The blowback from President Obama's interactive town hall has been intense and widespread. In dismissing a legitimate policy issue the President seems to have shown an uncharacteristic degree of political tone deafness. There are many excellent reasons to rethink the War on Drugs—that most ill-fated of American conflagrations, and mostly bad ones for staying the course. Many in Obama's base felt betrayed by the brush off. And they weren't the only ones. A former police chief and mainstream newspaper columnists also cried foul. Donations to NORML spiked last week.
It's all terribly interesting, though not for any of the reasons people think. The incident signifies the end of one, increasingly troubled stage in the courtship between the President and social media, and — we can only hope — the beginning of another, more realistic and mature stage. At this critical juncture I'd like to offer some relationship counseling.
It's perceived by many that the forces of drug reform "hijacked" the White House’s Open for Questions platform. Indeed, decriminalization is nowhere to be found in any list of what Americans think are the most important issues facing the country. But this conclusion assumes the technology used by the White House is capable of creating a representative sampling of popular opinion. The tech doesn't do that, and we shouldn't expect it to. We possess other, highly effective tools for that job — they're called polls.
Open for Questions fits squarely within a genre of crowdsourcing I call "idea jams." These are often called suggestion boxes on steroids, or some such silly thing. But in reality they constitute their own evolutionary branch of brainstorming. Users don’t just submit ideas, but also vote and (usually) comment on them as well.
Idea jams are a big hit with the private sector. Companies like Starbucks, Dell, IBM and even General Mills have all adopted them, for the excellent reason that they’re a cost-effective method for product innovation, and inspire good will with your customers to boot. The best-publicized incarnation involves Dell's "IdeaStorm," which the computer maker used to tap its most loyal (or at any rate, most vocal) customers. They've now integrated some 280 suggestions into their product line. Tellingly, Dell used the same Salesforce.com platform that the Obama transition team used to produce the quickly — and justly — discarded Citizens' Briefing Book.
So if the idea jam format works for companies, why isn't it working for our President? A few reasons:
First, the White House isn't matching the right tool to the right job. "The whole point of [such exercises] is not to find the question that the whole group wants to ask and that is predictable – but to enable cognitive outliers to ask the unpredictable question — to promote ways of thinking about problems (and solutions) that are uncommon," writes Kim Patrick Kobza, CEO of Neighborhood America, which develops social software for business and government.
In other words, idea jams are built to allow people to discover the fringe question (or idea, or solution), then tweak it, discuss it and bring the community's attention to it. When Dell launched Idea Storm, it was "hijacked" by Linux die-hards which suggested (nay, insisted) that Dell release a Linux computer. These folks were "trolls" to the same extent the drug legalization lobby swamping White House servers are, and Dell struggled with how to deal with them.
The company's ultimate reaction is instructive. First, they merged all the Linux comments into one thread, giving much-needed daylight to other ideas. Next, they saw the value in what the Linux folk were saying. The loud and clear demand for an open source OS had revealed that there was a "constituency" large enough to justify enacting this particular "policy." Put another way, there was adequate demand to support a new product line. Three months after launch, Dell released three computers pre-installed with Ubuntu.
In this sense, last week's virtual town hall performed a valuable function. It highlighted an important, if non-urgent issue and stimulated an ultimately useful public dialogue. The problem was that the President's "Director of Participation" wasn't part of that conversation. Which brings me to my second point: Participation goes both ways.
"Idea management is really a three-part process," says Bob Pearson, who as Dell's former chief of communities and conversation rode heard on IdeaStorm. "The first is listening. That's obvious." The second part, Pearson says, was integration, "actually disseminating the best ideas throughout our organization. We had engineers studying IdeaStorm posts and debating how they could be implemented."
The last part is the trickiest and most important: "It involves not just enacting the ideas, but going back into your community and telling them what you've done." Starbucks, which maintains its own version of IdeaStorm, employs 48 full-time moderators whose only job is to engage the online community. In other words, Starbucks is investing the vast share of its resources in the second and third parts of the idea management cycle.
By contrast, the White House essentially used its platform as a listening device, and failed to participate in the ensuing conversation.
The White House faces technological and legal hurdles that Dell and Starbucks don't have to worry about, to say nothing of the political considerations of seriously entertaining a policy of decriminalization at the very moment when the White House most needs GOP votes.
If the goal is to allow citizens to express themselves, mission accomplished. But if President Obama truly wants to engage his constituents in a national conversation, to involve them in the hurly-burly of law-making, he'll need to evince a much better understanding of how the knowledge, opinions and, yes, wisdom, of a large populace can best be harnessed. For one, he could push Google Moderator to allow users to comment on each other's ideas. Disabling this otherwise standard feature neuters the Idea Jam process from the outset.
In its current iteration, Open for Questions isn't really enabling democracy, unless if by democracy we mean the "never-ending, small-bore struggle for advantage among constantly shifting coalitions of interest groups," a conception of politics articulated by the early 20th Century political theorist Arthur Fisher Bentley. This isn’t quite as uplifting a vision as the one we were treated to during Barack Obama’s campaign, but it may—in the end—be a more realistic one.
Cross Posted from the Epicenter Blog.