FCW Insider: How to improve the virtual town hall

Social networking expert Kim Patrick Kobza has some kind words for Obama's first virtual town hall -- but lots of ideas for improving on it.

President Obama generated a lot of interest with his virtual town hall on March 26 (see FCW's story here). People were clearly intrigued by the idea of a president answering questions submitted through the White House Web site. All told, 92,937 people submitted 103,996 questions across eleven categories.

In addition to submitting questions, people were invited to vote on questions submitted by others, with the questions receiving the most votes rising to the top of the list.

This was a tantalizing taste of e-democracy on a national level and, no doubt, a sign of things to come. Which is why I think it is worthwhile, now that the buzz is gone, to stand back and ask, But was it any good?

Specifically, I asked that question (in so many words) of Kim Patrick Kobza, president and chief executive officer of Neighborhood America, which develops enterprise social software for business and government (Earlier this year, Kobza wrote a column in FCW on the role of public comments; you can read that here).

Here is what Kobza had to say:

The fact of engagement is always a positive and it is good to see the administration and government trying some new things. That being said whitehouse.gov is not an example of a model for public engagement.

The good

The application of whitehouse.gov is useful in the sense that it at least provides a public perception that the questions being answered are “real questions”. Not media questions. Positives include:

The opportunity for a small group of citizens to be heard.
Well defined participation guidelines.
The creation of clear expectations.
A good balance on attribution and identity.

All of these attributes are very well done.

The not so good

That being said, the application falls far short of what is possible. This is true for several reasons:

One way to think about it is in the context of network science. Think about citizens as a big network. That network can create value in many ways and for many purposes. Is identifying “questions” to ask the President compelling? Is that an appropriate purpose for a network – one capable of doing really big things? Would you hold a meeting to decide what questions a President or elected official should answer by the group? And does the application build strong network value – even if the purpose is appropriate? Not really. Here is why.

The application is poorly structured. It doesn’t create the conditions that would enable creation of network value from the citizens participating.

Lack of compelling purpose. The citizen communication is limited to two methods:(1)  “idea creation” and (2) to what is essentially voting on ideas (binary choices up and down). There is no story – no opportunity for citizen narrative that builds on the wisdom of each other. Notice the difference in the scenarios below:

* Scenario 1: “Tell me what you think” [results in an unmanageable amount of data, not well categorized, characterized, and classified].

* Scenario 2: Do you approve of the choice – if so why? Do you disapprove of the choice, if so why? Do you have any comments that would make the choice better if approved? Do you have any other comments? [

* Scenario 3: Scenario 2 plus a give and take between and amongst peers. This was the application used for Flight 93 which is basically an alternative analysis of a limited number of choices, and narrative that provides logic to enable agencies to make choices that blend alternatives.

The whole point of questions 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. The application promotes “group think”. See Infotopia by Cass Sunstein.

Fatal flaw: Where the application breaks down is the volume of solution possibilities – it is not credible. Think about it this way. Most choices in policy are essentially an “alternatives analysis” -- a choice between different but well defined solution possibilities. What is happening in whitehouse.gov is that the public is being asked to create and compare an almost infinite number of choices. Who could possibly read 53,808 questions? 53,808 alternatives? Most people understand that it just isn’t credible to think that that is possible. So the application creates an illusion of meritocracy when in fact the statistical significance of any one person’s participation is negligible. Put in a network context, it treats choices as a mechanical data management exercise, rather than as one that develops and advances logic to why choices might be made. There is no exchange that takes place between members within the network (citizens) and that limits the network value (intelligence) being generated.

Another thought on design. In my view, when building citizen participation, and more importantly, in discovering great ideas it is important that these types of sites build social attention. Social attention comes from novelty, uniqueness, and experiences that are fun and that promote learning. The design of this site again is not interesting. It might be argued it was interesting enough to gain 54,000 ideas. The other side of that argument is that many congressmen receive tens of thousands of emails a week. This application has not upped the standard or participation.

The value test

At the end of the day let’s ask one question – Does the application accomplish anything truly remarkable?  Do you come away from the experience of the application saying – that is a better result than we otherwise could have achieved using traditional means of participation? Was there anything in the questions promoted that was novel, unexpected, and unique? Did we enable participation by citizens who otherwise would have been excluded? Would the application appeal to a broad range of citizens?

These things being said, no, I believe that this is not a good example of how social networking adds value to public processes. In fact, in some ways these methods hurt more than help because they set the wrong citizen expectations. They are not our best effort so to speak. So citizens will ultimately be discouraged because the application as used, will not achieve results. When we don’t get results in anything in life we lose trust. See Steven Covey, The Speed of Trust.

The path ahead

The thought process of submitting questions and letting the administration choose questions is a good one – standing alone. Trying to add meritocracy features to an almost unlimited amount of data diminishes the value and credibility of the system.

However, for real policy choices, there is a big opportunity to use citizen networks to add transformative value in a social collaboration. But to do this requires a much deeper appreciation for the complexities of network behavior. As in any complex system, small changes make big differences.

How to improve:

  • Using social tools for appropriate purposes (purposes where social collaboration in network can provide significant improvements in marginal value).
  • Define different but limited choices. Choices may be different but manageable. Enable choices between 4 or 5 solutions. [i.e. Do not create thousands of choices]
  • Do not overly segment topics. Over segmentation in categories confuses most citizen users because they see multiple categorizations as adding complexity.

What is missing:

  • A compelling purpose.
  • The ability to combine meritocracy features with a citizen’s ability to add narrative to solutions. We learn from stories, not from data. Citizens contribute to solutions by telling stories. Narratives contextualize the citizen inputs.
  • The ability for citizens to connect with agencies and with each other. Networks are only valuable with member exchange.
  • Ultimately, an ability for management of structured feedback – a way to respond to citizens, to let them know that they have been heard and are valued. For instance social collaboration and CRM integrations.
  • Visual interest that builds social attention.
  • The ability to publish ideas into other social networks so as to build network value by tapping into multiple networks – share ideas that enable ideas to become “viral” which builds citizen inclusion.  

The Bottom Line

I think that the dominant theme is that citizen networks are complex – especially in contributing to public policy outcomes. Success depends upon much more than data management and mashing up technology features. We spend a lot of time studying what works and what doesn’t, and have had experiences to validate over 10 years. That has built an appreciation for how hard it is to get this right.

What we showcase at a Whitehouse.gov should be a shining example of our best efforts. It should be state of the art and based on our deepest knowledge and experience. It should not be, and does not have to be, based on experimentation.  That is my first impression of the site. Can and should be much better.

Here's how to connect with Kobza:
http://www.linkedin.com/in/neighborhoodamerica
http://twitter.com/kpkfusion
http://www.inflectionbykim.com (my podcast series)

 

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.