The White House – Unplugged

Not too long ago, I wrote about the White House’s latest innovation in citizen engagement – a series of Twitter-powered town halls designed to engage leaders throughout the U.S. in conversations about Latinos and education. This week, at the White House, the idea is getting an even bigger workout at its first-ever Hispanic Public Policy Summit.


Source: Giovanni Rodriguez

For Latino citizens who have participated in White House-sponsored events at the local level (I am one of them), it’s a chance to “roll up” their participation and meet their peers. For anyone else interested in the Latino marketing business, it’s the latest twist on an engagement strategy that’s likely to change how we look at this thing we call social.

As I noted in a recent article on diversity engagement, businesspeople are often blinded to the new opportunities for online engagement because they are working with a definition of social technology that’s far too narrow. Most marketers see social technology as online media, forgetting that some of the biggest innovations have come from companies who have leveraged online activities to support offline connections (think Meetup, Evite, Internet dating, etc.). The White House’s commitment to experiment in this area got big attention when it held its first-ever Twitter Town Hall. But I suspect that this week’s summit will provide bigger lessons for marketers.


For more than a year, the White House has demonstrated that a big part of its strategy for engaging citizens is providing access to the administration. Some of these efforts have been met with derision, as when President Obama sat down with Latino celebrities this spring to discuss the national agenda.

Without passing judgment on the overall strategy, it’s hard to deny that the White House has been broadening its access to government officials. This week’s summit is a case in point. A quick look around the room today confirmed what I suspected. The leadership represents more of a groundswell of doers than a group of celebs (though many are distinguished in their own communities). And the access to government officials is real. On hand this week are folks from the National Economic Council, the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Management and Budget, the White House Domestic Policy Council, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Small Business Administration, the Department of the Treasury, the General Services Administration, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This is more than a handshake with the POTUS, it’s the long tail of the executive branch.


If all the conference provided was access, it surely would have been a disappointment. Early on, the president and his team were criticized for stopping at access, and skipping opportunities for follow-through. The White House’s Juan Sepulveda has added something to the conference that’s designed to stimulate interaction. Borrowing from best practices in meetups and “unconferences,” day two of the event will follow the Open Space process, where attendees, in effect, take control of the agenda and decide on topics for discussion. At a recent Silicon Valley conference that I helped produce, Sepulveda, who is executive director for the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanics, led a mini version of Open Space to enable attendees to break up into smaller groups and drive deeper discussions. As a veteran attendee of perhaps one-too-many-a-conference, I always welcome Open Space-like formats. It makes for a far more engaging experience. Relatively few conferences incorporate this idea. But with the White House experimenting on a fairly large scale, I expect the approach to get a lot more attention.


But neither access nor interaction would have been enough. As Sepulveda made clear last week on a conference prep call, the White House expects attendees will take action. No one leaves without saying how they will take action (the final exercise of the Open Space format for this event). I thought about this long and hard while reviewing the logistical materials the White House sent before the event. The no-one-leaves-until message was underscored by a security policy that no one could actually leave and return to the building on day one.

For another attendee, this might have felt like an imposition. But, again, for me – someone who has been to too many ambition-fueled events – it was a big relief. Message received: we’re gonna get things done.

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