On Thursday, President Obama conducted his first online town hall meeting at the White House. The event was the product of a ‘new experiment’ on WhiteHouse.gov called Open for Questions. This allowed citizens to ask questions, which where then ranked and voted upon by an online community.
The WhiteHouse described the experiment as:
the President’s latest effort to open up the White House and give Americans from around the country a direct line to the Administration…This experiment is about encouraging transparency and accountability, so ask the President exactly what it is you want to know – but let others do the same.
The experiment was similar to that which the Obama team employed on its transition website. The second round of change.gov’s Open for Questions closed in January with 103,512 people submitting 76,031 questions and casting 4,713,083 votes.
The WhiteHouse.gov experiment was even more successful than that on change.gov. After only a couple of days 92,937 people had submitted 104,006 questions and cast 3,603,668 votes. Some 64,000 people tuned into the live webcast which the WhiteHouse Blog celebrated as having:
an amazing feel of something that had never been done before, and something we should be trying to do more of.
I posted a question on Tuesday night, primarily to experience the Google Moderator platform, and also to summarise some of the views already posted to the Health Care Reform section of the site. As I was primarily testing the site functionality I simply entered my name as ‘richard’. I didn’t think much about it until I went back to vote on some questions on Wednesday night. By that time my question had garnered a couple of thousand votes. I still did not expect it to be posed to the President though, as the site had received thousands of questions and millions of votes.
On Thursday morning I visited the site again – primarily to see what time the live event was being held. I decided to check up on the Open for Question area, and was surprised to find it was the most popular Health Care Reform question. It was one of the top ranked questions from the experiment with nearly 6,500 votes. As such, it was put to President Obama during the town hall meeting (video above 25:41 – 32:04).
President Obama gave a detailed answer which explained the legacy of the American Health care system, and how he would like to see it reformed. His response included some of the points below (taken from official transcript):
…Now is the time to reform the health care system — not four years from now, not eight years from now, not 20 years from now. Now.
the reason that I think it is so important is that the high costs of health care are a huge drag on our economy. It’s a drag on our families.
Now, the question is, if you’re going to fix it, why not do a universal health care system like the European countries? I actually want a universal health care system; that is our goal. I think we should be able to provide health insurance to every American that they can afford and that provides them high quality.
The problem is, is that we have what’s called a legacy, a set of institutions that aren’t that easily transformed.
And so what evolved in America was an employer-based system. It may not be the best system if we were designing it from scratch. But that’s what everybody is accustomed to. That’s what everybody is used to. It works for a lot of Americans. And so I don’t think the best way to fix our health care system is to suddenly completely scrap what everybody is accustomed to and the vast majority of people already have. Rather, what I think we should do is to build on the system that we have and fill some of these gaps.
And I’m looking to Congress to work with me to find that optimal system. I made some proposals during the campaign about how we can lower costs through information technologies; how we can lower costs through reforms in how we reimburse doctors so that they’re not getting paid just for the number of operations they’re doing, but for whether they’re quality outcomes; investing in prevention so that kids with asthma aren’t going to the emergency room, but they’re getting regular checkups.
And my expectation is, is that I will have a health care bill to sign this year. That’s what we’re going to be fighting for. That’s what we’re going to be striving for.
This seemed to have been a well received response with 50% of viewers rating the question as answered on a live blog of the event. Following that response he even answered a question about marijuana legalization: “I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow the economy.” This reflected the nature of the event i.e. a good humored and friendly meeting with questions posed on all aspects of civic life.
Expanding the experiment
This experiment epitomized the administration’s goal of creating a more participatory government. This event could be used as a template for other departments and agencies to create their own town hall meetings, in which the public is given the opportunity to post questions and vote on those considered most pertinent and reflective of public opinion.
Wired gave the experiment a thumbs up noting:
Overall, Team Obama deserves high marks. Opening a free-flowing site where people can submit questions is a risk. It might backfire, but it might also help point the way toward a very interesting new way for the president to communicate with the country.
From a personal perspective, the experiment was really exciting! There is a real thrill in knowing your question might be put to the most powerful man in the world. It was not so much the answer to the question that was rewarding, but rather the fact that it was answered at all. The possibility to directly question the President, through experiments such as Open for Questions and Ask the President, has the effect of empowering people to interact and engage with the executive branch of government.
Using web 2.0 tools to facilitate this communication, represents a great leap forward in creating a more social government. The transparent and collaborative nature of these tools, exemplify how interaction between citizens and the government should be conducted. Rolling out these new platforms for debate throughout federal/state and local government will be one of the key roles of the Federal CIO. The lessons the WhiteHouse is learning from the use of such tools, will provide a good example for how other areas of government can be made more participatory. What’s clear is that a more social government is coming…and from experience it feels good.