The White House is experimenting with using a freely-available, “crowd-sourced” tool as part of the backend to the “electronic town hall” it announced earlier this week. You can go here to see it in action.
The Town Hall is set for this morning. Here’s the White House blog post about it.
The system is using Google Moderator, which is a simple tool that allows anyone to submit a question and then vote on which ones ought to be asked. It is intended to harness the “wisdom of the crowd” so that the most relevant and interesting questions bubble up.
It’s introduced by a video message from President Obama, which is hosted on YouTube. Here it is:
For the most part, I applaud the experimentation and the use of widely-available tools. It’s pretty cool!
There are some tweaks that might be useful, though, when applying what was originally designed to help out at tech conferences to public issues.
When it comes to thorny public issues, often it’s not the “wisdom of crowds” that rises to the top but the “voice of the mob.” As people vote on what questions they want answered, sometimes the quiet, wise questions asking about the trade offs behind policies can get shoved aside.
For instance, when I first accessed the “health care” topic, the top questions were all versions of “why can’t we have ‘single-payer’ health care?” The question I would like to see answered, instead, might be: “What would the trade offs be if we moved to a single payer health care system?”
This is not a fatal flaw, just something to think about. Indeed, the White House team has given enough thought to issue a caution:
This experiment is about encouraging transparency and accountability, so ask the President exactly what it is you want to know – but let others do the same. It is a community-moderated system, but remember that even though you may not like the viewpoint behind someone’s question, everyone has a right to their opinion. Also remember that Americans of all ages will be participating in this event, so be thoughtful about the words you choose.
This is good, and there are guidelines provided, but it would be useful to see if there is a more structural way to filter in thoughtfulness and filter out yelling. Maybe that’s only something that can be done by an “editor,” but it’s worth pondering.
It’s useful to think about, in fact, in many contexts. I would put the strategic question this way:
As we shift to more and more direct-input tools in public life, how can we ensure the fundamental questions don’t get pushed aside by the most intense voices?