4 Questions Obama Needs to Answer Before We Can Have a Wiki White House

global-commLast week, I attended the Wiki White House panel at the Google office in downtown D.C. The event, co-sponsored by the New America Foundation and Wired Magazine, featured an exciting conversation about the future of social media under President-elect Barack Obama’s administration. You can watch the video of the panel here.

We all understand the Obama era will fundamentally change how government, especially the president, communicates with citizens. It’s a moot point that has been blogged, tweeted, and podcasted about for months. Yes, the Obama campaign (and now administration) used social media to energize and educate millions of people about political issues. But how will that continue once Mr. Obama takes his seat in the Oval Office? Will the ideas translate well to other branches and departments? The panel and audience raised several questions that need to be answered:

Will government leaders understand social media?

The reason social media is so popular is because it builds communities and allows people to interact with others across a variety of platforms. People who are active online understand this, but many large businesses don’t get it.We’ve all read case studies where clients push to use the technology because everyone else is – they don’t think about the reasons for or implications of being active online.

So does the government, and everyone who would be using social media tools on its behalf, understand the importance of communication? For example, many of the government officials I follow on Twitter post a steady stream of press release headlines. They don’t respond to @replies or answer constituents’ questions. This isn’t communicating, it’s broadcasting. What measures will the Obama team take to overcome this?

How will First Amendment rights be observed?

Politics and government are topics that breed discourse and heavy debate. People don’t always agree, and sometimes disagreements can lead to personal, vicious attacks. What will the government do to monitor and regulate these discussions without infringing on the First Amendment?

How will the government engage those who aren’t online?

Not everyone is online, and not everyone who is online participates in social media. Will the government urge more people to be active online? Or, as a panelist mentioned, will people follow the adage “build and they will come?” What about Americans who do not have access to the Internet, especially those with disabilities? The new administration will have to develop comprehensive plans to overcome these obstacles.

What will communications’ positions look like in the new administration?

As someone with a PR background, I’m interested to see how positions in PR and communications will change in a Wiki White House. The panel stressed the need for a CIO and CTO (Chief Technology Officer), but I wonder how traditional positions like press secretaries will adapt to this era of wide open communication. Will these positions become more involved in the process, or will the role grow obsolete?

As always, I’m convinced that integration will be key. Those who work for or as press secretaries will be talking more openly with bloggers and implementing more Web 2.0 strategies to keep up with an administration that recognizes its importance.

I know this is a bare-bones list, but the panel only lasted an hour and a half – I’m sure it could have lasted for days with the numerous possibilities social media makes available to the government.

I’m interested in how you think government communication, both internally and externally, will change in the next four years. Will you be happier with Government 2.0?


9 thoughts on “4 Questions Obama Needs to Answer Before We Can Have a Wiki White House

  1. Hi Meg,
    Glad you posted on this. Tried to make it out but couldn’t get away from the office. It looks like a lot of interesting points were discussed.

    Will government leaders understand social media?

    My guess is that most government leaders don’t understand social media. I’ve seen a few posts floating around that suggest that Obama should make an executive order in the first 100 days that would make agencies, depts., etc. beef up their online communication/social media efforts.

    Should anything like that happen, it will take quite some time for them to 1) understand social media and 2) incorporate it into their normal functions. Luckily, you and I both know a few companies who would be great at helping in those areas :<} .

    So far there are a few groups who have dipped their feet into the online pool who make me want to send them a big red stamp saying “AWNLINE: UR DOIN IT RONG!”

    How will First Amendment rights be observed?

    Here’s where I think the government will need to take a heavy hand to moderating. People will need to understand that constructive conversation is the goal. Profanities, hate speech, etc. should not be allowed on government sites.

    I happen to like the TSA blog (http://www.tsa.dhs.gov/blog/) at the moment and they just included another piece on their comment policy. While blog commenting policies don’t handle every situation, they are a good starting point and can be adapted from there.

    How will the government engage those who aren’t online?

    Among the most difficult questions related to this issue! Short answer: Get @digitalsista and @jillfoster on the case! Here’s where mobile will need to be given some serious thoughts, and there are also some things that can be done online to help people with disabilities. Not my area of expertise, but there definitely are a few groups out there capable of helping here.

    What will communications’ positions look like in the new administration?

    Press secretaries will still be around. There role is still necessary. I think we’ll need extra positions – positions for people who KNOW (seriously, like they know their SS#) their agencies/offices/depts, its offerings and the resources available online. These are the people who need to be involved in blogging, communicating on twitter and answering general “which form/where is it” questions. Tall order, but I think it’s a good idea.

  2. Hi James,

    Thanks for the insightful comment. The executive order you mentioned was referenced several times at the discussion. While I think it can be a good idea, I also wonder where it fall on Obama’s ever-growing priority list. Like you said, understanding social media can be an exhausting process, and I wonder if the audience (people who already get it) will be forgiving for missteps that are bound to occur along the way.

    I also agree with you about press secretaries – they are still vital to the government process, but I wonder how the role will be re-defined in the coming years. Obviously, media relations and tradition press will be a top priority, but will we see more interaction with bloggers and Web sites? I hope so!

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  4. Hi Meg,

    This must have been an enthousiastic meeting. I am certain that the president’s administration (like other powerful organisation) will have to invent a way to benefit from social media.
    The democracy system is all challenged by social media.
    I am really excited to see how they will manage that.

  5. Hi Meg,

    Thanks a lot for this post and informing us! Although I know it doesn’t directly address your question of how Obama’s administration will engage people who aren’t online, I’d like to add that Obama stating that universal access to broadband is a priority for him is definitely a very hopeful sign.

    I’m from Australia and the lagging access to broadband in Australia vis-a-vis the rest of the world has been a political topic of moderate importance. I see it’s the same in the USA and I think it’s encouraging that Obama sees it as the priority that it is.

    Of course not everyone can be expected to take up broadband become social media fanatics just because access is made easier but I definitely think it’s a step in the right direction.

  6. Hi stetoscope and alexlobov,

    I always enjoy international takes on posts like these. I agree – the access to broadband is a huge issue, and I wonder how the United States’ current economic situation will affect Obama’s push for universal access.

    It’s hard for us to visualize how others will react since we are obviously very engaged online, but it will be interesting to see how it all pans out.


  7. You’re so right that the topic of Obama and social media has been talked about ad nauseum so I like your fresh take on it — awesome. And it’s really a shame how many govt. officials are broadcasting and not really participating in social media; but with time I’m sure they will get it…

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