Web Sites Encourage Public To Influence Agenda

As trash crews tidy the National Mall and Washington, D.C.-area residents finish the workweek in a post-inaugural daze, the country anxiously awaits President Barack Obama's first maneuvers. These are, after all, his first 100 days.

But for weeks now, many Americans have been trying to influence what those maneuvers might be. This transition period saw tens of thousands of people take part in a new Internet phenomenon: online policy competitions promising opportunities to help shape the president's agenda.

Ben Rattray — founder of Change.org, which sponsored a competition called Ideas For Change In America — calls the concept "open sourced advocacy." It is a concept also employed by OnDayOne.org as well as Change.gov, the Obama transition team's official Web site. (For those who are curious, Change.com offered no such contest, only women's lingerie.)

The rules were simple, and anyone could play: After registering, users posted ideas for the Obama administration, commented on previous posts and voted for (or, in the case of Change.gov, against) the ideas of others. As for the grand prize? All three sites promise to present the top-rated ideas to the administration or the president himself, and at the very least advocate on their behalf in Washington.

"Each night, the president-elect receives a briefing book," said transition team co-chairperson and Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett in a video on Change.gov. "We'd like to create a citizen's briefing book where ideas and suggestions coming from you can go directly to him. Your participation is key to our success."

And as evidenced by the broad, diverse array of ideas — reportedly 44,000 on Change.gov and more than 7,800 on Change.org — participation was robust on these sites, with suggestions ranging from the concrete — "drop the language of 'The War On Terror' " — to the ambitious — "make the grid green in 10 years" — to the imaginative — "challenge the leader of Iran to a game of volleyball. Winner take all the nuclear materials."

Stephen Zendt, a 65-year-old Wells Fargo analyst from Walnut Creek, Calif., posted a suggestion on Change.org: "Appoint Secretary of Peace in Department of Peace and Non-Violence." He says the whole process took about an hour. By the end of the second round of voting six weeks later, his idea had accrued nearly 15,000 votes, landed in the site's top 10 ideas, and picked up an endorsement from Yoko Ono.

"I simply wrote down what I was thinking," Zendt says. "Somehow it really caught on. I had no idea, I just put it out there. Now it has developed legs of its own."

Zendt is active in a local nonprofit, Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center, and says he is accustomed to spreading its message with conventional means like snail mail and face-to-face forums. Although unsure whether Change.org will actually be able to get his proposal on the president's desk, Zendt says he is grateful to have had such easy access to a national network.

"It's publicity, pure and simple," he says. "This has made friends all across the country, and that's valuable."

While it may boil down to publicity for some, the minds behind Change.org and OnDayOne.org see their platforms as more than that. They say that these types of online idea factories will play an important role in the future of activism.

"This is the new letter to the member of Congress; this is the new phone call to your representative," says Katherine Miller, a spokeswoman for OnDayOne.org. "I think in 2009 you're going to see a lot more people and a lot more organizations latching on to tactics like these that work for them."

Rattray, who launched Change.org in 2007 as a kind of virtual hub for activists, says his site's competition was as much about pioneering a new platform for grass-roots social movements as it is about actually getting the administration to create, for example, a Department of Peace and Non-Violence.

"You always used to have people in Washington lobbying the incoming government during a transition, but this allows people who otherwise have no connection to D.C. to be able to participate," he says. "It's not really just about these ideas; it's about this as an overall framework for advancing change and getting people to be more deeply involved in politics and policymaking."

Although the Change.org and OnDayOne campaigns were largely driven by nonprofits (the former collaborated with the Case Foundation and more than 50 other partners, and the latter is affiliated with the United Nations Foundation), the presidential transition team launched its own online policy interface — called the Citizen's Briefing Book — last week.

"On the outside he's charismatic, but I think below that Obama's also a bit of a policy geek, and the public has gotten kind of geeky with him," says Dhavan Shah, professor of journalism, mass communication and political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "They've started to care about policy again, they've started to care about democracy again and they feel like their opinion matters."

With the Citizen's Briefing Book, the transition team also promised to present the most popular ideas to the president and his advisers, and while it remains to be seen how much influence this briefing book will wield, it may be the only one of these online campaigns that can guarantee delivery on its promise. As a start, several of Obama's Cabinet members and advisers have responded to selected suggestions with online videos.

According to Shah, whether or not the individual ideas turn into real policy, the discussions these sites facilitate is still valuable. He says research shows that online engagement supports traditional methods of activism rather than insufficiently replacing them.

"People talk about collective deliberation. It's something we think about happening in the jury room or in small groups," he says. "And we really value it. I think what these kinds of sites are doing is finding ways to aggregate that logic across larger groups of people."

And what about those ideas which, unlike Zendt's secretary of peace, receive less than rave reviews from the masses? Shah says that while people in this situation may initially be disappointed, failed attempts to gain a following online can shed some light on how to restructure their message.

"There are those who go on these sites who post an idea they think everyone will support and nobody comes," Shah says. "And when that happens I'm sure it is demoralizing at a certain level. But it may actually produce a kind of pragmatism and realism that's helpful to them in the long term."

Whether or not the lobby for a United States vs. Iran volleyball match restructures its message, only time will tell.

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