The Real-time Politician – It's about filters (and being unfiltered)

The other day Mathew Ingram, in response to articles about the president’s one year anniversary asked What Are the Implications of a Real-Time, Connected President? More specifically:

Is a real-time connected president more likely to think for himself and look outside the usual Washington circles for ideas or input, or is being connected just a giant distraction for someone who is supposed to be leading the nation?

The policy implications of a real-time, connected president could be interestingly different around say, copyright law, net-neutrality and a myrad of other modern issues a pre-internet president might not get.

But in response to Mathew’s specific question I think the connected president (or politician) has more ways to fail, but if they manage their filters correctly, could also be much, much smarter.

Let me explain why.

The entire infrastructure around a politician is about filtering. As odd as it may be for some readers to hear, politicians do almost nothing but work with information. Indeed, they are overwhelmed with the stuff. Theirs is among the first jobs to deal with the noise to signal problem. (How do you distinguish important information – signal – from unimportant information – noise). Ever notice when you talk to many politicians (particularly ones you don’t know), they listen but aren’t really absorbing what you say – it is because they have people telling them “what matters” about 9-14 hours out of every day. And each issue they get approached about is “the most important.”

Moreover, most politicians have marginal influence at best (even the president can only change so much, particularly without Congress’s help). So that glazed look… it’s not that they don’t care, they are just overwhelmed and don’t know how to prioritize you.

To deal with all this information (not to mention, for politicians like the President, all the decisions), politicians have evolved filters. These filters are staffers. This is why, in many instances, advisers are so deeply powerful – the elected officials they serve are often completely dependent on them to filter out all the noise (irrelevant information) and feed them the factual and political information they need to know (the relevant information) and not much else (like, say, context). A good constituency office staffer knows who in the riding absolutely needs to be called versus who is the time-suck that would never vote for you anyway.  A good policy adviser can provide a briefing note that filters out the misinformation and presents the core message or choice the politician must communicate or make.

Previous new communication technology either didn’t disrupt this filter mechanism because they were purely broadcast (think radio or television), or had limited effect because they only widened circle of people the politician could consult in a narrow fashion (telephone or telegraph). The internet however does two things. One, it allows you to communicate, in an unfiltered manner, with millions of people, who can in turn communicate back to you. Second, it allows one to access a vast swath of information – much of which is itself already filtered.

The implication of the first shift has been widely talked about. I think politicians are still grappling with this opportunity, but Facebook, Twitter, even email all allow politicians to access their supporters and constituents in interesting ways. They also allow constituents to easily self-organize to give you feedback, be it positive or, (as Obama experienced when his own supporters organized on my.barackobama.com in protest to his vote in favour of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) “corrective.” In this regard, politicians are going to need a whole new set of filters – ones that are able to identify which 2,000 person facebook group might swell into a 220,000 person group in 3 weeks.

But the really interesting shift is in the relationship between politicians and their advisers. And here we’ve already seen that shift.

The fact is that most technologies have allowed politicians – particularly those with executive authority – to further centralize that authority. The telegraph, and then telephone allowed politicians to have more direct contact with more people. This gave them the opportunity to micromanage their affairs rather than delegate to officials (think Nixon with the telephone and the details he would get into or the ever centralizing authority of the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office since Trudeau).

For the networked politicians the temptation to reach out and micromanage a greater array of staffers – or even to be consulted directly on a greater number of smaller decisions – is enormous. At some point, in a networked world the flow of information, the quantity of decisions, and the number of relationships will simply become overwhelming.This is how these technologies can cause filter breakdown and ultimately paralyze the decision making process (a problem Canada’s present Prime Minister has wrestled with).

And this is why the situation will be so interesting. A networked world increases the power of both the politician and their advisers. As connected politicians have to deal with so much more information the need for filters, and thus the role of advisers, actually becomes more important. At the same time however, the President’s capacity to go around their filters – to access the opinions of outsiders, particularly those who have been filtered by the masses as being credible – also increases. So, in some ways politicians are more autonomous: less dependent on, or more able to challenge, their advisers. (This is somewhat the picture being painted in the Washington Post article about Obama.)

My sense is that the networked politician has a difficult time in front of them. Finding the right balance between trusting one’s advisers, managing decisions at the appropriate level and knowing when to listen to outsiders will require more discipline than ever before. Networks and modern communication technology make the ability (and temptation) to do too much of any of these much, much easier.

On the flip side however, if a politician can stay disciplined, they may be able to demand better work from their advisers and engage in a greater swath of issues effectively.

5 thoughts on “The Real-time Politician – It's about filters (and being unfiltered)

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