Bring Back the Citizen’s Briefing Book’

Posted June 12, 2009 at 2:31pm

Shortly after the November election, Barack Obama’s transition team introduced the “Citizen’s Briefing Book,— an online platform that enabled everyday Americans to share thoughts, expertise and insights with the incoming administration.

For the first time in modern history, citizens could interact with the president-elect — and one another — on pressing issues of the day, from health care and energy to the struggling economy and need for greater bipartisanship in Washington.

Pundits and bloggers across the globe hailed the project as a resounding success, with more than 70,000 people participating, half a million votes cast and tens of thousands of ideas submitted.

Six months later, the only sign of what some called a revolutionary, dynamic and interactive online platform is a compilation of ideas uploaded during the transition.

Without question, the Obama/Biden campaign redefined the use of social media in presidential politics, generating nearly 500 million blog mentions, 845,000 MySpace friends and 119,000 Twitter followers by Election Day. Unlike previous cycles, the campaign looked beyond the Beltway and hired Facebook whiz kid Chris Hughes to develop and implement a broad social media strategy. The result? A first-of-its-kind social networking and organizing platform — My.BarackObama.com (or MyBO) — allowing users to create and find groups, donate money, plan events and build communities.

While both Democrats and Republicans should be lauded for their efforts — including recent launches of Facebook accounts, Twitter feeds and open-government initiatives — the absence of regular dialogue and idea-sharing on federal government Web sites has raised concerns over policymakers’ commitment to engaging the online community. In other words, if our elected officials are truly committed to full transparency and citizen empowerment, why not make a point of bringing everyday Americans to the decision-making table?

Recognizing the obvious privacy and information sensitivity implications, Congress and the new White House Office of Public Engagement should take the lead by implementing three interlocking, but equally straightforward, measures:

First, bring back live versions of the “Citizen’s Briefing Book.— Companies like Dell and Starbucks are successfully using idea-sharing platforms to engage and empower thousands of customers in real time, turning what was once a relatively unknown technology into a valuable tool that is shaping current and future marketing initiatives. Congress, in particular, has a significant advantage through its ability to reach beyond certain age groups or demographics to millions of concerned citizens who want to share their thoughts and opinions on key issues. The briefing book concept, without deadlines or time limits, is a perfect vehicle to help facilitate debate.

Second, allow for conversation on all government blogs, including WhiteHouse.gov and Members’ official Web sites. Recently I had dinner with a few of my more technologically savvy friends, who challenged the notion that a blog is still a blog even if it doesn’t allow for comments and discussion. Regardless of one’s opinion, Congress and the administration should follow the example of online news publications and members of the business community who are actively profiling user comments as blog posts, crediting readers and customers for providing sound insights and ideas. In addition to bringing more people to the table, the public relations value of policymakers crediting individual citizens for sharing an interesting policy idea is enormous.

Third, join the conversation. The White House recently called for ideas to help improve the openness of government. The Congressional Health Care Caucus has launched an interactive online forum to help raise awareness of its policy agenda. This is a promising start. But in an age of participatory media, our national leaders can personally set an example for executives and other policymakers across the country by engaging the online community on a regular basis, whether it be on Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed or the next social-networking phenomenon.

It’s not just enough to push information out or go where people are, but rather engage in dialogue and show that policymakers are committed to changing the way they interact with the American people.

A year ago, the idea of White House and Congressional Twitter feeds, Facebook groups and MySpace pages was almost unheard of. Now it’s time to show what these tools can really do by engaging, empowering and listening to millions of people who want to make a difference.

Sean Donahue is senior vice president of the Herald Group, an independent strategic communications, public affairs and issue advocacy consulting firm.