It's crucial, she said, for agencies to design interactive Web sites that ask the right questions, target the right audiences and tie citizen feedback into policymaking processes. Simply asking citizens for feedback can produce a flood of unfocused comments that soak up staff time without producing much benefit. Instead, questions should be narrowly crafted to elicit useful information. "You have to design the comment process for the desired end," Noveck said.
She pointed to the OSTP's new blog seeking input on how to meet Obama's memorandum on ensuring the scientific integrity of executive branch decision-making. The blog asks for comments in six specific areas.
"It's beginning to elicit dozens of useful responses -- mind you, not thousands of responses, because it would not be helpful for us to get thousands of responses," Noveck said. "What we're getting are dozens and dozens of targeted and useful responses."
Speaking to the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, Noveck said the users of a site can be enlisted to rate and prioritize questions, in the style of Digg.
Steering online conversation is a delicate art. Noveck is right that too much open-ended discussion can lead to a huge volume of useless conversation. Online forums can quickly descend into flamewars, where extremists bash each other and sensible people with more nuanced opinions go off and do something more useful; that's especially a risk where the topic is something that people feel passionately about, and nothing drives passion more than politics. On the other hand, moderators of a conversation need to avoid putting too tight a rein on users, where the moderators are looking for a cheering section for decisions that have already been made. Social media sites like Digg are also susceptible to astroturfing, where a small group biases results through fanatical participation.
But used correctly, social media can be a great channel for getting participation on policy decisions from people beyond the usual suspects, people who don't have the money to hire lobbyists or the time to write a letter or even visit their elected representative.
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