Earlier this week, the Center for American Progress hosted a forum on Gov’t 2.0, a much-needed discussion now that President Obama has issued a directive to federal agencies to embrace new media tools in an effort to become more transparent and responsive to the public.
Unfortunately, not everybody is as enlightened as the President in this regard. If you live in Virginia, I challenge you to email your U.S. Senator. Either one of them. The response you’ll get: Shut up and bug off — your views won’t matter until the election cycle. That is the gist of a response I received from Sen. Mark Warner — a long tedious form email that wasn’t even the kind of old-fashioned form email people come to expect from their elected representatives. In the “good old days,” politicians would at least send you a form letter that was on topic, say about gun control or the environment. Nowadays, the form letter is so canned and unthoughtful as to actually be campy. Whether you send an email about the war on terror, gitmo, health care reform or global warming, you’ll get the same exact mindless response — basically the Senator apologizing that he gets so much mail from needy constituents and he really appreciates your views — no really, he does — and he will keep them in mind, of course, but he can’t respond any further.
New media tools have vastly improved the ability of constituents to communicate with their elected officials. Rather than develop tools in kind to respond, our elected officials are either ignoring the new correspondence or doing everything they can to make it difficult for a constituent to submit their views (like requiring all letters to go through special online webforms, the solving of little puzzles, and other odd little digital hurdles.) Not exactly the stuff of Gov’t 2.0 and transparency and responsiveness.
Then there was the comment by the Center for American Progress’s own resident expert, Peter Swire. It should be pointed out that Mr. Swire was Bill Clinton’s Chief Counsel for Privacy, which may explain his unintentionally amusing comment below about Kim Jong Il seeing a blog comment not to his liking and deciding to nuke Japan. One shouldn’t mistake privacy matters with international diplomacy or geopolitics, I realize; still, Swire’s mindset goes to the heart of what is wrong with the federal bureaucracy when it comes to Social Media. In sum: There’s still the mistaken belief that the government (or any other organization) can Control. The. Message. (And if you don’t control the message, all hell will break loose, literally.)
The era of absolute control of messaging is gone. It’s usually the political campaign managers in the heat of an election cycle, or the attorneys in the heat of imagining worst case scenarios, that still cling most furiously to the illusion that if we just say nothing, then the rest of the world will say nothing too. These are the ones who are most visible in opposing Gov’t 2.0; or in turning what is becoming a powerful new resource for communication, transparency and citizen engagement into hallow caricatures of Facebook.
So what did Mr. Swire suggest when it comes to the government engaging the public with social media tools? Well, I’ll let him speak for himself, but he got pretty apocalyptic when he imagined letting just any slob write on a government blog:
Swire cited his June 1 report on using social media in the executive branch. “Suppose a White House blogger — or someone else answering comments on Whitehouse.gov — can’t get ahold of the North Korea expert,” when asked about the problems in North Korea “and simply goes with his or her best judgment about what to say.
“During the campaign, that could backfire if the other candidate gets a good talking point. But in government, the consequences can be much more serious: What if North Korea didn’t like the White House comment and decided to launch a missile attack on a neighboring country?” the report noted.
Egads, that would be a problem. I definitely would not want to be the young staffer (not that I could be a young staffer anymore, at my age) who was responsible for pissing off that whack-haired nutjob who runs North Korea and sending him into a homicidal frenzy of nuke launching.
Of course, I had those same fears when I was a spokesman in Congress, and then later as a spokesman at the DEA, and the later as a spokesman at DHS. Every once in a while, I would say something utterly inaccurate, sometimes even stupid. Thank God, Kim Jong Il didn’t see them.
I guess, though, you could always respond with utterly inane canned comments, like Sen. Warner. No danger of getting a foreign dictator’s blood up with that kind of response. Or a constituent’s, for that matter. However, you could be guilty of boring them to death.