democracy? With our panel, we’ll explore that issue, look back at the presidential campaign, and ahead to the new administration and look at the many ways that the Internet and technology is reconfiguring the way citizens connect with politics and policy.


  • Josh Levy, Managing Editor,
  • Micah Sifry, Co-founder and Editor, Personal Democracy Forum
  • Rachel Sterne, CEO,
  • Tom Watson, Managing Partner, CauseWired

Moderator: Howard Greenstein, President, The Harbrooke Group

Bruce Bernstein (founder of NYSIA) makes intros and explains to the audience how NYSIA helps grow small tech businesses in NY. Bruce thanks Chase for sponsoring, and then intros Howard Greenstein, who has been running the panels and special events.

Howard opens the event with a discussion on participatory democracy: there is a potential for significant changes – how much is real, how much is perception.

The question is: what can we (the entrepreneurs) do to make it “work” for us. How can we use the tools the Obama Campaign has used and use it to our advantage (small and medium companies)?


  • Tom Watson: new book “CauseWired” (third printing) – came out in November – online social activism. Politics to non-for-profit causes. New firm – CauseWired Communications – turn them into Causes.
  • Josh Levy: 19 different online social movements at
  • Rachel Sterne: citizen journalism platform and make money off the platform. 3500 reporters on the ground. Rachel was a Business Developer at LimeWire and a reporter on the Security Council at the U.N.
  • Micah Sifry: Personal Democracy Forum curator, blog, consulting with Advocacy Organizations on the Web. Primary client is the Sunlight Foundation – grabbing ahold of the massive amounts of the government data and shine the light on what goes on with Congress.

Q: Did social media tech affect the election?
MS: Should the question be about “new media” vs “old media”? If we focus on YouTube, where candidates were sharing own content, initiating own events – yes. I believe that Obama would not have won the Democratic primary without the astute use of Internet technologies. The Obama team believed they needed to ride the new wave. Normally, the tactic for winning the Democratic Primary is about tapping big donor networks, then big media cheerleading for you, then elected officials / union officials.

Hillary had all of those things, and Obama won. Obama was able to continue to tap this unknown area. Hillary was supposed to win the Super Tuesday race. But it was about the caucus states was about having the most delegates. Obama organized technology to organize the massive base of potential support into pyramids across the states. 2 out of 5 in the major swing states. Obama Campaign used their own tools to mobilize and activate.

JL: that is the most specific you are going to get. At techpresident, they were charting YouTube usage by the campaigns. What it did was showed was the fact that the campaign could rout around the mainstream media. Continue the platforms LONG after the media cycle.

TW: “bottom-up stuff” – Obama benefited from the bottom up. The core of supporters did their own thing – and ignored the centralized control. The social network “influenced” the MSM. Self-perpetuating cycle.

RS: parallels are occurring in the larger, MSM media – everyone can participate, everyone can contribute. NowPublic, NewsVine, GroundReport – MSM orgs are recognizing the benefit of access to the community (e.g. iReport for CNN).

Q: We keep hearing how media has been routed around, even subverted by the Obama Campaign – did McCain forget about this? What happened to the Republician efforts?
MS: Was amazed to see the Repub field fall back from what was happening in 2004. In Bush 04 – the operation was almost seamless – they gave the campaign offices control over what they could do in their own neighborhoods.

Merging voter list, marketing data and decentralizing to the edges was much more successful in 2004. Kerry was unable to have the same technology – and was not as effective.

EDITOR NOTE: I would claim that Kerry’s lack of success in the technology was because of a number of factors:

  • We got a late start on technology because the tech people were on the Dean Campaign and Kerry was not seen to win until the New Hampshire primary. Without the year head-start on development, the campaign did not have a strong technology infrastructure and I joined three months before the Iowa caucus.
  • The DNC suffered from a deficit in 2004, and Terry McAuliffe brought the DNC back to solvency by keeping costs down.
  • The DNC technology was somewhat underfunded – and did not have the support as the Republicans did (especially with a Ken Melman who OWNED a database company)

MS: In 2008, the situation was reversed. On the Republican side, Ron Paul – enabled a tremendous amount of creativity. For example, the “money bomb” – timing when the donations came in – became a virtuous circle – who could generate the most donations to see how we could all get together and donation and donate on the same day.

In the Republican primary, McCain was the “last grownup standing” – McCain did not “get the Internet” and carried through with the campaign organization. His campaign did do targeted ad placement and solid google ad placement. But the phenomena of “mass participation” is no longer the realm of the “early adopters”. 1 out of 3 participated in actions online, 1 out of 4 watched home-grown video, and 1 out of 5 published content on the web.

Obama was doing extremely well on YouTube – of the 150M views on Obama or McCain campaign videos videos throughout the campaign – 120M for Obama, 30M McCain. But this was only one-tenth of all videos generated. Campaign videos were only small portion.

The fundamental issue: the campaign did not just need a production team – but also a solid customer service effort.

RS: I do not think it should be a conversation of who did it better – Repubs or Dems? Has anyone watched the consumption patterns? Dems watch online, Repubs don’t? For all of the people not participating – how are they going to be engaged in the process?

JL: Ruffini acknowledged they (the Republicans) dropped the ball. He actually posits that there is no difference between parties. Stupidity in terms of content crosses political parties (doesn’t everyone watch those silly videos with cats on vacuum cleaners?). People use the tools that are available to them. Usage of the web for “regular people”?

[EDITOR NOTE: Could we suppose that Dems have more $$$ and time to create videos?]

Q: The general spirit of the Obama Campaign supposedly to “let the message run free”. But staffers who joined the Obama Campaign suddenly found their messages were controlled from the top-down. Was this good or bad?
TW: It was a demonstration of both top-down and bottom-up. So many people had access to these [social media] tools – those people could not be controlled. Obama’s Campaign was very well organized – especially in the caucus states since the campaign had to have a tightly controlled message to win.

MS: I think we get lost in the discussion about message, rather we should be talking about organization. In talking with the Obama Field People – learning that 1) they understood that they had massive resources to tap (with all of the volunteer outpouring) and could have responded to everyone with the standard campaign practice (get the name, call them when we needed envelope stuffing). They understood that that would be wasting the huge amount of energy.

They built the “organization model” – trained people into the Obama Camps and then created
the Obama volunteer teams. At the ground level, the responsibility to gathering 5K votes to people that were not paid – because they had been trained, given a lot of latitude and were constantly being metriced on organizing effectiveness. In terms of capacity – we should not mistake control of message as control of organizing or managing.

Q: how could people in the audience to leverage the concepts from the campaign for their business? What can we learn from the Obama Campaign?
RS: I think the great lesson learned is the trade-off of top-down to bottom-up. Not in terms of control, but structure. Get rid of the bad stuff, and keep the good stuff. An excellent example of a great use of this concept: Off The Bus on HuffPo (Amanda Michell) allowed some of the people to
benefit – which provided social structure. Creating rewarding and levels of content.

JL: most applicable – Obama has signaled that he wants to hear from you. What are your ideas and to vote for your favorite ideas – and who ever wins gets presented to the Administration. No network of carrots – more of a free for all – people get to vote for their favorites. Latent groups get mobilized – for example the marijuana crowd. They have risen to the top of the list.

Not the “Wisdom of the Crowds” – it has to be as diverse a crowd as possible – ethnic, class, etc. Proving that a well-organized group can get their voices heard.

TW: “Everyone is equal” is not true. People that are the most passionate, most time on their hands are most successful. Empowering leaders need to do this – need to push the cause.

Q: Be specific – how did you figure out who was creating the good content and who had the leadership qualities to generate the best content. How would you best structure the social norms.
RS: With GroundReport – we created:

  1. rating system / Digg system to 5-star system – only content that is highly rated makes it up front
  2. abuse button (notifying us when copyrighted material was uploaded)
  3. On the flip-side: created the “editor program” – anyone was allowed to apply, given greater power – set pages to draft mode, edit any page on the site, etc.
  4. Best solution, we began to pay the contributors – GR has a revenue share program – everyone who generates content gets a financial benefit (similar to eGroups PowerList)

[HG talking about Steve Mann – SAP – rating system allows for 1M people can be managed
by 2 or 3 people, rating currency becomes a valuable job effort]

MS: these features are not going to work for what is coming. Tip of the volcano. is
not run as a government website. 100K people voting on 70K issues. If they do this in the Adminstration, they are going to see 100x excitement. No one has made anything to address this contribution – at this magnitude/scale.

Aud Q: how to use this for a small business? What does it take to achieve this?
TW: in a small org, the crucial aspect is that the head has to be a “true believer” to do this. Can not outsource this stuff. Must be authentic. Does not work if outsourced – long run it crashes. Has to start from the top. [Aud: must have the CEO carve out time]

HG: on the Inc Startup Blog – you can see how CEOs of startups have used social applications that have made this happen.

TW: The Barack Obama Blackberry was a “key moment” in the campaign – a signal to the online supporters that he is “plugged in”.

Q: How many have looked at and the questions? This weekend – Obama Adminsitration has been dodging the top question from Bob Fertik – war crime trials. Getting the question voted up does not necessarily mean that you will get any action on this.
JL: two assumptions get made by the participants 1) the target will yield to the will of the people – this is not true, the target is not obligated to respond to the question. And 2) people can post what ever they want and believe they have the right to have it be voted on. removed a lot of this bad content. Moderators have to keep things civil – these people see the elimination of
content/moderation as censorship.

RS: You always have to ask the question: who built the platform and what were their intentions? BO built a platform for the campaign – this platform is not designed for governing. Will the BO Campaign technology platform match what they need in the governance of the country?

MS: I’m still waiting for Democracy 1.0. President is under no obligation to answer questions at
any time – we are fortunate to hear from him when he chooses to. We, the people only get what we “demand”. We need to force the question onto the agenda. The Obama Administration has made a number of forward leaning promises – data, transparency – the Transition Team has been more transparent. Promise of wikis and blogs. Cabinet Officials are being requested to use YouTube for Fireside Chats.

Trying to get the Administration to be more responsive. But it still will be limited bu what the organization wants us to see – even in plain view.

Bush believed that democracy was a consultation that occurred once every four years. We, the people have a new tool in play – more people can do more things, not as many gatekeepers – very healthy. What we get out of the other end – is up to us. Not up to the electeds.

Q: iReport using a camera and was showing the use of a camera phone on Burris.
MS:It was fascinating that the camera was used for the people to – arcane rules of outside the government versus inside the government.

Aud Q: Ted Perlmutter – Wagner School at NYU. What is eGovernment going to look like? What about the policy side. If you want to make for efficient government – to get to reasonable strategies, what should we do? All of these folks are in public policy realm – need to find a way to communicate the ideas to the community.

MS: reasons to be excited – – 20-something federal worker put it up on Ning – facebook for federal government. Sharing ideas on how to value public service and such. Signs that the Obama Admin is going to revive public service – collaborative forms of government

Citizen to improve government service. US Patent Office – peer-to-patent process. Beth Novak from NY Law School. Helping clear the backlog of content – Beth is with the Obama Adminstration helping with the ideas of using this content/methods.

JL: new kind of journalism – new advocacy journalism.

Aud Q: Charles from Next Stage – – what do you see are going to be changes in governance in the next four years?
TW: one tangible result – permission from the top of the Exec Branch to all agencies to allow them to use the social web and social tools.

Not sure to what end, but people are allowed to use them. Will it free up discussion? Will the general populace make this happen? Obama will provide an explicit permission to do more.

MS: we will know more about the government. We will have more entry points in participating and improving government.

There will be unevenness within the government – 3M employees.

Aud Q: David in City and State Govt – extremely impressed with the Obama Campaign. People care about who their President is. John Kerry could have gotten the same participation. There are a lot of government agencies chomping at the bit – no one is much coming to you. How can you listen to the minority?

[EDITOR NOTE: this is the famous 80/20 statement – who in the 80% will speak for the 20%?]

JL: all this talk about tools – we need a cultural shift on how governing is happening. Having a blog does not guarantee transparency. People need to have an ethic of BEING transparent. City and state governments who live on the old model will die off.

RS: motivation to get involved – people saw a real tangible result. Need to replicate this.

Aud Q: Ted Santos – Turnaround Parners – evaluates human resources. Obama was great with tools for immediacy – real time reports on what kind of feedback they were getting. Granular information – not sure. Inside the Obama Campaign, were they using the social network to GOTV and tracking how issues were being handled effectively?

MS: Obama was a special case – clear vision, did not change the message, knew what he wanted to say. Not every politician is that good. Big network effects do not happen in lower lever races. In the NY Senate – a State Senator had an open-house for bloggers on a Sunday – 100 people showed up.

JL: #1 thing – what is EVERYONE else doing? State Senator realized that the area was

Aud Q: Chris social networks. YouTube just announced HoR and one for Senate – for speaking to their constituents. Do you think there will be a rebound for people trying to be getting their message out – sunshine laws.
MS: everything but national security policy. Excitement to be open – 24K government websites- 1500 web managers have a web master council. They are really excited by what the Obama Administration portends. In the National Security – not going to openly show it, but internal sharing is there.

Aud Q: Jugan – H1B Tech worker – When people try to participate in the social networking forums – the H1B visa topic comes up, it is not popular. With the current hierarchy schemes that are used to rank topics of interest, what measures are in place that allow for minority opinions are brought to light. Not everyone has the same level of net savvy or command of English, what measures are available to be heard.
MS: it is not a fair process.
JL: every website has its own way of dealing with it. We have improved as people criticize us.
Everything we do wrong, we try to improve.
Everyone that are reading those sites are not indicative of the US audience. If there are not people who are caring about the issue, then
RS: ytes – it is the majority. The Internet is the perfect place to find the community and forum for those topics.
unlimited bandwidth and airtime [Isn’t this the echo chamber]
MS: if you can link to a specific question and organize a group of people around it, then you can make this happen.
American political process is not fair – people game the process all the time. All of the parts are games. Cost of entry is lower,
engagement is easier. Bandwidth is larger – the conversation is somewhat more open. it is better than what we had before.

Aud Q: How do we get the leaders to receive more information?
JL: would love to have this content elsewhere.
MS: thought only 10 – turned out that sub areas became important. Tens of thousands of people are self-advocacy has been happening
(emails have been sent around).

Aud Q: – do you think witht he new Administration that we would have known about issues about the “Bridge to Nowhere”.
MS: this is a Congress choice, not an Administration choice. Sunlight Fondation is trying to get al non-emergency leglisation of the
36 hours before the vote. Chance we will see this more often.

Aud Q: William Sealy – how technology is influencing governments involvement into people’s lives.
Obama’s speechwriter was at a party and looked terrible. Cover of the Washington Post –
within five minutes. How do you think the public cope with the lives of the public officials?
RS: this is less of a political issue, more of a generational issue – public lives are documented online.
Astute they are allowing content online. Tide will shift.

Q: What will be different in a year?
MS: Going to have a commonplace expectation that there is a feedback loop – members of Congress and the Adminsitration that there will be a central place for people to comment.
Funny thing about every member of Congress – will they keep the comments open? Bills in public?
RS: I do not know – how slow government changes – interesting to watch how sophisticated the American public will embrase their own agency and how the companies will be applying more activity and
JL: stop having panels on how technology is effective politics – it will be like discussing how telephones affect business.
TW: govenrment will be slightly more open, people who supported BO will be in polite war with him, most change will occur out of the community, not in government.
HG: Sanjay Gupta announcing on twitter

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