Online get-together with a handful of citizens was a step forward for open government, but participation was limited and key questions were skipped.
In the latest twist on open government, President Obama Monday participated in his first Google+ Hangout, a real-time video meeting with a handful of citizens. The get-together demonstrated social media's potential for enabling a new kind of engagement between the public and the White House. It also revealed a few flaws with the process.
The president participated in the webcast from the West Wing of the White House, while participants, selected by Google, joined from their homes in Illinois, New Jersey, and Texas, as well as from John F. Kennedy High School in Fremont, Calif. All were nicely dressed for the occasion, a point the president didn't miss. "Thanks for wearing a tie today," Obama quipped to high school senior Adam Clark, who stood at rapt attention during the 50-minute webcast, surrounded by classmates and a teacher.
The dapper participants left the impression that this "hangout" was something more than an unscripted chat session with the prez. The participants were chosen in advance, based on questions submitted and screened in advance. Obama most likely had a heads up on what was coming his way, allowing him to put his best foot forward. "Obama turns on the charm with Google+ 'hangout'", as CBS News put it.
My biggest criticism of the event is that Google+ moderator Steve Grove never asked Obama the question that drew the most support in advance of the meeting, having to do with the legalization of marijuana. "Looks like he is not going to answer the questions voted on at YouTube," commented Brandon Towne on Google+. "What a shame and a complete failure on Google and the president's part."
There were moments of spontaneity, and some real news, too. Obama clarified his administration's policy on the Stop Online Piracy Act, and his comments on the use of drones for military intelligence was deemed noteworthy by Politico. The feel-good moment of the evening came when the president asked for the resume of Jennifer Wedel's unemployed husband, a semiconductor engineer laid off three years ago. "I will follow up on this," Obama said.
The format included prerecorded questions submitted by YouTube users. Those had a harder edge, one coming from a homeless veteran on the streets of Boston and another from an unemployed Occupy Wall Street protester in Portland. "Do you have a plan for me?" the protester, a woman in her 50s, asked. Obama's answer: "The most important thing I can do right now for people who are out of work is grow the economy."
The president was on message, and the carefully orchestrated Google+ Hangout did little to throw him off, prodding Google+ user William Tatum to observe: "I would like to see more engagement, more substantive issues addressed, and fewer pre-screened questions and guests."
The comments field of Google+ was the place for raw, unfiltered feedback. "I was not impressed with the answer," noted one observer. "The retreat to talking points is annoying," said another.
There were technical glitches. The webcast started a few minutes late. "Is this working?" asked one viewer five minutes past the scheduled start time. Others didn't understand why they couldn't log into the Hangout, which was limited to a handful of participants, and engage in the back and forth.
And the Google+ comments stream got spammed with a disturbing threat, since removed: "IM GOING TO BOMB THE WHITE HOUSE!!" There's an ugly side to open government, too.
The hangout ended with several participants asking personal favors of the president. "If you're ever looking for a technology expert in small business, I'd love to stop by the White House and help you," said Ramon Ray. Med student Paras Patel asked if he could one day be Obama's doctor. And children's author Christine Wolf made a plug for her book. There's a "me" in social media, but this really wasn't the time or place for self promotion.
So how did the White House's first Google+ Hangout rate? As a social media experiment, it opened a new channel between the president and the public, a step in the right direction. But it can be even more effective with greater public participation and less vetting of the questions people want asked.
John Foley is Editor of InformationWeek Government.
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