Many have already commented on how the Obama campaign took the leap into the Web 2.0 world in the same way that Kennedy beat Nixon by harnessing the power of the TV. While many of the Obama strategies had been tried before, they really came of age this year. The questions for engaged citizens across the political and social spectrum is how the successes of the Obama campaign can be replicated. I would hazard that the campaign contains lessons for fundraisers, non-profits, political campaigns of all sizes, and private and public management teams (add your own in the comments!) for starters.
Instead of going to the well over and over again with larger donors throughout the campaign (a truly ineffective strategy in this age of campaign finance reform) or relying on outside groups to raise and spend huge sums that would have been outside the official campaign’s control, the Obama campaign continued to target new donors all the way to the last few weeks of the campaign. People could easily feel part of the campaign just by giving up a lunch out, and didn’t feel any financial exhaustion. This created financial buy-in from a huge universe of supporters instead of the normal cocktail circuit. Each of these supporters then had not only an interest or ideological stake, but a financial one in the outcome. Web tools allowed this.
The campaign also had social networks attached to its web site, allowing supporters to make friends, communicate, plan and set up their own events that could then be attended by other supporters. While the central message of the campaign was tightly controlled and focused (in Nevada, organizers told supporters not to say one bad word about the rival candidates and to act as if Obama were present every step of the way), which dazzled the media, it was also extremely loose at the ground level. Fundraising, phone banking and other events were open to all – even a single person at home with a long-distance connection. Each volunteer had buy in, access to key information, and could work as much or as little as they wanted. And it worked, big time. Web 2.0 enthusiasts now have a masterwork to follow as we think about how we can use these tools to organize, fundraise and change our own communities, and, as broadband access increases, the world.
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I’ve been intrigued by the possibilities of communications technologies since reading the Isaac Asimov Robot and Foundation books as a young teen. Asimov was a futurist without equal. His vision of the far future included the imagining of the Spacers, a first-wave of extraterrestrial settlers who had grown sedentary in reliance on robot servants. In one memorable sequence, he described how they would meet and communicate almost entirely through holographic projections. That somewhat dark projection is intriguing but unlikely without a huge evolution in the human psyche. We crave contact – and in the modern life, we can accentuate the physical with so much more. A couple years back, I clipped a newspaper article about a company that hoped to capitalize on the nuclear family by providing video networking solutions for families to have dinner with their far-flung aged relatives.
The future is now, although I’m now sure how much of the population yet realizes it. Current technologies in the next five-10 years will revolutionize how we communicate and come together, from family relationships, religious affiliations, work, politics and just about every sphere of our lives. A new Pew study, “Networked families,” (pdf), discusses how technology actually has created the ability to be closer in our human relationships (for a while social scientists were projecting the opposite). I can say that text messaging and video calling service such as Skype and Tokbox are changing my life for the better. Who stops calling or meeting with their families because of e-mail, phone and texting? These technologies in fact accentuate family and friend relationships, as found in the Pew study.
As a Government 2.0 enthusiast, I am very interested in how these technologies will revolutionize grassroots Democracy and citizen participation. Also noted in the Pew study is the clear-as-the-nose-on-our-face fact that modern life is incredibly busy. As a longtime observer and participant in local government – the agencies in so many ways responsible for our immediate surroundings, from school performance to play fields to built environment – I have noticed something sad that I believe is nearly universal in capitalist democracy. Even though so many local government decisions impact the citizenry as a whole, there are generally only three groups who are intimately involved in petitioning that government: retirees with plenty of free time, those with vested financial interests of one kind or another, and single-issue/attention cranks. “Just folks” are so busy that if an issue fails to directly impact them (and even then they might need an activist to alert them to that impact), that they barely vote, let alone participate in local democratic decision-making.
But what if government changed? What if after the soccer game, religious gathering, family dinner, late meeting, etc., you could check your local network and know exactly what was going on with your local government? What if you could meet and discuss issues easily and quickly online with your neighbors? What if you could participate in interactive polls during a lull at work, or from your cell phone, to tell your local government what was most important to you? What if consultants and city staff asked your opinion on various design components for a new commercial or recreational development, complete with a slides you could pull up quickly and look over? What if you then got a chance to discuss and vote on options before the city council, and even to weigh in with a comment to the council by video, either live or recorded? The tools are here. The question for the moment is whether our local governments are ready.
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There are so many community building apps available today, it’s possible to tailor a 2.0 solution or toolbox for just about any set of government problems and level of Web skills. So, here’s my first pitch for a local government, all of which can be implemented at little cost and with little technical know-how:
1) Issue: Increasing the reach and buy-in for emergency readiness programs. Government 2.0 solution: Twitter EMS feed, with periodic manual updates. The handle would encourage users to enable SMS alerts, and would send out periodic tips and news, and supplement traditional sirens and radio emergency broadcasts. Model: @readydotgov Tool: Twitter.com
2) Issue: Desire to engage, but too many e-mails and phone calls for officials to manage effectively. Government 2.0 Solution: A social network for constituents to voice concerns, make suggestions and otherwise interact. Use of real names and zip codes discourages trolls and advances individual buy-in and protection of the community. Users can promote topics of most interest/urgency, and also answer each others’ concerns and questions. Officials step in for harder questions or problems requiring legislative/administrative action. Model: GovLoop.com Tool: Ning.com
3) Issue: Lack of citizen participation in law-making; policies heavily weighted in favor of professional interest groups and lobbyists. Government 2.0 Solution: Open-wiki lawmaking, with the community rewriting and voting on in-progress legislation, and any lobbyist input clearly marked. Example: No Blank Check Letter Tool: MixedInk.com
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