Mr. MySpace Goes to Washington

Tech-savvy Barack Obama demonstrated how to effectively use digital marketing to connect with voters. Now that he’s the victor, he’s set up a site,, to continue the dialogue.

Once in office in 67 days, will he be able to inspire or prod federal agencies to adopt a like-minded approach and hook up more consistently with diverse constituencies?

A political campaign, like an entrepreneurial startup, can be nimble. The federal government, like a 27,000-ton aircraft carrier stuck in the mud, is anything but with its tangle of legacy information systems.

Consider these challenges:

  • The Obama campaign, which spent $8 million on online advertising, set high expectations by tapping mobile, social media, e-mail, and online video to engage supporters. Obama set up shop on Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube to reach out to people. He first announced his choice for vice president by delivering a text message to those who opted to sign up for the alert.
  • Operating the government is far more complex and often more tedious than managing a campaign. While a campaign has one goal (get elected) on several dates (primary elections plus Election Day), the government is charged with protecting its citizens, maintaining transportation systems, managing social programs, collecting taxes, and more. Turning around the economy could seem easy compared to inspiring the bureaucracy to become more transparent, responsive, and interactive.

To be sure, the government is working to expand its use of the Internet to improve customer service. We’ve come a long way from the days when one had to make a trip to Washington, DC, to sift through paper files to find out about workplace injuries or read federal campaign spending reports on microfiche files.

A notable breakthrough occurred in 2000 with the launch of FirstGov — now called — that enables people to search for government information and services based on topic instead of agency.

Business has also filled in some voids. Just this past week, Google unveiled Flu Trends, a tool that reportedly highlights flu outbreaks two weeks faster than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks disease outbreaks.

To understand why the federal government is moving so slowly, check out “Expanding E-Government: Achieving Results for the American People,” a May 2008 update on e-government initiatives. The report points out, for instance, that 378,000 people were referred each month to agency benefits programs and 3.9 million filed taxes online using the IRS’ free filing service. That’s all good, but still relegates people to the role of spectator — and not participant.

Furthermore, the e-government initiative goals are modest. For instance, it states that it aims to make the federal government the “best manager, innovator and user of information, services and information systems in the world.” What does it mean to be the best? “Citizens and government decision makers have the ability to find information easily and securely,” the e-government report states. Unfortunately, that goal feels like it was written in 2000 when the focus was on one-way communication rather than in 2008, when people expect to participate in conversations.

Momentum, thankfully, is growing for more innovation. An unlikely coalition of organizations, including the American Library Association, the National Taxpayers Union, and the Society of Professional Journalists, this week called on Obama and Congress to step up efforts to use the Internet to promote interactivity as well as make public documents more accessible. “Agencies and government leaders are not used to the wide-ranging interactive discussions with multiple participants that many of the newer Web technologies and strategies offer,” reads the report published by the OMB Watch, a nonprofit group that promotes open government and citizen participation.

Coalition recommendations aimed at fostering greater participation include:

  • Appoint a chief technology officer. Obama has advanced this proposal. And there’s lots of speculation over potential candidates. BusinessWeek last month mentioned Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist as possibilities. And lots of priorities for the office have been floated, including these mentioned by the Personal Democracy Forum’s tech president.
  • Encourage agencies to implement Web 2.0 technologies. “Wikis, comment sections, collaborative projects, public review of pending policies, and online dialogs are all relatively simple ways to start experimenting online,” the coalition recommends.
  • Allow government agencies and employees to use free online services such as Twitter and YouTube. “Adoption of new and changing tools is essential to legitimate online engagement,” the coalition writes. Government agencies are apparently reluctant to use free Web services because it might give the appearance of favoring one company over another.
  • Make online government information searchable, shareable, and useable. While government agencies maintain lots of data — from national mortality statistics to the federal budget outlook, not all can be found online. Some agencies don’t allow search engines to crawl their Web sites, in effect making information invisible to people online.

“We view the government as operating in the 20th century — some would say the 19th century,” Gary D. Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, told “The Washington Post.” “But we’re living in the 21st century.”

Well, not exactly. The federal government spends $70 billion a year on IT. And for that, people will expect a greater return — and greater responsiveness — for their investment.

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