Government 2.0's Inauguration

What the Obama campaign taught us about collaboration.
by | November 19, 2008

When Cuauhtémoc "Temo" Figueroa, national field director for the Obama campaign, arrived in San Antonio ahead of Super Tuesday to get local volunteer operations off the ground, he came across what looked like an already well-oiled campaign operation. In something of a role reversal, Figueroa found himself taking orders from a self-organized group of 600 volunteers who, just a year earlier, had started out as a handful of Obama supporters gathered around a table at their local bookstore.

The rest is history.

Elections will never be the same again. The Obama campaign demonstrated that traditional top-down, tarmac-to-tarmac presidential campaigns cannot compete against self-organizing armies of millions motivated by an inspiring candidate and empowered by a Web-savvy campaign team.

It is not only political campaigns, however, that will be transformed by the 2008 election. Obama's deft use of collaborative technologies to create a new campaign model has big implications for governance. While some governments have already started experimenting with Web 2.0 tools, they are nowhere near the level of sophistication shown by the Obama campaign.

With the Obama team already promising to bring his bottom-up, participatory model to the federal government, government agencies will be under intense pressure to catch up with their new president-elect. And that goes for not just federal agencies. Legions of Obama voters will expect to interact with their state and local governments in the same way they did with the campaign.

Four principles embodied by the Obama campaign can help governments to catch up:

Get the Web 2.0 culture equation right.

The Obama campaign used Web 2.0 technologies to build and mobilize thousands of grassroots networks, adhering to the bottom-up ethos of Obama's community organizing roots. After providing the tools and the direction volunteers needed, the campaign got out of the way. It managed to resist, for the most part, the natural tendency to want to control everything.

Similar, albeit much smaller, endeavors in self-organizing have emerged as pilot projects in government. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency challenged local and federal partners to share their best resources, tools, ideas, and contacts to help protect the Puget Sound ecosystem in Washington state. It was the agency's first foray into mass collaboration. The EPA did nothing more than specify the end goal and provide back-end technology support. After the first day, they had already received over 170 unique contributions from a diverse group, ranging from NASA employees to librarians.

Tap into the collective IQ.

When Obama was formulating his healthcare plan, he started from the premise that he and his team of advisors, while gifted policy minds, weren't going to be able to come up with all the best ideas for how to achieve his goal of healthcare coverage for all Americans by themselves. They simply didn't have the breadth of experience of the American people. So, Obama appealed to his supporters for their ideas on how to fix the system and used those ideas to inform the development of his proposal.

In the same spirit, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has created an internal Web site called the "Idea Factory," which uses a wiki platform to enable TSA Director Kip Hawley to tap into the wisdom of the agency's decentralized workforce. The Idea Factory has become a kind of supersized brainstorming session where Hawley can put questions out to the trenches: "How can we improve morale?" "How can we improve the check-in process?"

Only six months after launching the Idea Factory, more than twenty employee suggestions have been implemented.

Outsource work to the crowds.

The additional bandwidth provided by tens of thousands of "supervolunteers" allowed Obama to do what no national campaign had previously imagined possible: do retail politics in dozens of states-simultaneously.

At a time of increased demand and dwindling resources, this model could prove a godsend for overstretched government agencies. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has used Web-based tools to reduce a huge backlog in patent applications. Instead of doing all the heavy lifting themselves, patent officers have engaged interested members of the public to provide information and commentary relevant to pending patent applications, dramatically expediting the review process.

Reboot the public square.

Log on to the Obama campaign's Web site and what you find is not so much a Web site as an organizing tool. Users can find other supporters in their area or create their own blog-unfiltered by the campaign. It's a place where people can go to talk and listen to others. The online commons concept has been extended to the president-elect's transition to the White House with Change.gov, where citizens are encouraged to share their vision for the country.

South Korea provides one example of how governments might emulate this rich, engaging experience. Their "e-People Portal" provides a single place where citizens not only can rate the quality of services, but can also offer their own ideas on how to improve services. From one portal, citizens can submit suggestions to over 300 public organizations -- and agencies aren't allowed to ignore them. Within a month of receiving a communication, an agency must reply to the citizen, explaining whether or not it has acted on the suggestion and, if so, how.

Putting these principles into action will help governments begin to realize the Government 2.0 vision. But, perhaps more important in this time of economic crisis, these principles will reengage the citizenry, encouraging the public to take part in developing solutions to today's unprecedented challenges.

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