The Obama transition team made a big deal about the “Open For Questions" feature on its Change.gov website. Essentially users could submit questions and fellow citizens would vote those questions up or down using a Digg-like mechanism. The top questions would be answered by the team. Real citizen engagement and direct democratic participation yadda yadda.
Today the team released its first round of answers and it leaves a lot to be desired. Here is the fourth most popular question (with 5,376 votes in favor) and the team’s full answer:
Q: “Will you lift the ban on Stem Cell research in your first 100 days in office?” James_M, Nashville, TN
A: President-elect Obama is a strong supporter of Federal funding for responsible stem cell research and he has pledged to reverse President Bush’s restrictions.
Wow. The question was pretty direct, but all they could muster was an artless dodge. Citizen engagement is a two-way street. No amount of wizbang technology is going to manufacture transparency unless both sides are forthcoming. Even if the team didn’t want to commit to anything within the first 100 days, they could have just been honest and said that. “While we can’t promise anything within 100 days because we have other priorities, we believe that…” But no, given an opportunity to show off change, they chose to go old-school.
The one-sentence answer to the top question from users was this: “A: President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.” How about treating us like adults and maybe giving us a little context for that position. Given that this is the most requested question on the site, you think they would have given it more attention than a sentence. Unless, of course, they don’t buy into the idea of a wisdom of the crowd, in which case they shouldn’t be bothering with these social media tools.
So, this is all to say that I plan to submit a question of my own in the next round: Are you going to take the “Open for Questions” project seriously and respond to our questions thoughtfully, or are you going to continue to give us short, half-hearted answers?