WASHINGTON — After riding into Washington on a tech-savvy campaign, the Obama administration is trying to spread the same new-media focus across the government, even to some unlikely areas such as international diplomacy.
At a panel discussion this afternoon at Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, a senior adviser at the State Department described the efforts underway to bring the agency into the Web 2.0 era.
“I think that things are already being shaken up pretty significantly,” said Alec Ross, who holds the title of senior adviser for innovation to Secretary Hillary Clinton. In the State Department, they’ve even given it a name. “What we’re calling this is 21st century statecraft.”
Ross described the new vision for diplomacy as a radical departure from the traditional gathering of a small cadre of diplomats around a mahogany table, sipping scotch and negotiating treaties in the dead of night. It’s a slow ship to turn, to be sure, but he said the ultimate goal is to forge a path with collaborative technologies that can remake diplomacy around a more populist model.
In response to the crisis in the Swat Valley region in Pakistan, for instance, the State Department set up a way for citizens to offer aid to refugees. Texting the word “Swat” to the short code 20222 sends $5 toward aid for the refugees to augment the support the U.S. government is offering.
Ross said that with every issue U.S. diplomats are facing, they are asking themselves how they can leverage new media to help their cause. That could involve tactics like the launch of a viral video campaign to support a diplomatic mission, or high-level State Department officials engaging with local bloggers. In the case of the Pakistan text-to-aid program, he said the idea bubbled up in the State Department on a Thursday, and was announced in the White House briefing room the following Tuesday.
“What was very gratifying was seeing the government move at Internet speed,” Ross said. “The most notable thing about 21st century statecraft is that it’s going to enhance and it’s going to expand the ways that the United States government and its citizens can engage with the world.”
Of course, a government text-message initiative to raise money for refugees doesn’t really push the envelope in terms of either controversy or what is technically possible under the broad umbrella of terms like new media and Web 2.0.
Unlike the presidential campaign, when the Obama team won high praise for marshalling the Internet to build a base, raise funds and promote its message, the realities of working inside the government apparatus have posed some significant challenges to the administration’s new-media agenda.
Part of the issue is resources. During the campaign, the Obama team had about 90 people focused on new media, whereas the administration has a team of about eight or 10, said Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University who worked on Obama’s campaign and transition team.
The government also operates under a different set of cultural rules than the Web 2.0 world, where casual exchanges on Twitter, social networks and the comments sections of blogs are the norm. Government agencies are used to a much more centralized approach in their communications strategies.
“If individuals in government can’t act as individuals, government will never be successful in social media, because it is about individuals connecting with individuals,” said Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media. “It is not a broadcast medium.”
O’Reilly, who is generally credited with coining the term “Web 2.0” (though he says it was one of his employees), is hosting a Government 2.0 conference in Washington this fall. He envisions a future where the agencies could offer a software developer’s kit to allow people to build apps from government data just like Apple did with its iPhone platform.
E-government advocates have taken some encouraging signs from the opening months of the Obama administration, such as the online town hall meeting the president hosted in March and the launch of Web sites like Recovery.gov and Data.gov to track stimulus funds and mine government databases.
But it’s slow going, in part because the government operates under an arcane constellation of laws governing how data is stored, accessed and shared that predates the Web 2.0 era, in some cases by decades.
“There’s no legal framework for any of this. A lot of my friends in new media spend more time talking to lawyers than geeks,” Ross said. “There’s analog-age statute, analog-age laws, which are attached to things we’re trying to make happen in the 21st century.”
In that sense, the speed at which Government 2.0 initiatives can develop will largely depend on Congress, which has already been hearing calls to update decades-old statutes to account for new technologies.
Nevertheless, Ross applauded the administration for creating positions of federal CTO and CIO, as well as for seeding the agencies with senior-level staff (such as himself) with the mandate of promoting innovation. He said he is unconcerned with where the staff fits into the agency’s reporting structure, so long as the message gets through.
“What is important is that when the Secretary of x — whatever x is — wakes up in the morning and thinks about what he or she is trying to get done, one of the first things that they think about is technology or new media,” he said.